Mercy Watson Series by Kate DiCamillo, illustrated by Chris Van Dusen, RL

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.


Donna said…
Tanya, I think I will be the lone vice of dissent, because everyone I know really enjoys these books also, but I don't. I didn't detest them either but I found them to be pretty bland. Now after reading your post, I will cut the books some slack because you have reminded me by the post, that these books are readers and not picture books so the absence of challenging vocabulary is explained. The illustrations were fabulous, I wouldn't expect anything less of Van Dusen. The characters didn't appeal to me: the excessively domineering older sister; the 90 yr old woman still being called baby, it is jarring to hear the term used on someone at 90:-); the Watson's calling each other Mr. and Mrs. My son seemed to enjoy the series but he has not asked to reread them so that is it for Mercy Watson. Now I have to admit we have been reading a lot of Bill Peet lately and very few books can measure up and so I probably have judged Mercy Watson books too harshly.
Tanya said…
I have to confess, I share your cringe-worthy responses to the characters in the books, but, alas, we are adults and possibly slightly less attuned to delights of slapstick humor and the need for clearly defined good and bad and right and wrong than the young readers who enjoy these books. Hopefully the success of this series will inspire more writers to create beginning reader books at this level!
Jeremy said…
"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."

Well said -- these (and the Poppleton books) aren't exactly high-end childrens' literature, but they fit a very specific need and they do that very well. The pacing, silly bits and excellent illustrations were just the thing for our girls as their reading took off. Very useful for early readers.

It's also been interesting to see our little guy (almost three) enjoy these types of books (along with Cowgirl Kate, Houndsley and Catina, etc) as read-alouds. I think most people assume that toddlers and preschoolers wouldn't have the attention span for these longer books, but I think the simple text and engaging pictures help them extend those attention spans, and prepare them (at least a little bit) for the concept of chapter books.
Tanya said…
Thanks! And that is such a good point about a beginning reader books functioning as traditional picture books. I think most parents don't think of them as such because they are so horribly boring on the whole... But, like you mentioned, Poppleton, Houndsley & Catina and Cowgirl Kate are definitely among the best in this "bridge" category.
Jeremy said…
Indeed! And I thank you (as always) for recommending many of them.
nopinkhere said…
We have read all of them as bedtime stories for my now 4yo. The divisions into short chapters made it easy to stop if it needed to be a quick night. He LOVES them. I think the text/characters can be a bit much, but I LOVE the illustrations. If I could afford to, I would buy them (for sale on his website). Even as I was reading along for the umpteenth time, I would notice some new detail in one of the pictures. I think Mrs. Watson's Halloween decorations are my favorite example of that.`
Tanya said…
Agreed! Van Dusen's amazing illustrations are the big attraction for these books! I love his attention to detail, too, especially in his book "Circus Ship." Spectacular! I need to get my hands on his Mr Magee books!
Thank you for your post. I am a HUGE fan of Kate DiCamillo but I never read the Mercy Watson series (not did my two older kids) but now I will check out. That early chapter book level is a tough level to find really good quality book series and for some reason, I stayed away from the Mercy Watson series also...maybe the pig isn't the most appealing of animal protagonists??

Pragmatic Mom
Type A Parenting for the Modern World
I blog on children's lit, education and parenting
childEngineer said…
I've only read Mercy Watson Thinks Like a Pig. I also don't like the characters and in the book I read, I don't think there is a clear sense of right and wrong. When Mercy eats the neighbors' petunias that they just planted, Mrs. Watson's reaction is to suggest Mercy must be hungry. She doesn't apologize to the neighbors or offer to replace the petunias.

I do like Cynthia Rylant, though, so I will have to check out the Poppleton Pig series. Thanks for mentioning it!
Tanya said…
YES! Look for Rylant's POPPLETON books! In tone, the plot and characters are more like Arnold Lobel's FORG & TOAD and the illustrations are colorful and fantastic. The stories from the Poppleton books have stuck with me for years and years.
Jeremy said…
Agreed, childEngineer (and Donna, way up top) -- Eugenia usually gets treated like the villian, when the real troublemaker is often the pig. I'm reminded of Curious George, which always drives me nuts for the same reason. But perhaps that's part of the appeal for a pre-schooler reader/listener who is always getting into trouble -- I wouldn't choose these books, but at a certain age, all of my kids loved them, and grabbed them off the shelves at the library when they were displayed.

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