Doctor De Soto
by William Steig

William Steig's Doctor De Soto

Children's book review by Steve Barancik

Ages 4-8

An ethics text hidden in a book about a mouse dentist!

First William Steig wins a Caldecott Award (for best illustration) with his brilliant Sylvester and the Magic Pebble (reviewed on this site).

Then he actually goes on to win a Newbery Honor for Doctor De Soto. (He also wrote Shrek!, the book all the movies were based on.)

Now, the thing about a picture book getting a Newbery Honor is that it doesn't tend to happen! The Newberys tend to go to longer books, because the Newbery is about the writing, not the illustrations.

You have to pack a lot of meaning into a short picture book text if they're going to give you a Newbery Honor. And with this book, Steig certainly did.

Dr. De Soto is a mouse and a dentist. He valiantly treats animals of almost all species, regardless of size. However, there's a sign outside his office which states clearly,

Cats & Other Dangerous Animals Not Accepted for Treatment

Dr. De Soto certainly wouldn't want to work in a cat's mouth! Or, for that matter, a fox's.

But a fox is exactly what shows up on his doorstep. A particularly pathetic one, in a world of hurt. He pleads for the doctor's mercy.

The good dentist consults with his wife, who is also his assistant. She says, "Let's risk it."

She is somewhat less distrustful of carnivores than is her husband.

De Soto is clearly concerned for his life while working on the fox, and Steig makes us privy enough to the fox's thoughts to let us know that the Doctor isn't just being paranoid. It is the fox's plan to receive his care and then negate any need to pay by testing his new dental work on those who helped him!

This is, of course, a child-appropriate presentation of a rather real ethical dilemma, the kind of issues the Hippocratic Oath raises. For instance, what medical aid does a doctor lend a murderer, and at what risk to himself?

You can easily see where Doctor De Soto can open the door to real discussions of real issues. Even adults could discuss - and disagree about - the choices made by the dentist and his wife.

Doctor De Soto is pretty much two books in one: a cute as heck picture book, and an ethics text you can pull off the shelf when you need to discuss right and wrong with your child, or the difference between good people and not so good people.

And in case you're wondering, the doctor manages to treat the fox and survive. But he has to be pretty clever to do so!

(Did you know, Doctor De Soto Goes to Africa too!)

More Newbery books.

Read more of Steve's children's book reviews.

New! Comments

Have your say!

Best Children's Books - Find, Read or Write home page.

The Newbery Medal:
List of Winners
and More Reviews

Show your reviewer some

Do you know enough Seuss to excel?