Allison's Book Bag

Posts Tagged ‘animal books for young people

Born in Brooklyn, E. Merwin teaches English to international students and writes fiction. Her third published book is Piccolo, a story about an Italian greyhound who is a sculptor, as well as about the growing dependence in the art world on art interns and how these unpaid workers can be mistreated. Ms. Merwin and I have corresponded occasionally and I’m pleased to present my interview with her.

ALLISON: Did you come from a big or small family? A household of pets or none?

EILEEN: By today’s standards four kids would be large, but back in the 50’s that was pretty standard. Our first pet was Irish Eddy, who only repeated the words my mother sang out repeatedly throughout the day: “Where’s Patrick?” (Patrick was the brother who was usually in trouble.) My lifelong dream of having a dog came true when I was about ten and my father was hospitalized. Probably unfair of me at that time to ask to take in the last pup of a litter from across the street, but my parents relented and Casey McGee became my first canine companion. In terms of pedigree, his mother was royalty, Princess, and his father, Choo Choo was the neighborhood rogue who had fathered many litters in those backyards of Brooklyn. When I went off to college, as in most families, my parents took on his care, and I know that in his final years living in the Pennsylvania, Casey became my dad’s best friend.

ALLISON: If you were to write a book about your childhood, how would you summarize it?

EILEEN: Thoughtful. I always loved to lay back on the cellar door, or sit on a hillside in the park, or take long walks along the Verrazano Narrows to the bridge and think. Like most childhoods, my mind was baffled by the adult conflicts around me—their bouts with alcohol, illness and each other. But that was only one current of the stream. There were so many delights: rolling down the hill behind my Uncles’ house in Pennsylvania, paddling around in a backyard pool, sitting on a park bench feeding the squirrels and philosophizing with my father. And the holidays, and the birthdays and the amazing meals my mom cooked up each night—back in the day when someone could afford to be home and actually caring for a family of six. Yes, those days come back to me often— and always a pleasure to recall.

ALLISON: Most people seem to have experienced a wonderful or terrible adolescence? How would you categorize yours? Why?

EILEEN: Lonely, but isn’t that the writer’s lot? The beauty of feeling so removed from others was that I found companionship in literature. I remember one Saturday in the local library discovering a poet that I thought was unknown (Ezra Pound!); reading Pablo Neruda aloud for the pleasure of the music of the words in Spanish; preferring the world of Dylan Thomas and his tales of growing up in Swansea Wales to the streets of Brooklyn. And novels, I loved to get lost in them.

ALLISON: What period of your life most changed you?

EILEEN: Probably the years of raising my own children in Vermont. I became a better person, putting them ahead of myself—loving them so deeply and being loved so deeply in return.

I also turned my attention from writing poetry, which seemed to deflect my attention from them, and started writing children’s lit. The first story that I wrote one Hanukah for them “Yitzy and the Miracle”, along with several other stories and poems were published in Cricket and Spider magazines. And then, as they grew older, I collaborated with them on several books which were initially published by an independent publisher in England and which I recently revised and published through the Book Bogglers Collective.

So by raising my kids and writing for and with them, I finally became an author.

ALLISON: Who most influenced you growing up?

EILEEN: My dad—also a deep thinker.

ALLISON: You’re from New York, live in New Jersey, but your novels were published by a British press. How does that work?

EILEEN: Trevor Lockwood is an independent publisher in Felistowe England. My first novel, Daughter Dedannan, was under consideration by Harper Collins— but when I got finally got the thanks, but no thanks letter, I queried independent publishers and found Trevor and Braiswick. For over a decade he had been a loyal literary ally. When last April he told me he was retiring, and would no longer be publishing my work, I decided to revise and republish which is how the works have found new life through Book Bogglers.

ALLISON: You’ve taught English to international students. What was your most challenging moment?

EILEEN: Hmm, quite frankly it’s all been a pleasure. I am amazed by their courage coming to a strange city and taking on life in a second language—and really honored to teach (and learn from) them.

ALLISON: Piccolo is your third book. How have your grown as a writer since your first publication?

EILEEN: Recently I opened a trunk with my first writings from MFA program over 30 years ago and was amazed how the themes still run through my work, but how in terms of craft all my writing has improved. But as I always tell my students, the quality of the writing is in the re-VISION.

ALLISON: How did you come up with idea of Piccolo? What experiences in your own life helped in the writing of Piccolo?

EILEEN: Ah, Piccolo.

As I mentioned, I started out telling and writing stories for my kids. Then they started telling me stories in return. My son Ted at the time was a very serious young sculptor, who mostly lived and worked with his dad a sculptor, Robert Ressler, and by nine was carving and welding and creating very original work. He also as a child was obsessed with Italian greyhounds, so I recall sitting around the table and coming up with the tale together.

