Seems to me that picture books get split into very particular genres pretty quickly. I actually keep lists of them on my computer at work, depending on how many requests I receive. There are the Bully picture books. The Dinosaur picture books. The People in Our Community picture books. And then there are two genres that sometimes get split up and sometimes merge together. These would be the Invisible Friend picture books and the Starting School picture books. Now you’ll see a fair amount of bringing your blankie to school picture books out there (Owen being the best example). And you’ll see more than a few anxiety-ridden titles. Imaginary friends at school books are rarer, though you do see them occasionally (the Kevin Henkes title Jessica comes immediately to mind). Now with Dotty we’ve a title that takes two different ideas, combines them, and comes up with a way of showing that putting away childish things is a selective process.
On the first day of school Ida takes care to bring with her a new lunchbox, a pair of striped leggings, and her imaginary friend Dotty. Dotty resembles nothing so much as a benign combination of cow and toadstool. At school, Ida discovers that many of her classmates have similar companions. There are Max’s twin sea serpents, Benny’s razor-toothed R.O.U.S., and Katya’s doodle-brought-to-life Keekoo. As the school year progresses, however, Ida discovers that more and more of her schoolmates have stopped bringing their friends to class. By the time spring comes around Ida is on the receiving end of the now worldly Katya’s teasing and she reacts angrily. The two girls write “apology” notes, and then Ida has a discussion with her teacher Ms. Raymond. After promising that she’ll explain to Dotty that pushing people is inappropriate, Ida spots a red leash belonging to her teacher, not dissimilar at all from Dotty’s leash. It may well be that special friends are the kinds you keep with you always.
Essentially, in this book you’re looking at the changes a kid goes through in the course of a single year of school. With that in mind, Perl’s choices are pretty interesting. For example, Ida’s friend Katya begins the book with a tiny imaginary friend that swings on her braids. Later she gets a haircut and keeps the creature in her pocket secretly. That haircut sort of marks a rite of passage for Katya. The growing out of imaginary friends is shown in different ways. I would have liked some clarification on what grade Ida was in, of course. This seems to be her first day of school ever, which would mean that this is Kindergarten. Still, these kids look older than Kindergarteners, and the pseudo-apologetic notes written near the end are more 1st or 2nd grade material.
Take note that the illustrations by Denos look patently simple but have details that the five-year-old inside of me appreciated. I liked that two out of three of Ida’s lunchboxes featured images that are not always associated with girls in books (a dinosaur and outer space). In fact, you’ll find that the image of Ida waking up on the title page shows drawn pictures of a dino on the wall and a toy dino and space rabbit (the third lunchbox displays a rabbit) sitting on the windowsill. I liked that Gert, Ms. Raymond’s own invisible friend, actually appears early in the book in two scenes, hiding. I liked that Ms. Raymond’s neck scarf matches Gert’s furry coat, and that Ida is usually seen wearing dots or big round buttons to match Dotty. The publication page’s explanation of the Denos technique is amusing, saying that “The illustrations in this book were made with brush ink and a bit of Photoshop here and there.” Love that “a bit”. An interesting choice of words.
The text was choice. At no point, I should note, are the words “imaginary friend” uttered in the course of the story. The story takes the creatures that come to the school for granted. I found myself wondering at what point the child readers would understand that Dotty was an imaginary friend. Later, would they recognize that Dotty hitting Katya was actually Ida hitting Katya? This may be giving kids too little credit, of course. It’s entirely plausible that a kid reading this book is going to recognize that the reality of the situation (i.e. children bringing strange creatures to school) doesn’t work and that therefore these must be imaginary friends. Still and all, I’d love to take a poll to see how many parents reading this book to their kids, stop and say clearly, “Now this is a book about an IMAGINARY FRIEND” for the “benefit” of their children’s understanding versus those who just let the text stand for itself.
To a certain extent this book reminded me of Yellowbelly and Plum Go to School by Nathan Hale. The obvious difference, of course, is that while the monsters in this book are figments of the children’s imaginations, in Yellowbelly they’re all too real. The pairing of Perl and Denos comes off as particularly strong here. One can hope that they’ll be put together on similar books in the future. Particularly if those books have the same mix of sweetness and wisdom as you’ll find in the beloved Dotty. A charmer of a book.
On shelves now.
Source: Final copy sent from publisher for review.
Notes on the Cover: I keep threatening to do this, but one of these days I’m going to do a long post on this blog about the different kinds of glitter that are out there. I mean it! Glitter is fascinating to me. Glitter says to me that a publisher believed in a book and was willing to cover it in sparkly goodies to reward it. Glitter can also sometimes be used to sparkle up a book that needed a glitzy twist to sell it to the masses. In this particular case I’m going to go with the former rather than the latter theory. It’s fascinating to look at where they put this glitter too. It’s on Dotty’s spots, which I understand. It’s in the letters of the title. It’s on Ida’s headband and her shoes. And tiniest of all, but definitely there, it’s on the letters of the author and the illustrator’s names.
Other Blog Reviews:
- Find reviews collected from Kirkus, Booklist, School Library Journal, and Publishers Weekly here.
- A fantastic talk with illustrator Julia Denos at Mishaps and Adventures. He also interviews both Julia and Erica together.
- Erica Perl also participated in a blog tour for this book, where she spoke with The Happy Nappy Bookseller, Alison’s Book Marks, A Patchwork of Books, Jean Little Library, Pragmatic Mom, Literacy Toolbox, The Hiding Spot, Bookmark, The First Book Blog. And one at Teach Mama.
- There’s a simply beautiful Seven Questions Over Breakfast with Julia Denos over at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast.
- Pragmatic Mom placed it on her list of Best Children’s Books Featuring Life-Changing Teachers (ages 4-12).
- Read some lesson ideas for the book with Picture This! Teaching with Picture Books.
- And finally, check out this quite gorgeous little hat made by Sara M. in Salt Lake City.