A Chapter Series That Calls Us Home
March 12, 2015 § 6 Comments
“Mommy, I like you during the day. But I really love you at night when you read to me.” My son, six years old at the time and still feeling the high of the previous evening’s story time, uttered these words last summer at breakfast. (Yes, it was the Best Breakfast Ever; and no, our mealtimes are not normally this sweet).
JP’s comment came at a time when we were halfway through devouring George Selden’s seven chapter books about a cricket named Chester and his friends, Harry Cat and Tucker Mouse. For years, I had been singing the praises to parents of the 1960 novel, The Cricket in Times Square (Ages 9-13, younger if reading aloud), as a perfect read-aloud chapter book for those eager to follow longer, more complex stories—but not yet in possession of the reading ability to get there themselves. It can be tricky among contemporary literature to find poignant, beautifully written stories that don’t come at the expense of innocent, age-appropriate content. For this age group, The Cricket in Time’s Square stands alongside other wonderful classics like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, The Trumpet of the Swan, and Charlotte’s Web (let’s face it: Charlotte’s death—that of a spider at the end of her life—is about as heavy as many people want when reading to their six or seven year old.).
But for all the times I’ve heralded The Cricket in Times Square, it wasn’t until JP read the back of our hardback copy that I realized Selden had written SIX FOLLOW-UP BOOKS. And it wasn’t until I got my hands on the rest of the series, that I discovered his writing gets even better, his stories get even more captivating, and his cast of characters gets even more endearing. I implore you: PLEASE DO NOT SPEND ANOTHER MOMENT WITHOUT THESE BOOKS IN YOUR CHILDREN’S LIVES. I can’t wait to start all over again in two years, when Emily is six and JP will benefit from hearing the stories a second time, even more attuned to the nuances of plot, the sophisticated vocabulary, and the timeless themes. These are books that will make your children fall in love with reading (and also, apparently, with you).
Among the fast-paced adventures, science fiction, and snarky school-based humor, which dominate the literary offerings for this age, George Selden’s books are comparatively quiet. They are about the everyday happenings, some ordinary and some extraordinary, in the lives of a handful of animals. They are stories that are packed with heart, that beg to be read with different voices, and that are filled with some of the most beautiful descriptive passages ever to grace young people’s literature.
The first—the original Cricket in Times Square—introduces us to this cast of lovable characters. By a fluke accident, Chester the cricket is uprooted from his pastoral life in Connecticut and taken in by an unlikely duo: a scrappy cat and a trash-hoarding mouse, who live together in the opening of an abandoned drain pipe in the Times Square subway station of New York City. As much fun as Chester has in the Big Apple—adventures spanning China Town, an education in Opera, and a home-cooked scheme to help a human family who has fallen on hard times—Chester eventually returns to his beloved Connecticut, thereby setting the stage for the story’s sequel.
In Tucker’s Countryside, Tucker Mouse and Harry Cat pay a visit to Chester and are called upon to save Chester’s idyllic meadow—where he lives alongside an entertaining cast of eccentric animals—from the intrusion of urbanization. And save the meadow they do, drawing on ingenuity and grit in equal measure. The books that follow (listed in order at the end of this post) alternate between Chester’s life in the country (not without drama: Chester’s stump collapses and leaves him to bunk in with a snake, a turtle, and a flock of birds, before finally finding a place of his own); and Tucker and Harry’s life back in the hustle and bustle of New York City (where they attempt, among other things, to raise a rapidly-growing stray puppy in their underground drainpipe).
The subject of home—of what makes a home and of the lengths to which one will and should go to protect one’s home—is at the crux of every one of these books. As your child snuggles under the cover listening to you read aloud, he or she is no doubt relishing firsthand the comfort of a home that’s safe, secure, and filled with love. Selden draws upon our children’s strong sense of home and invites them to empathize with those lost and found. In one of Selden’s countless descriptive passages, which so brilliantly showcase for our children the sublime power of language (this from Chester Cricket’s New Home):
You always will know it. It may be a mansion on a grand avenue. Or a little bit of shivering nest, where a hummingbird can relax at last. A two-family house—or a two-owl barn. An apartment above a busy street. Or a niche for an insect—just a cell in the bark, and so tiny the tree doesn’t know it has guests—but oh, how it overlooks life, teeming there in the grass! Whatever the nook, niche, or hole may be, the creature that lives there—owl, mouse, or man—will instantly know it: like your fur or your feathers or your own close skin, a home feels only like itself.
The Cricket books fall into that captivating genre of magical realism. They portray animals who talk and argue and feel human-like emotions—but are heard and understood only by other animals. At least in a child’s mind, these animals aren’t necessarily doing anything beyond the realm of possibility (just because we humans can’t understand what two animals are saying doesn’t mean they aren’t having a philosophical debate, right?). Case in point: JP has asked several times if we can stop by Times Square during our next trip to NYC to see if we can spot the drainpipe where Tucker Mouse lives with his “Life Savings” of coins and buttons and other scraps dropped by humans and rescued by mouse.
Similarly, when JP learned that his Dad was going on a business trip to Connecticut, he nearly stopped dead in his tracks. “Can you keep your eyes open for the Meadow—you know, to see if it’s real? It has a collapsed stump and a pond and lots of trees.” And when my husband later reported that he took the train past not one but many meadows, JP’s response was that of any believer: “You see, Mommy, it could be real, it really could be!”
Our children’s naiveté may fade with age, but their memory of what it feels like to be nestled beside us, in the presence of such great literature, will not.
The Complete List of the Cricket Chapter Books (in the order they were written), by George Selden, illustrated in black and white by Garth Williams:
The Cricket in Times Square (Ages 9-13, younger if reading aloud)
Tucker’s Countryside (Ages 9-13, younger if reading aloud)
Harry Cat’s Pet Puppy (Ages 9-13, younger if reading aloud; sadly out of print so you’ll have to check your library or look for a used copy, as I did!)
Chester Cricket’s New Home (Ages 9-13, younger if reading aloud; also out of print—see above)
The Old Meadow (Ages 9-13, younger if reading aloud; also out of print—see above)
Chester Cricket’s Pigeon Ride* (Ages 8-10; younger if reading aloud)
Harry Kitten and Tucker Mouse* (Ages 8-10; younger if reading aloud)
*These two don’t follow the time sequence of the others and can be read independently or at any time in the series.
There are also two spin-off “early readers” by Thea Feldman, illustrated in color, which are a great accompaniment to this reading experience, targeted as they are to the reading level of a 5-7 year old. Harry Cat and Tucker Mouse: Starring Harry, Beetle Band, and Harry to the Rescue!.
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