Dr. DeSoto

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A little back story…

When August rolls around, it’s time to check several appointments off my list – going to the dentist is typically one of those appointments. This week, I reluctantly headed to the dentist office for a cleaning, an experience which fills me with far more anxiety than it ever did in my younger years! As I sat / lay in the special chair with a bib around my neck, watching the hygienist as she organized her tools that she’d soon be putting in my mouth, instead of moaning, I chuckled softly to myself. Images of Dr. DeSoto’s dental office came to mind.

This spring, a group of first graders and I read Dr. DeSoto together. We practiced being more active in our reading and reacting to what we see and understand (in the pictures and the words). As such, images of Dr. DeSoto’s office were not too far from my mind. The diminutive furnishings and funny contraptions that William Steig created for Dr. DeSoto to treat his larger animal patients lingered in my mind as the hygienist got to work scraping and polishing my teeth.

Hence, I begin an entry about an old-favorite book… one that has long been in my (and likely your) repertoire, as opposed to something newer and less known.

A summary… in brief

Dr. DeSoto by William Steig was published in 1982 capturing both a Newbery Honor and the National Book Award (in 1983). In this book Steig tells the story of Dr. DeSoto, a successful dentist who gets himself into and out of a precarious situation.

Dr. DeSoto is not just any dentist; he is a mouse who performs dentistry on animal patients. Assisted by his wife, Dr. DeSoto takes care of many types of animals, large and small, but he refuses treatment to animals dangerous to mice. It even says so on the sign outside his office, “Cats & Other Dangerous Animals Not Accepted for Treatment”. So, one day when a fox arrived in a great deal of pain, the DeSotos made a truly atypical decision. They admitted him, swayed from their rule by the suffering the fox was experiencing.

Dr. DeSoto’s office is a unique place, captured both in words and pictures. He and his wife constructed equipment that allows him to work in the mouths of animals many times his size, such as the fox. He climbed up his ladder and into the fox’s mouth to have a look, at which point he identified a “rotten bicuspid”. The tooth needed to be pulled but could be replaced the next day.

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After being given gas in preparation for the tooth extraction, the fox began to dream out loud: “M-m-m, yummy,” which caused the DeSotos to worry later that night at home about what the fox might do when he returned the next day to get his new tooth. The DeSotos, however, crafted a plan. After replacing the fox’s tooth the next day, they offered him a new treatment that would prevent any such tooth aches in the future. The fox accepted this treatment readily. The treatment was actually a glue that caused the fox’s mouth to be sealed shut. The fox left, “stunned” by the trickery he had experienced. The DeSotos watched him leave, prideful of their own cunning and ready to take off the rest of the day.

As a parent… this book is just plain fun to read with your child. The illustrations are captivating, imaginative and related to an experience (going to the dentist) to which we are largely able to relate. Reading this book with your young child (preK – 2nd grade) might offer the opportunity to conjure up other story lines together. “What if… ” You might imagine other instances of human activities being done by our smaller or larger animal counterparts. How would those activities change or stay the same? What would they look like? Can we design some of their tools? What would those tools look like, be made from? It might also be fun to think of reading some other books that might compliment this notion of size and creature impacting the way activities are performed or how life is livedlike The Littles (series by John Peterson) or the picture book series starting with If You Give a Mouse a Cookie by Laura Neumerof. I’m sure that between parent and child, you could begin to notice and explore many titles that fit into this creative category.

While the “level” of this book is the same as that of short chapter books like Magic Tree House, this book is a great example of the richness that picture books have to offer to growing readers, even as they become successful independent readers. Steig incorporates sophisticated and fun (for those who like words) vocabulary and he almost magically uses the illustrations in tandem with the words to communicate his story. It’s a wonderful reminder to us as parents that reading with our children (both chapter books AND picture books) is rewarding and important even as our children age and grow more proficient as readers themselves.

As a teacher…this book offers limitless possibilities, but a few come to my mind the fastest.

  • Explore the illustrations and their relation to the text on each page and the story as a whole.

Steig, a successful and prolific cartoonist, conveyed so much through the illustrations in this book. A 28 page picture book, there are illustrations on every page. The illustrations are detailed, charming, imaginative, and have a direct correspondence to the text written on each page.

  • Utilize the illustrations as a way of introducing students to sophisticated sentence structure and vocabulary.

The illustrations are not only visually appealing, they are also a support for young readers as they negotiate and make meaning from Steig’s sophisticated sentence structure and word choice. On one page, for example, when Dr. DeSoto is removing the fox’s rotten tooth, the illustration has the potential to support children in making meaning of an idea (the extraction of a tooth) and some words (“extraction”, “winch” and “swaying”) that may be unfamiliar.

  • Explore characters – their role, position, level of strength / dominance

Steig added a layer of sophistication to the narrative with his treatment of the characters, placing the more highly attuned cunning quality in the hands of the character who would traditionally be considered weaker and less able. Teachers and students might consider the expected and the unexpected, stereotypes, and the role of “dominance” in character relationships.

  • Consider the author’s  body of work and his treatment of character.

Teachers and students may be able to draw connections between this text and some others, noticing some of the big ideas present in his work, particularly those that pertain to character and the “unexpected” – bravery seems to play a consistent role in some of his stories, for example.

  • Explore dialogue

On the one hand, this might involve looking at the mechanics of dialogue. But, on the other hand, there is a lot to be learned about the words Steig chooses to have his characters speak. What can these words tell us about the characters – who they are, what they really mean or feel, and what their intentions might be?

  • A model for our own writing

With talking, walking, plotting animals as main characters, this book is from the fantasy genre. Steig needed to invent all sorts of equipment, furnishings, and ways of looking at the world that fit naturally with the lives of dentist mice and their animal patients. Readers might consider taking this stance as a writer – what human activity could I make an animal activity and how would it need to be modified?

Sometimes, those books that have been on our shelves the longest hold messages, reminders, inspiration we’ve been needing. Reminding our children / students of that message and how it plays out in our own lives is a powerful one.

Happy Reading!

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