As fantasy, Doctor De Soto involves a plot that requires that the main characters not only act and respond in terms of their animal identities but also dress and act like humans and face dilemmas unique to the human situation. In this sense, the story is similar to a fable, although there are no didactic overtones. Young readers can relate to the De Sotos as successful problem solvers and can evaluate their actions in terms of moral criteria. Because the story examines the moral deliberations of both the mice and the fox, readers have the opportunity to evaluate the moral principles of each character and raise questions about their processes of decision making. Is the fox evil, as Dr. De Soto pronounces him, or is he simply following his basic instincts? The mice overcome their instinctual fear of the fox in order to treat his pain; should not the fox similarly overcome his desire to eat the mice out of gratitude for their compassion? It is interesting to note that in the De Sotos’ case, moral principles are followed not rigidly, but reflectively. Exceptions are considered, and the higher principle of compassion for a fellow being is followed. Their decisions are principle-led, rather than rule-based. They soon discover, however, that they must proceed with additional caution and use their wits in order to complete safely the procedure that they have begun.
The conflict presented in the story is relevant to young adult readers, who are in the process of finding out what kind of persons they are and what kind of persons they want to become. They are dealing with questions similar to those of the protagonists: How should one respond to a...
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As a young man, William Steig proclaimed his ambition to be a writer, but he turned his talents to cartooning as a way to make a living. At the suggestion of Robert Kraus, a children’s writer and colleague at The New Yorker, Steig began writing books for children. Doctor De Soto was named a Newbery Honor Book in 1982, the second of his books to receive that honor. Steig’s The Amazing Bone (1976) was named a Caldecott Honor Book and Abel’s Island was named a Newbery Honor Book. Before that, he won the Caldecott Medal in 1969 for Sylvester and the Magic Pebble, a fantasy featuring a stone that grants wishes.
Seemingly defenseless animals who survive by their own wits or magic are featured in other books by Steig. He created Amanda the pig, who uses a talking bone to escape capture in The Amazing Bone, and Solomon the rabbit, who turns himself into a nail in order to avoid a cat in Solomon the Rusty Nail (1985). In folktale fashion, Steig’s protagonists are transformed in some way for the better by their experiences, developing patience, insight, courage, or a sense of humor out of the ordeals that they face.
Doctor De Soto Goes to Africa, the sequel to Doctor De Soto, features Mrs. De Soto in a more prominent role and provides her name (Deborah) for the first time. Both books portray the De Sotos in the classic tradition of husband-and-wife teams: warm and loving, quick-thinking and courageous. They encounter serious problems but retain their sense of adventure with unfailing humor.