When over a decade later, Ted asked me, whatever happened to Piccolo? I took out the original short work and expanded it—with much editorial and creative advice from Ted—to become Piccolo: an Intern’s Tale.

ALLISON: What’s next?

EILEEN: Tiepolo’s Greyhound recounts Piccolo’s adventures upon returning to Venice.  I am currently working with artist MOR (my daughter) on the cut-outs to complete that tale to be published this summer by Book Bogglers.

Last year I collaborated with author, rat fancier Cynthia Stuart, to create My Improbable Mischief which is being serialized in It’s a Rat’s World Magazine. (To read an installment, click on the magazine link and scroll down to My Improbable Mischief.) We are writing the second book of that tale which takes our heroine, Skyler Goode, to Mozambique where she has adopted a Gambian pouched rat, one of the amazing Hero Rats of Apopo who are trained to clear fields of landmines and diagnose TB so many lives are saved!

So yes, I will keep writing and meeting lovely people like along the way who still value a good story and the joy of time alone spent with a good book!

This is my second week to review books in the Chester Cricket series by George Selden. When my cat Lucy took sick back in December of 2013, I pulled the set from my shelves to read aloud during her convalescence. Although she never recovered, our family’s three current pets have been treated to hearing the whole series which we have now just finished.

Harry Cat’s Pet Puppy is a bittersweet adventure about beloved characters Tucker Mouse and Harry Cat who try to find a home for a dog. Along the way, they meet a cocky bird, arrogant cat, and an unsavory dog. Oh, and a piano teacher whom every argues about as to whether he needs a companion. Although Seldon handles all of fiction’s literary elements well, setting is the feature which I wish to highlight about Harry Cat’s Pet Puppy.

True, New York City has long been a common setting in books both for young people. Indeed, Wikipedia lists at least one hundred of them. Despite being are among the earliest listed then, the setting of New York City itself then isn’t terribly unique. However, Selden does well enough it that I want to give him credit.

First, Selden vividly portrays areas of New York City which you might not find in other books. There are subways and drainpipes. This is where Tucker and Harry live. It’s also where they take care of a stray puppy, until Huppy grows too big to fit. There are alleys, which make a terrifying place to meet a gang of dogs. Yet what other resort do a mouse and a cat have when they can no longer take care of the puppy they love? And finally in the uptown side of New York City, there are all those big old buildings. In one of them lives Mr. Smedly, the piano teacher whom Tucker and Harry hope will want a dog.

Second, Selden effectively describes the contrasting aspects of New York City, which an outsider might not appreciate. There’s the more hectic side, where it’s darn difficult to protect a frightened puppy: “Lights blinking outside movie theaters, cars coming and going, brakes screeching, horns honking, and the crush of restless human beings.” There’s also the wetter side, in which an outcast puppy could get cold: “A cold gray rain, which would have been snow if the temperature was a little lower….” At the same time, Selden moves beyond the stereotype to paint a picture of the more calmer side, where a confident puppy might romp and try to endear a certain piano teacher to consider him: “On a pleasant day, Bryant Park can be a truly beautiful, natural place. A living rectangle of grass and trees….”

My rating? Read it: Carry it with you. Make it a top priority to read.

How would you rate this book?

Chester Cricket’s Home is a whimsical but more uneven tale about another beloved character, that of Chester Cricket. The plot of how Chester needs to find a new home after two oversized women sit on his stump and destroy it feels overly long for its nearly one-hundred and fifty pages. Selden seems to have written at least three books which I don’t have about his beloved Times Square characters but, from what I can find out about them, they all seem to fit the picture book criteria. Personally, I think Selden might have been wiser to have made this choice here too.

One of those picture books is about Tucker and Harry, but the others like Chester Cricket’s Home are about Chester. While I enjoyed Chester in A Cricket in Times Square and Tucker’s Countryside that might have been due to his being only one of three significant characters. In this standalone book about him, Chester too often comes off as stodgy and whiny for me to like him. Actually, most of the characters which were earlier introduced in Tucker’s Countryside feel generous in their offer of a place to stay but also somewhat unpleasant. Only Simon Turtle and new zany friend Walter Water Snake make me smile.

As for setting, Connecticut has undoubtedly been the locale of young people’s fiction, but not to the extent that anyone has compiled one at Wikipedia. 🙂 In that way, Connecticut then could be considered a rather unique setting, and that is a plus for Chester Cricket’s Home. Selden also does an excellent job at describing the countryside. Well enough that I often think Connecticut would be a nice place to live. Yet setting alone can’t save a story. Chester Cricket’s Home certainly shouldn’t be the book you start with in the series. However, if you’ve read the rest of the series, you might as well as check it out.

