A beret-wearing dog named Claude and his best friend, Sir Bobblysock (who is, in fact, a bobbly sock), accidentally foil a robbery in Claude in the City, the debut entry in an early chapter book series from Peachtree. Written and illustrated by Alex T. Smith, the series originated in the U.K., where it is published by Hodder. Peachtree releases the inaugural installment in April, and Claude and his sock sidekick continue their adventures in Claude at the Circus, due in fall 2013, and Claude at the Beach, a spring 2014 release.

Kathy Landwehr, v-p and associate publisher of Peachtree, acquired the first three Claude books after spotting them at the Bologna Book Fair in 2011. “The first thing that caught my eye with Claude was his snazzy look,” she recalls. “I love the red and black color scheme and the retro look of the package. The humor is right up my alley, and the spirit is so sweet and funny. I was immediately charmed.”

The idea of the Claude books came to Smith “quite spontaneously,” says the series’ creator, who lives in the U.K. with several real-life canine companions. “It was a hot night – very rare in England – and I couldn’t sleep, so I decided to doodle in my sketchbook. I found myself doodling a funny, plump little dog with a beret, and then suddenly all these ideas for stories about him pinged into my head, and that was that.”

Reflecting on Claude’s serendipitous start, Smith says that the inspiration for the series had multiple sources. “I think the books are a mix of lots of things I like: old British comedy films I watched as a child, farces, and old cartoons, as well as a sprinkle of inspiration from the Eloise books, which I really love,” he says. “I also think Claude is based to a certain extent on my grandfather Sid. He was a very clever man, but often found himself accidentally in ridiculous, farcical situations. He was very funny, and I think Claude owes an awful lot to him.”

Smith, who has written a number of picture books, enjoyed tackling the early chapter book format. “With picture books, you have so few words to play with that you have to make every one of them count,” he says. “The Claude books give me lots more space to tell a bigger sort of story. However, the challenge is to sustain a plot and make each page interesting or funny. But I like a challenge, so I find writing chapter books great fun. From what children and parents have said, Claude’s popularity lies with the format as well as the stories. The small trim size is nice for small hands to hold, and the length of the story helps new or emerging readers feel they are reading a ‘proper’ book, but there are enough pictures to not make them feel overwhelmed by the words.”

Claude’s naïve, enthusiastic personality, coupled with the cheery look of the series, are well suited to the early chapter book audience, says Landwehr. “I’ve read the book to groups of kids, and find that children like knowing more than Claude, anticipating what’s going to happen, and seeing how he resolves his predicaments,” she says. “Kids can feel proud of themselves for being a little wiser than Claude, as well as for reading a whole book by themselves.”

Margaret Quinlin, Peachtree’s president and publisher, says she hopes to publish more Claude novels beyond the three currently under contract. “Hodder has done really well with the first few Claude novels and has at least six planned,” she says. “Hopefully we can do as many as they initiate.”

Quinlin adds that Peachtree is interested in growing this format of books on its list. “There are some great books published as early chapter books or illustrated novels, and kids at this age are voracious readers,” she says. “We believe there is room for more titles, and it is a category we’d like to further develop.”

Smith, who will promote Claude in the City with a blog tour, is pleased to see the pup make his American debut. “I am delighted and very excited to be introducing Claude to the U.S.,” he says. “Although Claude has a French name and wears a beret, I’ve always imagined that he lived in a big, bustling city like the ones in America, with lots of things going on. The house he lives in is based on a New York City brownstone, and I can just imagine him wandering down Fifth Avenue with Sir Bobblysock hopping along after him.”

Claude in the City by Alex T. Smith. Peachtree, $12.95 Apr. ISBN 978-1-56145-694-9