“What book is as good as Dory Fantasmagory?”
That’s the most frequent question bookseller and author Emma Straub hears from customers with kids ages five to 10 at her Brooklyn bookshop, Books Are Magic. “I either get that question or ‘We love Dory. What should we read next?’ Genuinely, Dory is the series that readers at our store have reacted to most passionately,” she said.
Straub’s statement is pretty remarkable when you consider that until this week’s release of Dory Fantasmagory: Can’t Live Without You, there were just five books in the series, the most recent of which came out in 2019. (Compare that to 28 in Junie B. Jones and 63 in The Magic Tree House.) Since the first book debuted in 2012, Dory has 1.5 million copies in print globally. “I’ve been told the series is an anomaly—that series for this age need to take up a full shelf,” said author and illustrator Abby Hanlon. But any parent who has read a Dory book can understand how this short collection became a sales juggernaut. Dory—the titular six-year-old protagonist—is as silly, mischievous, and outspoken as any real kid. The pages fly by quickly. And Hanlon’s simple, black-and-white drawings do more than break up the text; like New Yorker cartoons for the younger set, they encapsulate modern family life, moments when mom loses her cool included.
Though the series was a critical success from the start and received supportive placements in indie bookshops and Barnes and Noble, Jessica Dandino Garrison, executive editor at Dial Books for Young Readers, credits educators for the powerful word-of-mouth that has rendered Dory a kid lit phenomenon, even through the recent years without a new installment. “Now that Abby has come back to the series, it’s like a Dory resurgence,” she said.
After book five, Hanlon wasn’t sure she had any more ideas for Dory. She took time off to homeschool her kids during the pandemic and decided to illustrate a picture book, Chester Van Chime Who Forgot How to Rhyme by Avery Monsen (Little, Brown). Hanlon, a self-taught illustrator, had been drawing exclusively in black and white for years; she thought a full-color picture book would be an exciting challenge. But her avid fans ultimately brought her back to Dory, and that’s where she plans to stay.
“I get letters from kids a lot, and they beg me, “When’s the next Dory book?’ ” she said. “They’re not asking, ‘Can you illustrate a picture book?’ That’s not what they want. And I now really see that this is my contribution, and I’ve put more value in it.”
Dory plotlines are intentionally routine. “No pet detectives or big science fair competitions here,” Hanlon said. Instead, past installments have focused on Dory trying to ditch a bulky winter coat, getting the “wrong” reading buddy at school, obsessing over acquiring a discontinued bath toy from an old catalog, and, in every book, trying to impress her older siblings, who view her as the “baby” and “annoying” no matter what she does.
“Like a lot of six-year-olds, Dory processes her emotions and experiences through imaginary play, so the books are also about her imaginary world and the characters that inhabit it,” Hanlon said. The imaginary characters—including Dory’s enemy, Mrs. Gobble Gracker, and her fairy godmother, Mr. Nuggy—infuse the books with adventure as they seamlessly slip into and out of Dory’s reality.
Can’t Live Without You follows Dory as she grapples with separation anxiety (and the concept of death) after getting lost in a hardware store and again when her mother (a character modeled after Hanlon herself) announces she’s returning to work as a lawyer. “In every book, I want to write about a real problem that kids actually go through, and I think almost all kids go through separation anxiety in some way at some age,” Hanlon said. “Often, it’s just a private struggle. And kids don’t really know how other kids go through it.” (The timing is apt, as many parents across the country are returning to in-person offices after years of remote work.)
When Hanlon set out to write the first Dory book back in 2011, she wanted to give her then-five-year-old twins a book she couldn’t find on shelves. Her kids coveted chapter books (“the thicker the book, the better,” she said), and Hanlon sought chapter books packed with illustrations and centered on kids their age. “And I wanted it to be funny,” she added. “Through my background as a teacher, I just know that funny is such a huge motivation for kids to learn to read.” The Dory series checks all four boxes: there are illustrations on every page, the protagonist is truly little, and the laugh-out-loud stories are each about 150 pages.
Hanlon also keeps exhausted parent readers top of mind as she writes. “You know when you’re reading a book out loud, but you’re not paying attention to what you’re reading and you have no idea what’s going on in the story?” she asked. “That’s always a big goal for me—that the parent can read it aloud without paying attention, and the book will still read smoothly.”
Hanlon has pulled almost every scene and storyline in the series from her kids’ lives. When they were younger, she eavesdropped on their playtime and wrote what they said verbatim. Now that her twins are teenagers, the author volunteers in kindergarten classrooms and attends “random soccer games” to develop new ideas. The result: characters and situations that ring authentic.
“Kids read Dory, and they’re like, ‘Oh, I get it. You’re like me. I’m like you,’ ” said Garrison, who edited Can’t Live Without You. “My six-year-old daughter came up to me after reading an advance copy and said, ‘I am Dory.’ And I said, ‘I think you are, Paige.’ ”
Straub sees the series’ magnetism this way: “The appeal is that Abby is not afraid to be silly and ridiculous, but also to take ridiculous and silly things very, very seriously, in the way that all children do. The humor in these books—there is nothing like it,” she said. “And that’s what I have to tell customers when they ask.”
Dory Fantasmagory: Can’t Live Without You by Abby Hanlon. Dial, $16.99 Sept. 26 ISBN 978-0-593-61598-0