My rating? Leave it: Don’t even take it off the shelves. Not recommended.

How would you rate this book?

One night I was coming home on the subway, and I did hear a cricket chirp in Times Square. The story formed in my mind within minutes.

—George Seldon, Wikipedia

Tucker Mouse. Harry Cat. Chester Cricket. These three creatures are George Selden’s most famous characters. I have loved all four books about them since my childhood. When my cat Lucy took sick back in December of 2013, I pulled the set from my shelves to read aloud during her convalescence. Although she never recovered, our family’s three current pets have been treated to hearing one chapter per day.

The unique plot is what most stands out to me about The Cricket in Times Square. You see, it involves a cricket who one day while on his stump in Connecticut follows the smell of liverwurst to a picnic basket. Already you can tell this will be a most unusual story, because whoever heard of a cricket being the main character of a story? Moreover, whoever heard of one who loves liverwurst? This particular cricket hops inside the basket, and after nibbling on a bunch of other delectable foods, Chester falls asleep. The next thing he knows…. The basket is on a moving train with him inside. The train doesn’t stop until it reaches Times Square.

The rest of the story is about how Chester, like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, just wants to go home again. Problem is, Chester doesn’t know how. The boy Mario who rescued him provides Chester with a cricket cage, but doesn’t know how to talk with a cricket, and so Mario is unable to provide the help which Chester most desires. Chester later meets up with Tucker Mouse and Harry Cat, best friends who also don’t know how to help, and have to settle with trying to make Chester feel at home. They start by showing off Times Square to Chester, who finds the towering buildings, flashing neon lights, roar of traffic, and hum of human beings to be nothing like his willow tree and running brook back home.

However, Chester is a curious cricket and so he decides to make the most of his new life, which starts out pretty good. Mario gives Chester his own cup, from which Chester can drink soda pop. Others at the subway station also take an interest in the cricket, giving him treats such as sundaes. At night, when Chester finds the cricket cage too uncomfortable, Tucker Mouse and Harry Cat come to the rescue by filling it with tissues and paper bills. The problem with the latter is that the money has been borrowed from Mario’s family, Chester dreams that it’s a leaf, and the next thing Chester knows…. He has eaten it! And so now Chester not only still desperately longs to go home, he also needs to find a way to repay Mario’s family for their loss. Oh my!

Tucker’s Countryside stands out less for its plot than its characters. At the end of The Cricket in Times Square, it seems inevitable that Tucker and Harry will one day go to Connecticut to see Chester. Sure enough, one spring day the two receive an urgent message via John Robin that their help is needed. All is not well with Tucker’s meadow. Houses are creeping closer, construction is closing in…. The story isn’t particularly a new one, but the characters remain original.

First, Tucker Mouse is back. Mice have been often featured in children’s literature. Two such books, Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH and The Tale of Despereaux, have even won the Newbery Award. Tucker is most notable for two reasons. First, he rivals Templeton of Charlotte’s Web for his scavenges. In fact, those are one of the reasons Tucker stalls for time when asked to visit Chester. How can Tucker leave behind a heel from a lady’s shoe? Or how about the pearls, which Tucker salvaged during rush hour after a lady’s necklace snapped? Then there are his beautiful buttons. Not to mention Tucker’s life savings of two dollars and eighty-six cents, all neatly piled up. Second, Tucker is known for his clever ideas. If not for him, Chester might still be in Times Square. Is it any wonder that now Chester wants Tucker to help save the meadow?

Second, Harry Cat also returns. There are dozens of fictional cats, including the one in Newbery-award winner It’s Like This Cat. Harry is most notable for being Tucker’s friend, but also stands out in other ways. He’s an alley cat, through and through, which gives him a tough side. However, he also has a tender side, which shows in how he can gently but firmly calm down Tucker who can get rather hysterical. Another cool feature of Harry is that he full of surprises. When the two best friends visit Chester in Connecticut, Harry seems to betray Tucker by becoming a house cat. It’s fun seeing how much street-wise Harry loves being pampered. Yet it’s equally delightful to discover that Harry has a second reason for allowing Ellen to get close to him, one that is designed to help his friends.

Third, of course, is Chester Cricket. He appears again as a main character, in a subsequent book which I’ll review next week. If you haven’t yet discovered Selden’s eclectic characters, you’ve missed out on one of the great joys in children’s literature.

My rating? Read them: Carry them with you. Make them a top priority to read.

How would you rate these books?

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