Top 100 Picture Books #57: Doctor De Soto by William Steig
Sylvester and the Magic Pebble is brilliant, but in this one, William Steig uses just the right amount of words and tells a wonderfully clever tale. – Sondra Eklund
“Frank you berry mush” – Celia Lee
Took me a second to get what Celia’s comment was saying. Well played, madame. It’s nice to see Mr. Steig finally make an appearance on this list, and it’s particularly funny to consider that the last time we counting down 100 this book, shockingly, was NOT included! It was one of those gaps you gape at. A gaping gap. Fortunately all seems to be right on track this time around. Phew! Onward and upward then.
The description from the publisher reads, ” ‘Doctor De Soto, the dentist, did very good work.’ With the aid of his able assistant, Mrs. De Soto, he copes with the toothaches of animals large and small. His expertise is so great that his fortunate patients never feel any pain. Since he’s a mouse, Doctor De Soto refuses to treat ‘dangerous’ animals–that is, animals who have a taste for mice. But one day a fox shows up and begs for relief from the tooth that’s killing him. How can the kindhearted De Sotos turn him away? But how can they make sure that the fox doesn’t give in to his baser instincts once his tooth is fixed? Those clever De Sotos will find a way.”
In her 100 Best Books for Children, Anita Silvey gives a little background on Steig that offers a hint as to the beginnings of this book. She writes, “…his children’s book career didn’t begin until he was sixty, when his fellow New Yorker artist Robert Kraus asked him for a submission for Windmill Books. Many fine books later, Steig got the idea for this book by asking himself, What if you were a mouse dentist, and a fox came to you as a patient?”
See that shiny award on its cover? Funny thing . . . it’s not a Caldecott. Nope, that would be a Newbery Honor, one of the few relatively recent titles awarded a picture book. The book was also a 1982 New York Times Book Review Notable Children’s Book of the Year and Outstanding Book of the Year, as well as a 1983 Boston Globe – Horn Book Awards Honor Book for Picture Books.
It had a sequel, by the way. Doctor De Soto Goes to Africa, most notably. I wasn’t familiar with it so I looked it up and found this description, “A telegram from an elephant desperately in need of dental attention is the impetus for Dr. and Mrs. De Soto’s journey to Africa. But not all is smooth sailing for the couple, as a rhesus monkey bears a grudge against the elephant for a previous insult, and kidnaps the diminutive dentist as revenge.” SLJ was seriously unimpressed saying that, “There are some situations here that are ripe for Steig’s standard brand of humor, but the text is missing his inventive, playful language and his subtle word choices. It’s a bland telling, with some of the lines more like captions than integrated storytelling.” Kirkus and PW (for the most part) felt differently but I think time and fading memories have proven that if there are any De Soto’s to remember, it should be the first. Still, it’s probably worth noting that #2 is still in print.
There’s a lovely Weston Woods animated version of this tale that we like to play in my library. It is, however, not available online. This is a true pity since I’ve been trying to determine whether or not that video is the same as the 1984 animated short that was nominated for an Academy Award.
About Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.
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