Beginning readers. In the many points on the wide spectrum that is “children’s lit” (all the way from board books to adult fiction titles that are considered crossover books for YA readers), they’re the most oft-overlooked books in the blogosphere. Indeed, there are folks out there blogging about them, but it’s safe to say that the ends of the spectrum—picture books and YA titles—get the most attention (or even, arguably, middle grade and YA titles).
Read the last Seven Impossible Things on outstanding books about India.
In fact, I spoke a couple weeks ago in Knoxville, Tenn., at a workshop for teachers and librarians, one focused on the best titles thus far for 2011. I ran my mouth about picture books, something I could have done all day long. (Ahem. OK, all week long.) Afterward, someone asked me for a list of recommended beginning readers. It’s not that I didn’t have a response for this librarian, but I realized it was more challenging to pull to mind the titles of recent easy reader series.
That’s why today I shine the spotlight on Tim Egan’s Dodsworth books. And 2011 brought us a new addition to the series, Dodsworth in Rome (Houghton Mifflin).
Egan is one of my favorite picture book creators. He’s quite droll—in both his writing and cartoon illustrations—and I like a good Droll (about as much as Wallace likes a good Camembert—yes, you’re welcome, that was for fellow Wallace & Gromit fans).
So far, Egan has brought readers over 10 picture book titles, with an understated, low-key humor, laid-back and so refreshingly absent of any ostentation. “Offbeat” is used often to describe his humor, and in the picture book world, offbeat is refreshing. I mean, who else saw 2003’s Serious Farm? “Farmer Fred never smiled much. He wasn’t a sad fellow, just very serious. ‘Farmin’ is serious business,’ he’d say. ‘Nothing funny about corn.’”* The illustration of Farmer Fred’s “extremely serious” farm animals is worth the price of admission alone.
The author’s Dodsworth series, all about the same mouse who appeared in 2007’s The Pink Refrigerator—though in this series he is joined by a dry-witted duck—was launched in 2007 with Dodsworth in New York. That title was followed by Dodsworth in Paris and Dodsworth in London. As a Kirkus reviewer for the first title pointed out, these are James Marshall-esque in style, more character-driven than plot-driven. In each title, child readers are introduced to the landmarks famous to each city, Dodsworth all the while serving as the duck’s very funny straight man.
In this latest title, they zoom through the streets of Rome, the duck finds some white paint and attempts to add a duck to the Sistine Chapel, and they find themselves having to replace coins in Trevi Fountain. Needless to say, other fun adventures ensue. Not for the earliest of beginning readers, with words like “rigatoni” and “arrivederci,” they’re divided into chapters for more sophisticated readers, those almost ready for longer chapter books.
Screwball comedy. Gentle comedy of errors. This series has been described in many ways. What it comes down to is that it’s funny stuff for both early readers and adults alike.
*(Please note that there is also no humor in tomatoes.)
Julie Danielson (Jules) has, in her own words, conducted approximately eleventy billion interviews and features of authors and illustrators at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast, a children's literature blog focused primarily on illustration and picture books.