The Mercy Watson Series by Newbery Award Winner Kate Di Camillo with brilliantly crisp and colorful illustrations by Chris Van Dusen is a gem, a real treasure. I'll be honest, up to this point, I had only read one book by Kate DiCamillo, beloved to many adults and children, and had not enjoyed the experience. Because of this, and the fact that they were only published in hardcover, I avoided Mercy Watson for the last five years. Now that the first three books in this six book series are in paperback, I am willing to admit the error of my ways!
The six books in the series are as follows:
Mercy Watson to the Rescue
Mercy Watson Goes for a Ride
Mercy Watson Fights Crime
Mercy Watson: Princess in Disguise
Mercy Watson Thinks Like a Pig
Mercy Watson: Something Wonky This Way Comes
Although these books test out at a mid-second grade reading level, I think that they can happily be read by motivated first graders. Technically, other books at this reading level include Junie B Jones and Magic Tree House, which have quite a bit more text than the Mercy Watson Series and look like chapter books. The Mercy Watson Series has half the amount of text, is heavy on illustrations and looks more like a picture book. These qualities make the series the ideal bridge between beginning readers and chapter books, which can sometimes be a difficult and boring bridge to cross.
Of course the gorgeous, detail rich illustrations by Chris Van Dusen, illustrator and author of Circus Ship, one of my favorite picture books last year and one that topped my list of Best Picture Books of 2009, draw you in to the Mercy Watson Series right away. But, it is DiCamillo's quirky characters, the least of whom is Mercy, will keep you reading. The Southern charm in these books is thick as molasses, spread out amongst the characters and their odd, but somehow sensible habits. Mr and Mrs Watson dote on their pig and treat her like a cross between a child and a dog. Their neighbors, the elderly sisters Lincoln sisters, Eugenia and Baby, love and loathe Mercy. Then, there are the firemen, Ned and Lorenzo and Officer Tomilello, who are called upon to make a rescue, catch a thief or some other daring act in each book. And then there is Mercy. Mercy is a bit like a huge, buttered toast loving dog. She can be cajoled into a pink princess dress with the promise of buttered toast, expertly buttered by Mrs Watson. But, the best thing about Mercy is that she is a pig. Just a pig. She doesn't talk. We don't get to hear her thoughts. She is just an animal and she acts like one. Often, she is the most predictable, sane character in any given story. And I love that.
I would be remiss if I didn't mention another favorite beginning reader pig of mine, Poppleton, by the prolifically amazing award winning Cynthia Rylant, illustrated by an all-time favorite of mine, Mark Teague. These are more along the low end of the first grade reading level and a delight to read as a story book or for an emerging reader.