A “porcine wonder” saves the day in a picture book with 12 chapters
Mercy Watson to the Rescue. By Kate DiCamillo. Illustrated by Chris Van Dusen. Candlewick, 68 pp., $12.99. Ages 6–8.
By Janice Harayda
Kate DiCamillo’s award-winning novels have made her among the most popular American authors for children in the third grade and higher. Her “Mercy Watson” series, aimed at a younger audience, extends her formidable brand downward into books for beginning readers, or picture books with chapters and a simple text.
In some ways, the effort has been a success. The American Library Association gave a Theodor Geisel Beginning Reader Honor award to Mercy Watson Goes for a Ride. And a lot of adults may rejoice that a female pig has joined the ranks of main characters in animal stories, dominated by males with names like Peter, George, Clifford, Arthur, and Barney.
But on the evidence of Mercy Watson to the Rescue, DiCamillo has overreached. Mercy lives in a tidy white farmhouse-style home with a couple who call her a “porcine wonder” and treat her as if she were their child. How the Watsons’ home stays so tidy with a pig on hand isn’t the only incongruity in this tale, which finds Mercy saving the day after her owners’ marital bed falls through the floor (because — you guessed it — they let her sleep with them).
At bedtime, the Watsons sing to Mercy: “Bright, bright is the morning sun,/but brighter still is our darling one./Dark, dark is the coming night,/but oh, our Mercy shines so bright.” Although the book consists of 12 chapters of prose, this strained rhyme typifies the weak text. And that text gets little help from the cartoonish retro illustrations by Chris Van Dusen, who uses the opaque watercolor technique known as gouache (which may remind adults of that of the old Dick-and-Jane readers). Van Dusen gives the story the look of a 1950s or early 1960s sitcom, Ozzie and Harriet land. Mr. Watson has a face shaped like Mr. Potato Head’s, Mrs. Watson has a hairdo that could have appeared on The Jetsons, and their house has a black-cat wall clock. Many of the pictures are garish. But that isn’t the main issue, because “garish” can work with a highly witty or otherwise appropriate text. The problem is that instead of giving children something fresh, this story panders to the adults who do the buying at bookstores.
Recommended if … a child uses other “beginning reader” books in addition to this one.
Best line/picture: Van Dusen encloses the page numbers in tiny pictures of the toast slices that Mercy loves.
Worst line/picture: Mercy looks large enough to be an adult female pig, and if she’s an adult, she’s a sow. DiCamillo doesn’t mention this. But any child who is ready for this book can understand the difference between lions and lionesses, or sows and hogs.
Furthermore: DiCamillo won a Newbery Medal for The Tale of Despereaux. A review of her most recent novel for older children, The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane, is archived in the “Children’s Books” category on this site.
Published: October 2005
© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
A new review of a book for children or teenagers appears every Saturday on One-Minute Book Reviews. You can find earlier reviews archived in the “Children’s Books” category on this site.