Dear Miss Perfect:  A Beast's Guide to Proper Behavior
Sandra Dutton, Writer & Illustrator
About the book

However beastly the problem, Miss Perfect has the answer.

What should an elephant do with his trunk at the dinner table?

Is it all right for a possum to hang upside down in her classroom?

And just where can a porcupine find a proper dancing partner?

A correspondent for the Beastly Gazette, Miss Perfect sets forth rules of behavior that can apply to just about any creature:

Say "I'm sorry" if you accidentally crush someone.  Clean your room when asked. And never chew on your sister without first asking permission.

Readers will laugh at Miss Perfect's often surprising but always on-target advice, and find a kinship with the animals whose problems are not all that different from their own.

*Kirkus Reviews, Starred, March 15, 2007

An articulate bird named Miss Perfect serves as the advice columnist for the Beastly News in this witty collection that entertains while subtly conveying information about manners and letter-writing conventions.  Miss Perfect provides a short introduction to each thematic section, on the subjects of school, food, family and friends.  Earnest letters from Miss Perfect's young readers pose problems relating to each species, such as where an elephant should place his trunk at the dinner table between courses or if a truly tired sloth really must write thank-you notes.  Miss Perfect's thoughtful and kind reponses are written with a slightly authoritative and old-fashioned tone but always with respect for the young writers and their particular problems.  Dutton's understated watercolor-and-ink illustrations are charming without trying too hard, providing a perfect complement to the humorous text.  Teachers in the upper-elementary grades will want to enlist Miss Perfect's help in their letter-writing lessons, and parents and grandparents who would like to encourage proper behavior from their own little beasts will find Miss Perfect's approach commendable.

Best New Children's Books" from Planet Esme by Esme Raji Codell, May 7, 2008

DEAR MISS PERFECT: A BEAST'S GUIDE TO PROPER BEHAVIOR by Sandra Dutton (Houghton Mifflin).  Perhaps you are a porcupine looking for a dance partner.  An elephant unsure of where to lay your trunk during meals.  A raccoon questioning the proper protocol when rooting through a garbage can.  Or a shy turtle with an oral book report looming.  When I first picked up this book, I was anticipating something more along the lines of Sesyle Johnson and Maurice Sendak's WHAT DO YOU SAY, DEAR? assuming that the beasts to whom the author was referring were actually (ahem) children, but she did, in fact, mean other members of the animal kingdom.  Even though the characters are wild things, the eloquent letters and lessons of compromise and consideration easily transfer to other genus.  Loose cartoon illustrations are from the school of James Stevenson and Betsy Lewin, and the hilarity of this book exceeded all expectations and bears repeated readings.  Perhaps if we say please very nicely, there will be more Miss Perfect books to look forward to, hopefully a quest for the perfect companion as alluded to on the last page.  For now, we'll just have to frequent Miss Perfect's lovely website, and make our best efforts to make good behavioral choices. A spoof on the adivce columns that the author enjoyed as a child, I must say thank you for a truly outstanding and original book that I personally consider a "must-have."  (5 and up)

ETIQUETTE FOR KIDS BY Sara Pearce, Cincinnati Enquirer, July 3, 2007

One of the sweetest, but neither cloying nor preachy, etiquette books for children is the recently published "Dear Miss Perfect:  A Beast's Guide to Proper Behavior" (Houghton Mifflin, $16, written and illustrated by former Cincinnati Sandra Dutton.

It stars Miss Perfect, the pitch-perfect etiquette columnist for the "Beastly Gazette."  She answers readers' questions with droll advice such as this Golden Rule:  "Be yourself!  But never bite another unless you would like to be bitten."

Dutton's illustrations are a delectable complement to the words.

Nice, Beastly Advice
Children's book is an amusing spoof of advice columns.  
By Ray Routher, Maine Sunday Telegram, July 1, 2007 (Full text)

Everybody can use some sound advice sometimes.  Even kids.  Maybe even animals.  Sandra Dutton of Boothbay Harbor recognizes this in her new children's book, "Dear Miss Perfect:  A Beast's Guide to Proper Behavior" (Houghton Mifflin, $16).

Dutton is a teacher, painter, and poet who has written five children's books.  She also wrote a musical, "Just a Matter of Time," which will be performed at the Boothbay Playhouse Aug. 9-18.

Q:  Where did you get the idea for this book?
A:    The initial impetus was reading Miss Manners’ Guide to Rearing Perfect Children.  I thought, “This is a great voice.  There must be something I can do with this.”  And of course it reminded me of “Dear Ann” and “Dear Abby,” which I’d read as a kid.  I loved those columns. They were the first things I started reading in the newspaper, besides comics.  I thought it was amazing that people could write in and get answers.  And that some of those problems actually concerned me:  how much a kid should get for an allowance, whether kids should call adults by first name, that sort of thing.  Plus I had an Aunt Martha I think of as “Miss Perfect.”  She was the first person I knew to carry Kleenex in a pocket pack.   

Q: Are you a fan of advice columns? Are you someone who makes fun of them?
A:  I don’t read any one faithfully, but whenever I see “Dear Abby” I read it, or “Miss Manners,” or “The Ethicist.”  And I often take out collections and read them.  I saw a column in a Lewiston paper called “Sunspots” where you can ask just about anything.  You’ll go from “Where can I buy the best kitty litter?” to “What’s the best way to stop a nosebleed?”  I like that.   When I was growing up there was a columnist in Cincinnati called “Will with a Way” who gave home fix-it advice, in the paper and on the radio.  I found it very interesting, even as a kid.

