Fuse #8

Friday, March 24, 2006

Review of the Day: Henry and Mudge and the Great Grandpas

I'm more of a Mr. Putter and Tabby woman myself, but when early reader series books start lugging home awards, that's when I sit up and take notice.

As a general rule, you do not expect the 26th book in a series for early readers to garner for itself that many awards. I mean, you just don't. In the world of adult, teen, and older children's fiction, any book series that reaches #26 is going to start showing some wear and tear at that point. As for awards, books for early readers don't get that many. They don't! It really wasn't until just last year that the American Library Association decided to FINALLY get about awarding books for kids who are just beginning to read on their own. Called, appropriately enough, the Theodor Seuss Geisel Award, there was one absolute hands down winner this year and three good-natured runners-up. The winner? None other than book number 26 in the Henry and Mudge series, "Henry and Mudge and the Great Grandpas". Color me amazed. I'd read some of the H&M tales back in the day. They were nice but never particularly amazing to me. I mean, Cynthia Rylant has produced more series books for young readers than any other writer living. What made "Great Grandpas" so fabulous? Reading it through now, I still think that "A Splendid Friend, Indeed", deserved the top honor but there's no denying that "Great Grandpas" has a kind of charm that's difficult to resist.

You may not know it, but Henry's Great-Grandpa Bill lives not too far from our heroes Henry (boy) and Mudge (dog). He lives in a beautiful house with a bunch of old men, much like himself, and every once in a while Henry's family visits them. They play games and bring the house of Grandpas butterscotch, and books, and crossword puzzles. As you can imagine, they are very popular. One day, as his parents and the Grandpas stay indoors, Henry and Mudge discover a beautiful pond behind the house. Immediately the two return to the house and invite everyone out for some fine swimming. This is done, in lieu of bathing suits, in what the Grandpas call their "skivvies". Mom, as you might imagine, quite sensibly opts this one out. Then everyone comes home to spaghetti and meatballs and some fine fine sitting in rocking chairs on the porch at night.

I once worked in a library that had a young boy who attended a school for autistic children. He didn't care for much on my shelves, but the one series that earned his love and always had him coming back for more was "Henry and Mudge". The kid couldn't get enough of the books. I don't know if it was the doggish aspects of the story, the simplicity of the art, or the comfortable feeling a person gets from reading one of their adventures, but this boy was Mudge-crazy. In this particular outing, Rylant offers some gentle repetition that works in tandem with the plot. The Grandpas, for all their charms, tire easily. Often Mudge acts as a kind of support or pillow for those Grandpas. And the old fellow resting on the faithful dog is never the same Grandpa twice. Nice that. Together Rylant and illustrator Sucie Stevenson have conjured up a retirement home that all of us would be lucky to end up in. Beautiful scenery. Woods. Rocking chairs. Croquet. Heck, I'm in my twenties and I'm half tempted to find this house and settle down for the rest of my golden years. Who wouldn't want to? It sounds delish.

The plot is sweet and offers enough new and familiar words to help child readers everywhere. Especial kudos also to Rylant for making it very clear that Henry is not allowed to swim all by himself without a grown-up present. Aside from the "Gus and Grandpa" series by Claudia Mills, I don't think anyone's going to find a better early reader book for grandparents and kids to read together with as much mutual satisfaction. The book bears more than a passing resemblance to Mem Fox's classic, "Wilfrid Gordon McDonald Partridge", of course. In both books a young boy befriends an old folks home full of caring elderly adults. A comparison between the two isn't exactly fair, though. "Wilfrid" has layers and layers of depth and beauty to it, while "Great Grandpas" is just a wonderful romp with wonderful companions. All in all, this is just a great addition to an already strong series and one that more and more adults are coming to discover. Fun and fine and frolicsome.

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