Someday, somewhere, someone will create a database of picture books that work best when you read them aloud. Maybe one already exists, but how extensive is it? What I really want is a listing that continually updates as each and every new readaloud comes out. A seasonal list that takes into account all publishers, large and small, and their potential readaloud catalogs. Because, you see, if such a list were to exist, it would allow me to check and see whether or not Joel Stewart’s utterly charming, "Dexter Bexley and the Big Blue Beastie" was included. It appears to be tailor made for reading to large groups, but appearances can be deceiving. You never know how well a book will do until you’re reading it yourself to a captive audience of five-year-olds. Whatever the case, a good readaloud or not, "Dexter Bexley" has the distinguishing characteristic of being an amusing story, well penned, and delightful to the eye. Would that all our British imports could claim so much.
So there’s Dexter Bexley, just minding his own business, when he happens to run his scooter right smack-dab into a Big Blue Beastie. A derby wearing, scarf-wrapped Big Blue Beastie. A derby-wearing, scarf-wrapped Big Blue Beastie who is bored and can’t think what to do about it except eat little Dexter Bexley up. Fortunately the boy is a quick thinker and is able to come up with a couple diversions. When the Big Blue Beastie grows bored of scooting on his own scooter, he’s talked into delivering flowers. When that wears thin the two become private detectives, solving a variety of different cases. And after that they create a desert of hitherto unseen proportions. In the end, however, Dexter runs out of ideas for distraction, and it is the Beastie who comes up with a plan, buying the two of them some lollipops. After all, it is no longer SO bored, "now that I’ve found a friend."
Any good picture book worth its salt knows how to play around with simple language. In this particular case, Stewart has a penchant for the understated. This is a supremely wry little book. One that isn’t afraid to downplay the ridiculousness of a situation. Jokes in this book will appeal to both children and their jaded parental units. For example, I appreciated that when the "stocks and shares went up and up" of the Beastie and Dexter, the creature is heard to say, "Now I’m REALLY bored." And the sheer variety of cases the boy and Beastie share together when they become detectives are great. "The Rubber Glove Affair" (in which a variety of colorful gloves have been blown into balloons and are floating above the earth carrying our two heroes). "The Bicycle from Beyond". Even their arch nemesis gets a great name like "Professor Hortern Zoar".
The art too is odd and infinitely interesting. Stewart indulges in squiggly pen lines with vibrant colors within them. And dialogue tends to come in eclectic little speech balloons that curve and pop up around the narration when it best suits the needs of the book. The Beastie is the real lure here, however, and in him Stewart creates the ultimate British gentleman. Though he may sport claws and a suspiciously jutting jaw, this monster is a lovely mix of the frightening and the benign. He has, after all, delicate little feet sporting shoes with criss-crossed laces. For reasons I couldn’t really pinpoint, the pictures here reminded me of Edward Gorey’s work. It has a purposeful shakiness that Gorey lacks, but if you get above and beyond that you can see all kinds of similarities in terms of proportions and nonsensical beasts.
If you happen to be in a particularly Anglo centric mood, consider pairing sweet "Dexter" alongside such other recent remarkable titles as Nicholas Allan’s, I’m Not Cute! or The Opposite by Tom Macrae. Both are sly little books, and both have a core of sweetness to them that never disintegrates into mush. I believe it may have been the School Library Journal review of this book that suggested that one might also pair this with a fellow boy-and-his-best-monster book, Leonardo, the Terrible Monster by Mo Willems. The tone of these two books is rather different, but they might go well together, if only because their physical layout isn’t all that dissimilar. In the end, however, Joel Stewart has created a mighty original creation all on his own and it’s well worth a read. Recommended to anyone with a penchant for deep and abiding silliness.
Misc: I was pleased as punch to find that Mr. Stewart has a blog called Black Carrot Secret Diaries.