Review of the Day: The Cricket Winter
It seems a little odd that the book Felice Holman is best remembered for is, “Slake’s Limbo”. That gritty urban drama about a boy living in the subway system of New York has captured the imaginations of thousands of child readers. So who woulda thunk that the same author would be capable of a sweet animal drama like, “The Cricket Winter”? Originally published in 1967, I would love to know the story behind its republication by Eerdmans Books For Young Readers. Now the story has been newly paired with illustrator Robyn Thomas so as to fill a hitherto unknown gap in children book collections everywhere. Part morality tale, part fable, the book is an entirely peculiar tale all of its own design. Some people will question its morality. Others its message. And though I cannot quite figure out what it is that the story is trying to say, I will proclaim it a most interesting tale that is definitely bound to inspire a great deal of talk. Again.
For you see, there once was a cricket in love. And, as the book points out, “a cricket-in-love is so tender and heartrending, so attuned to his love, that he is, for the moment, at least, quite perfect”. So this cricket was until the day he and his lady quarreled over how to raise their children. Seriously miffed, the lady cricket left our hero in his snug little home beneath the floorboards of a house, until the winter snow blocked up the entrance and he was forced to stay within. Meanwhile, the boy of the house, named Simms Silvanus “though he would have much preferred ‘John’” builds a telegraph key with which to speak in Morse Code. As it happens, the cricket is fluent in this code and the two converse together over the house’s big problem. You see, there is a rat beneath the house who is a scourge upon the building. He is currently starving a mouse family and is the bane of Simms’ father’s life. Now, boy and cricket must determine what to do about the rat, ethically, practically, and morally. And the answer is not an easy one.
I would dare say that, “The Cricket Winter” has more to say about being “good” than most preachy or didactic children’s books would ever dare. It raises some pretty shocking questions too. If a person is literally going to cause you and your children to die by their actions AND they have been informed of this fact AND they do not care, are you allowed to kill them? Does anything justify killing a fellow creature? If so, where do you draw the line? This book doesn’t delve quite as deeply into these questions as I might have liked, but it certainly goes further than most stories would. When a nice mouse family informs the cricket that the only thing to do is to kill the rat, rather than go along with this plan (as most fable or fairy tale characters would) the cricket is horrified. And rightfully so. Holman makes the entire situation out to be a state of war, and in war there is death. Still, does that mean that killing the rat is the last recourse? The characters in the book seem to think so. Needless to say, whether you agree with the cricket’s hand in causing the rat’s downfall or not, the book is certainly open to a great deal of discussion.
The funny thing is, the whole dead rat debate isn’t the only moral pivot of the story. There is also a dilemma the boy must face. Towards the end of the story, Simms has a choice. If he tells his father how he caught the rat he’ll earn the much-needed respect he’s wanted so much from his parent until now. On the other hand, if he tells his father where he found the rat, his father might well set traps around the rat hole and eventually kill the mouse family. Simms, therefore, must choose between his own desires and the lives of the innocent (or not-so-innocent, all depending on how you feel the mice influenced the rat’s death in the first place).
On top of all of this are Robyn Thomas’s new illustrations, filling out the tale. In the original publication of “The Cricket Winter”, the illustrations were done by one Ralph Pinto. They were detailed in-depth pictures with plenty of cross-hatching and delicate linework. All in all, the animals looked realistic. Now the book is drawn in a kind of dotty pen-and-ink style that seemingly bears equal thanks to both Peter Sis and Paul O. Zelinsky. With it, Thomas creates incredibly soft and rounded pictures that come off as sweet but not saccharine. Generally this gives “The Crickiet Winter” a far more fairy-tale feel than the original pics. The only time this style is a problem is when the rat appears on the page. Rather than the gross disgusting character we read about and that Pinto created in all his nasty glory, this rat is almost cuddly in a hard-eyed way. Just the same, Thomas shows real skill as an illustrator of this book. One can hope that we will find more children’s books bearing her name in the future.
After reading, “The Cricket Winter”, I felt deeply inclined to compare it to such other animal-related children’s books as, “The Mouse and His Child”. Both books deal with stories that mean more than just their plots and characters. There’s a lot to chew on in a book of this sort. I’m pleased beyond words to find that more children will now have a chance to experience “The Cricket Winter” on their own. Let us hope this will lead to the republication of more children’s books of the past.
On shelves September 15th.