Bluey Might Be Good For Parents, But Dory Fantasmagory Makes Quirky Kids Feel Seen
Few contemporary early chapter books capture the essence of real childhood. Abby Hanlon’s books are different.
We know realism in children’s media is impossible, and probably not even desirable. But exposing our kids to things that are authentic, and reflect an experience they actually understand, is huge and also very rare. For this reason, countless parents hold up Bluey as a perfect representation of what family life is really like.
Bluey is also, sneakily, a cartoon that allows parents to be seen. But it’s not necessarily the greatest show ever when it comes to representing or directly relating to the authentic nuances of being an actual child. In fact, most cartoons — even the best ones like Bluey — struggle with this idea.
The kid characters tend to have one personality trait, and while that trait might be relatable, it often just ends up being as simple as “quiet” or “loud.” (Seriously, kids’ cartoon characters are often either just shouting or whispering.) Smart parents often look to great kids’ books to help find more full reflections of childhood in compelling narratives, all of which contain more nuance than what we see on our screens.
On a larger-than-life scale, you’ve got A Series of Unfortunate Events, which, unlike something generic like Harry Potter, gives us a variety of different personality types. But, like Potter, the Snicket universe is fantastical. It doesn’t comment on what actual children deal with. Most kids are not jumping from school to school and being pursued by Count Olaf (even if it feels that way sometimes.) Instead, most kids struggle with scarier obstacles: Learning to read, wearing clothes they don’t like, and wondering if they will ever have a true, best friend.
Enter the absolutely perfect early-age chapter books by Abby Hanlon, the Dory Fantasmagory series. Right now, the series spans six books, which began back in 2015. The latest tome was published this year, in September. The books follow the titular Dory, a six-year-old girl with a big imagination, which often creates a kind of Secret Life of Walter Witty vibe. In one of the books, Dory’s massive imagination is likened to a swirl of vanilla and chocolate ice cream, in which the feelings and ideas of the real world and the world of pretend overlap emotionally.
In the pretend world, Dory has an enemy named Mrs. Gobble Gracker, a hilarious witch-like character who is hundreds of years old, sometimes wants to turn Dory into a baby, and other times, recruits her as a fellow pirate. In the real world, Dory has friends like Roseabelle, who wears unnecessary layers of skirts, and George, who throws up at the drop of a hat. Her older siblings can barely tolerate her, and her parents are often exasperated.
But Dory is never othered by the story, even if the characters struggle to understand her. She wants to wear a nightgown all the time, and often cannot be bothered to talk about an important subject at hand, and instead, fixates on a vintage bath toy that she can’t ever own. For parents with kids who have been accused of not understanding social cues, Dory is every quirky child. Through the hilarious stories penned by Hanlon, the uniqueness of Dory and her imagination is celebrated. Yes, the real world will often not accept her behavior, but that doesn’t mean her behavior is wrong.
For parents, the books are a breezy pleasure to read — you will laugh out loud a lot. And for kids who might be struggling to learn to read in the Kindergarten or 1st-grade years, these books provide comfort. Dory isn’t a “smart kid,” but she’s not a “bad kid” either. She’s specifically interested in what she’s interested in, and as a result, is one of the most authentic characters to come out of kids' literature in decades.
It would be tempting to compare Dory to Romana from the immortal Beverly Clearly novels, but she is very much her own kid. Each of the six books takes kids through a different set of social problems Dory is facing and always ends in a moment of sublimation or catharsis.
The world of Dory Fantasmagory is not ideal or adventure-driven. But, unlike so much kids’ media available to modern families, the Dory Fantasmagory books are funny without resorting to easy jokes, and above all, present the early-childhood point-of-view not as something to overcome, but a valid lived-in experience for the smallest humans among us.
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