When you ask, do I make fun of advice columns, I guess I do.  I call “Dear Miss Perfect” a spoof.   But I also think advice columns are tremendously interesting and perform a service.  All my characters are deadly serious about their problems.   The elephant wants to know where to put his trunk between courses at the dinner table.   The porcupine wants to know where he can find a dancing partner.  And Miss Perfect gives them sound advice.  She’s never at a loss for words.

Q: What made you think this would be something kids would find entertaining?
A:  Elementary school kids often have advice columns in their school paper.  So I thought it would be a natural.  I now receive questions on my website.  “Dana Dolphin,” for instance, just wrote saying she was making new friends but worried about keeping the old.  Miss Perfect responded with a “many schools of fish” metaphor.   

Q: Why, in your opinion, do so many children’s books have animals who act like people as the main characters? 
A:  There’s a long tradition.  Look at Aesop’s Fables, all animals.  And they symbolized human types.  The lion being strong and in charge.  The mouse being small but clever.  Then there are all the old folk tales.  I don’t think these were necessarily children’s tales, either, just ways early people had to amuse each other and perhaps explain the world.  An artist named Grandville was one of the first to really satirize individuals, giving them animal heads and dressing them in full costume.  I have a collection of his drawings, first published in 1829.  For “Dear Miss Perfect” I actually used humans at first but it wasn’t until I used animals that it worked, that it became fun.  Each problem has something to do with the species.  The possum wants to hang upside down in class.  The parrot wants to know if it’s okay to collect new words by eavesdropping.  

Q: What kinds of  things do you think help you write for children? Reading a lot of children’s books? Observing children?
A:  I do watch children, but it’s mostly remembering my own childhood that helps me to write.  I remember everything.  Someone’s dress at a party.  The mural over the sink in the science room.  What our fourth grade teacher pulled out of her purse in the lunchroom.  But I think it’s because I wallow in these details.   I’m always going back to Norwood, Ohio, my hometown, in my head.  I know the whole street map, all 3.2 square miles.   I’m working on another book with human characters set there, but even when I’m working with animal characters, I think it’s that gounding that helps me.  I read a great many books for adults, too—science, poetry, and religion are three of my favorite areas.  

Q: Were you a writer before you were an illustrator? Or was it the other way around?
A:   I was a painter first, before anything else.  I had shows in California, but at the same time I was trying to write.  My first husband, who died, read some things I’d written for Mademoiselle and suggested I try a children’s book.  So that’s how I got started, and I remember at the time just trying to figure out what a story was.  I had some things published in magazines right away, and then kept going but was a little afraid of illustration.  My husband was an illustrator, so that was his territory.  It’s very different from painting.  When I moved to New York I took a class with Bruce Degen at the School of Visual Arts.  He was very encouraging.  He was just starting the “Magic School Bus” series.  

Q: Is either part of the process easier or more fun for you? 
A:  They’re very similar in that you start out with a blank page and start working.  I put a loose sketch down and keep trying to improve it.  Not with shading or finishing, just trying to get the gesture right.  I like to keep things simple.  Likewise, with words, I get something down and keep coming back to it.  The fun part is coming back and feeling a spark, an “oh yes” kind of feeling that something’s working and this can go somewhere.  

Q: What are some of your favorite children’s books?
A:  Most of them are from the 19th Century.  Things I read in grade school or high school and keep going back to.   “Wind in the Willows.”  “Alice in Wonderland.”  “Uncle Remus.”  “Huckleberry Finn.”  “Struwelpeter.”   Fairy tales.  When I was very young my parents read to me from a collection of animal tales, things like “The Little Red Hen.”  I still love those.  I like cautionary tales.  Maurice Sendak’s “Pierre” is a good one.  I’m crazy about Beatrix Potter.  “Stuart Little.”  I have favorite illustrators, too--William Steig.  James Marshall, Margot Zemach.  Edward Gorey.  Douglas Florian does wonderful poems with animal illustrations.  Quentin Blake—he makes things look quick and easy but on his website I learned that he actually does his illustrations over and over on a light table.  (Reading this, I decided I had to get a light table.  I’ve been working on a light box, which means I have to sit on telephone books to get my elbows up to the proper height.  A light table should make things easier.)

Back to books.  I have new favorites, too.  The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick, is told partially in illustration, a really exciting form he created.  Sort of a movie in a book.  I’m also reviewing manners books now, and one of my favoirtes is David Melling’s “Scallywags.”  A really funny book about some wolves who set about to learn manners. I just finished Cynthia Lord’s Rules, and I’m in the middle of Robin MacCready’s Buried.  They are wonderful Maine children’s writers and have just won major prizes.

Q: What is the musical you’re working on? And how does one go from children’s books to musicals? 
A:   The musical I’m working on is “Just a Matter of Time.”  It began as a prose piece, nearly all dialogue, but I turned it into a play.  It was given a formal reading for “Kentucky Voices” at the now Kentucky Repertory Theatre.  And then when I moved to Maine, Terence Deadman suggested it be a musical.  So I wrote a song for each character and that’s how it evolved.  Now I can’t picture it any other way.  It’s all about Meg, who’s lost her curiosity, and her search for Time.  He’s been beaten in a boxing match so he’s no longer making time.  I had sent it off to Theatre-Studio, Inc., in New York and forgotten about it when I got a call last summer they wanted to workshop it.  So we did three scenes with a wonderful cast and director, Susan Streater. TSI wanted to do a full production but they wanted it to run for three months on weekends.  This would have been impossible to manage, especially from Maine, so we decided to do an Equity Showcase.  We got wonderful press and nice mentions in both “The New York Times” and “Playbill.”  Now we’re doing it at the Boothbay Playhouse from August 9-18.  It’s a combination of community and professional actors.  Susan Streater is coming up from New York to direct.   And Bob and June Rose of Boothbay, have brilliant ideas for scenery and costumes.  It should be very exciting.