Meet Henry Reed. His father is in the diplomatic service and has been stationed in Italy for as long as Henry can remember. Henry attends an American school there during the school year, but the summer before eighth grade he starts spending his summers with his Uncle Al and Aunt Mable. His history and government teacher asked him to keep notes on his experiences, which Henry does in a journal.
All this we learn in the initial pages of the first of five books in a series by Keith Robertson. I discovered the Henry Reed series as a child and the main character immediately appealed to me because of our common interests. We both like to write, dabble in artistic pursuits, and to do research. Henry and I also both love animals. We even grew up wanting to become naturalists, although I ultimately became a special education teacher instead. You might even say that Henry and I have similar personalities, in that we both are conscientious and serious. The latter means we do not readily see humor in situations. Of course, a lack of humor does not always translate well into a book. Sometimes Henry seems more like a miniature adult, which make sense because apparently Robertson modeled Henry on a school teacher, and so sometimes seems a stuffed shirt. Mostly though, I enjoyed reading about Henry, who also has his own unique traits. For example, adventure seems to follow Henry everywhere. And so it is good that Henry rarely gets fazed and that he possesses a strong aptitude to solve problems.
LESS APPEALING FEATURES
In rereading the series as an adult, I noticed some features of the series which don’t much appeal to me. For example, Robertson relies too heavily on stereotypes. Some of them such as Robertson’s portrayal of garden-club members as oversized hysterical females or fat men as gluttons and bullies are used to create humor. Others are used simply to create adventure and are also a product of the time such as the escapades with Native American tribes. He also uses stereotypes to create bullies, which sadly even current authors tend to do. Incidentally, most of the bullies seem to be rich. Robertson also sometimes uses incidents to create a commentary on society such as when Henry and Midge update a painting with abstract art and instill awe within art gallery owners. One might say that this enriches the appeal to adults, but I personally found the straightforward events more enjoyable.
HENRY REED INC
My favorite in the series is the first, Henry Reed Inc. Besides it containing the bulk of my favorite incidents, there are several plot threads which run throughout it and keep cropping up to engage my attention. Such as: Will Henry get to keep the stray beagle he found? Will Henry and Midge capture her missing rabbits and therefore ensure her a partnership in his research business? And what about his property is their neighbor Mr. Apple trying to protect?
As for the actual escapades, almost instantly there is the introduction of Agony. This is the beagle who tricks Henry into keeping him. How does Agony trick Henry? Agony first catches the attention of Uncle Al, Aunt Mabel, and Henry by sitting in the middle of the road, as the family heads home from the airport. Henry climbs out of the car to check on the beagle, who trots towards him but then doesn’t stop. Losing sight of Agony, Henry returns to the car only to find that Agony has … gotten into the car. Henry drags him back outside and Agony plops back into the middle of the road. When Henry tries to move him to the side, Agony disappears again. Where does Henry find him? Back in the car! I love it.
There are numerous fun other adventures too. Some involve Midge, the only other teenage in the neighborhood. For example, it’s because of her that the mailman doesn’t like Henry and Midge. You wouldn’t either if you were him. After all, it’s not fun to have a rabbit leap out at you from a mailbox and almost claw you to pieces. Others involve Henry and Agony. For example, it’s because of him that a troublesome culvert gets dug up. What else are truck drivers to do when Agony gets stuck in one? And some involve all three such as the day they strike oil or the day they search for truffles and instead find an artifact. The educational nature of the last is what most appealed to me. Even now, I find it fascinating to learn about the edible ones. As a child, I wanted to immediately search out ones in my own world.
HENRY REED’S JOURNEY
Henry Reed’s Journal also contains several plot threads which run throughout it and keep cropping up to engage my attention. Such as: Will Henry find firecrackers on his travel throughout the states to set off on July 4th? What artifacts will Henry and Midge find to bring home for display in a museum they plan to create? And will Amos the parakeet survive his trip with them?
As for the actual escapades, almost instantly there is the introduction of a second animal. Amos is a parakeet which is given to Henry and Midge as a gift from a lady who owns fifteen birds. Each day, she takes a different parakeet with her (in a cage) on her daily travels so that they can see the world. While she is eating with Henry and Midge at a restaurant, Amos is knocked loose from his cage. The two rescue him and think nothing more of the event, until they receive a package later in the day at the hotel. The lady decided the best way to thank them for their kindness was…. to give them Amos!
There are numerous fun other adventures too. Many are innocent enough such as the shoe mix-up, which happens while Henry and Midge are pet sitting a poodle. How are they supposed to know that the reason the poodle kept strutting back and forth is she was collecting shoes? (Incidentally, Henry describes poodles here as ridiculous but in a subsequent book he talks about their being almost as nice as beagles. Has the author or the character matured?) Others are less innocent adventures such as when Midge pretends that the nugget on her necklace is real gold which she just discovered. Surely, they could have explained to the truth to the adults who inquired about her nugget? Instead they allow a “gold rush” to happen. And some are just plain tricks, which Robertson turns to more often in his latter books, such as when they trick a little girl whom they don’t like into believing that the bugs they’ve captured could destroy all the redwood trees.
HENRY REED’S BABYSITTING SERVICE
Henry Reed’s Babysitting Service contains fewer plot threads, with the two main ones being the babysitting business and the evil Sebastian twins. This third in the series received praise for its educational nature. Through it, one can learn how to make a needs survey, design a flier, and even create a radio ad. Some of the misadventures described Robertson notes were inspired by his daughter who earned money as a baby-sitter. If Henry’s adventures are comparable, his daughter must have often needed to prepare meals and rescue adults out of emergency situations.
As for the actual escapades, there is no introduction of a third animal. Instead Henry Reed’s Babysitting Services overflows with younger characters. Some are brats like Danny who, the instance his mom leaves, jumps in his wagon and rolls down the driveway in it to the road. When Henry suggests that the two go inside, Danny turns and steers right into Henry. Later, he leans out a window and sends a toy airplane out of it. When Henry tries to retrieve it, Danny closes the window on Henry’s head. For which, Henry gives him two swats on the seat of his pants. Hmm, babysitters wouldn’t be allowed to do this today.
Other children are nicer, such as Craig. His mom needed to run some errands, but the dad was still in bed, and so Henry needed to keep Craig quiet. To do this, Henry decided to hike across the fields to the woods over by the creek. There, Henry and Craig look at crayfish, frogs, birds, and animals. Craig likes Henry so much that the family hires Henry again. This time, the two camp out in a nearby woods. Every few hours Craig gets scared and wakes up Henry, making for an unsettled sleep. The last night, even Henry feels a little trepidation, when the two hear the shriek of a woman.
And then there is Belinda. It takes the genius of both Henry and Midge to outwit this terror. And then there are the Sebastian twins, who attempt to sabotage the business. Or the oddest client of all, a cat. Henry Reed’s Babysitting Service provides no end to laughs.
OTHER HENRY REED BOOKS
There are two more books in the series. I ran out of time to read Henry Reed’s Big Show, which also is the least popular among readers. And I have not been able to find a copy of Henry Reed’s Think Tank, which was published almost fifteen years later. The first three, however, I can highly recommend. Each Henry Reed book runs about two-hundred pages and are delightful entertainment.
My rating? Bag them: Carry them with you. Make them a top priority to read.
How would you rate these books?