Review of the Day: Dory Fantasmagory by Abby Hanlon
Which of the following types of children’s books are, in your opinion, the most difficult to write: Board books, picture books, easy books (for emerging readers), early chapter books, or middle grade fiction (older chapter books)? The question is, by its very definition, unfair. They are all incredibly hard to do well. Now me, I have always felt that easy books must be the hardest to write. You have to take into account not just the controlled vocabulary but also the fact that the story is likely not going to exactly be War and Peace (The Cat in the Hat is considered exceptional for a reason, people). And right on the heels of easy books and their level of difficulty is the early chapter book. You have a bit more freedom with that format, but not by much. For a really good one there should be plenty of fun art alongside a story that strikes the reader as one-of-a-kind. It has to talk about something near and dear to the heart of the kid turning the pages, and if you manage to work in a bit of a metaphor along the way? Then you, my dear, have done the near impossible. The last book I saw work this well was the extraordinary Sadie and Ratz by Sonya Hartnett, a book that to this day I consider a successor to Where the Wild Things Are. I didn’t expect to see another book tread the same path for a while. After all, these kinds of stories are enormously difficult to write (or did I mention that already?). Enter Dory Fantasmagory. Oh. My. Goodness. Pick up my jaw from the floor and lob it my way because this book is AMAZING! Perfection of tone, plot, pacing, art, you name it. Author Abby Hanlon has taken a universal childhood desire (the wish of the younger sibling for the older ones to play with them) and turned it into a magnificent epic fantasy complete with sharp-toothed robbers, bearded fairy godmothers, and what may be the most realistic 6-year-old you’ll ever meet on a page. In a word, fantastico.
She’s six-years-old and the youngest of three. Born Dory, nicknamed Rascal, our heroine enjoys a rich fantasy life that involves seeing monsters everywhere and playing with her best imaginary friend Mary. She has to, you see, because her older siblings Luke and Violet refuse to play with her. One day, incensed by her incessant youth, Violet tells Rascal that if she keeps acting like a baby (her words) she’ll be snatched up by the sharp-toothed robber Mrs. Gobble Gracker (a cousin of Viola Swamp if the pictures are anything to go by). Rather than the intended effect of maturing their youngest sibling, this information causes Rascal to go on the warpath to defeat this new enemy. In the course of her playacting she pretends to be a dog (to escape Mrs. Gobble Gracker’s attention, naturally) and guess what? Luke, her older brother, has always wanted a dog! Suddenly he’s playing with her and Rascal is so ebullient with the attention that she refuses to change back. Now her mom’s upset, her siblings are as distant as ever, Mrs. Gobble Gracker may or may not be real, and things look bad for our hero. Fortunately, one uniquely disgusting act is all it will take to save the day and make things right again.
This is what I like about the world of children’s books: You never know what amazingly talented book is going to come from an author next. Take Abby Hanlon. A former teacher, Ms. Hanlon wrote the totally respectable picture book Ralph Tells a Story. It published with Amazon and got nice reviews. I read it and liked it but I don’t think anyone having seen it would have predicted its follow up to be Dory here. It’s not just the art that swept me away, though it is delightful. The tiny bio that comes with this book says that its creator “taught herself to draw” after she was inspired by her students’ storytelling. Man oh geez, I wish I could teach myself to draw and end up with something half as good as what Hanlon has here. But while I liked the art, the book resonates as beautifully as it does because it hits on these weird little kid truths that adults forget as they grow older. For example, how does Rascal prove herself to her siblings in the end? By being the only one willing to stick her hand in a toilet for a bouncy ball. THAT feels realistic. And I love Rascal’s incessant ridiculous questions. “What is the opposite of a sandwich?” Lewis Carroll and Gollum ain’t got nuthin’ on this girl riddle-wise.
For me, another part of what Dory Fantasmagory does so well is get the emotional beats of this story dead to rights. First off, the premise itself. Rascal’s desperation to play with her older siblings is incredibly realistic. It’s the kind of need that could easily compel a child to act like a dog for whole days at a time if only it meant garnering the attention of her brother. When Rascal’s mother insists that she act like a girl, Rascal’s loyalties are divided. On the one hand, she’ll get in trouble with her mom if she doesn’t act like a kid. On the other hand, she has FINALLY gotten her brother’s attention!! What’s more, Rascal’s the kind of kid who’ll get so wrapped up in imaginings that she’ll misbehave without intending to, really. Parents reading this book will identify so closely to Rascal’s parents that they’ll be surprised how much they still manage to like the kid when all is said and done (there are no truer lines in the world than when her mom says to her dad, “It’s been a looooooooong day”). But even as they roll their eyes and groan and sigh at their youngest’s antics, please note that Rascal’s mom and dad do leave at least two empty chairs at the table for her imaginary companions. That ain’t small potatoes.
It would have been simple for Hanlon to go the usual route with this book and make everything real to Abby without a single moment where she doubts her own imaginings. Lots of children’s books make use of that imaginative blurring between fact and fiction. What really caught by eye about Dory Fantasmagory, however, was the moment when Rascal realizes that in the midst of her storytelling she has lost her sister’s doll. She thinks, “Oh! Where did I put Cherry? I gave her to Mrs. Gobble Gracker, of course. But what did I REALLY ACTUALLY do with her?” This is the moment when the cracks in Rascal’s storytelling become apparent. She has to face facts and just for once see the world for what it is. And why? Because her older sister is upset. Rascal, you now see, would do absolutely anything for her siblings. She’d even destroy her own fantasy world if it meant making them happy.
Beyond the silliness and the jokes (of which there are plenty), Hanlon’s real talent here is how she can balance ridiculousness alongside honest-to-goodness heartwarming moments. If you look at the final picture in this book and don’t feel a wave of happy contentment then you, sir, have no soul. The book is a pure pleasure and bound to be just as amusing to kids as it is to adults. Like older works for children like Joey Pigza Swallowed the Key, Dory Fantasmagory manages to make a personality type that many kids would find annoying in real life (in this case, a younger sibling) into someone not only understandable but likeable and sympathetic. If it encourages only one big brother or sister to play with their younger sibs then it will have justified its existence in the universe. And I think it shall, folks. I think it shall. A true blue winner.
On shelves October 9th.
Source: Galley sent from publisher for review.
Like This? Then Try:
- Sadie and Ratz by Sonya Hartnett
- Ramona the Pest by Beverly Cleary
- Ruby Lu, Empress of Everything by Lenore Look
Professional Reviews: A star from Kirkus
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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