Series Review: Mr. Putter & Tabby

It is finally summer, and if you have a fledgling reader at home for a few months you might be looking for a pleasant easy-reader series to help them practice until school begins again. I highly recommend Mr. Putter & Tabby, written by Cynthia Rylant and illustrated by Arthur Howard.

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It all begins with Mr. Putter & Tabby Pour the Tea. Elderly Mr. Putter lives alone in a grand old house. He enjoys tending his garden, listening to opera, and taking afternoon tea; but he longs for a friend with whom he can share his placid retirement. He decides to get a cat, but feels some alarm after encountering the boisterous kittens at the pet shop. He goes on to the shelter in search of a more suitable companion. He finds a feline just as old, creaky, and hard of hearing as he is. He names her Tabby, and their (very sedate) adventures commence.

We discover in the first book that Mr. Putter and Tabby are very content in each other’s company. They share their breakfast, tinker in the garden, and sit together in the evenings before bed. And they take lots of naps. Life is very nearly perfect. In subsequent books they meet the old lady next door, and their serene existence is delightfully jarred. Mrs. Teaberry is fun, sweet, and spunky; and along with her willful dog Zeke she brings joy to her dignified neighbors. Mr. Putter and Tabby find their daily routine happily interrupted by birthday parties, knitting clubs, boating excursions, and ballroom dancing. Mr. Putter always greets these suggestions with some reluctance, but ends up realizing that a little fun was just what he needed.

These self-contained stories are charming and well-written. Each is divided into three short chapters, so a young reader can sit down to however much they are comfortable reading at one time. The language is repetitive enough to be helpful, but varied enough to create intelligent and engaging stories. Cheerful, humorous illustrations provide readers with useful prompts and a genuine affection for the lovable characters. (Mr. Putter’s pathetic expressions before Tabby comes into his home are, quite simply, adorable.)

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A great many early reader series feature juvenile characters that are meant to appeal to children. Often fast and a bit sassy, such characters are not to the taste of every family. Rylant has created something quite different for new readers to enjoy. Mr. Putter savors the simple comforts that make a home, and values the little efforts that build a friendship. These books are filled with warm soup, home-baked goodies, copper tea kettles, comfy chairs and pots of flowers. The conversation is always very correct (Zeke is acknowledged to be, at times, “a bother”), and Mr. Putter’s wry reticence is teased along by Mrs. Teaberry’s general enthusiasm. They do practical things to care for each other, and enjoy all the little moments that make up a life well lived. And as for Tabby: “She was old, and beautiful things meant more to her.”

The many books in this series are all delightful, and they are readily available in libraries so you can keep your young bibliophile reading all summer long.

If you liked this series you might also enjoy: Poppleton, also written by Cynthia Rylant and illustrated by Mark Teague

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Review: A World Full of Animal Stories

Usually I like to review a series at the beginning of each month, but this time I want to share a collection of stories all in one bright volume. Since Christmas my children and I have enjoyed delving into A World Full of Animal Stories: 50 Folktales and Legends written by Angela McAllister and illustrated by Aitch.

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I love folk stories; they show us how to respect what is different and celebrate what is the same about other peoples and places. This book is like a treasure chest. The tales are organized according to their continent of origin (Africa, Asia, North America, South America, Europe, Australia and Oceania) and then each is identified more specifically by the modern country or tribe from which it came (Ghana, Brazil, Lakota, et cetera). The range of donor nations could always be broader, and I would like to have seen a fuller representation from South America, Eastern Europe, and the Middle East; but there is a good mix of cultures included that will certainly encourage young readers to stretch their minds around the globe.

The stories are told in the traditional spirit; most are witty moral fables or cautionary tales that encourage cleverness and punish pride. In most of the tales the animals can talk; in some they interact with humans and in others they deal only with each other. There is an emotive blend of humor and tragedy, wit and foolishness, lessons learned and opportunities lost. The result is a story for every mood and a universal reflection of this life we all live.

Each story is tightly packed on one to three pages, and can generally be read within ten minutes. They are well-written and expressive, paced to build the climax without giving the story away. Along with “The Ugly Duckling” and one or two other tales that are well known in the United States, children meet the fabled West African trickster Ananse, a Bear Prince and a horse named Dapplegrim. With titles like “Why the Warthog is Ugly” and “The Owl of Cowlyd Coomb” it is undeniably hard to stop at just one.

If I have a complaint about this book, it concerns the ratio of pictures to text. The illustrations vary pleasingly in size and scale, and portray the stories with brilliance; I would only like to see more of them, and I suspect that little folks would also enjoy more images to enliven the words they’re hearing. But this does not detract from the stories or imply that they are boring; it’s simply that I could never get enough of these gorgeous pictures.

This treasury would make a thoughtful gift, as it can easily provide hours of quality reading for everyone: from toddlers first learning their animals to middle schoolers beginning to appreciate just how big the world is. I am also looking forward to finding a copy of McAllister’s other book: A Year Full of Stories: 52 Folk Tales and Legends from Around the World. This volume is illustrated by Christopher Corr, and appears to be just as tantalizingly vibrant as the animal stories.

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Happy reading!

If you liked this book you might also enjoy: National Geographic Kids Stories: HeartwarmingTrue Tales from the Animal Kingdom, written by Jane Yolen and her children, and illustrated by Jui Ishida

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Review: Mr. Mehan’s Mildly Amusing Mythical Mammals

Today I have a new book to share, bearing a memorably unusual name. Allow me to present Mr. Mehan’s Mildly Amusing Mythical Mammals by Matthew Mehan and illustrated by John Folley.

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This ambitious book of poems features an imaginary creature assigned to each letter of the alphabet. The names of the animals are often a pun (as in the Evol, the Oominoos, and the Zealion) and their natures are explored in a poem for each with accompanying illustrations. Two of these beasts – the Blug and the Dally – venture along and meet the other animals, looking for friendship and discovering a colorful world of adventure.

The tone of the book is clever silliness, reminiscent of Lewis Carroll or A.A. Milne. It encourages development of a child’s magnificent ability to comprehend fact and fantasy equally, as the details of the fictitious beasts are presented in a variety of legitimate poetic forms along with genuinely clever wordplay and a staggering vocabulary. Fun rhymes and wild onomatopoeia are sprinkled with words like “dolorous”, “periegetic”, and “fiefdom”. The poetry is varied and smart, and the illustrations match the mood of each one.

Though each poem is artful and could stand alone, more serious is the arc of the poems when taken all together. As the Dally and the Blug progress they encounter animals with all sorts of habits and personalities. When they finally come to the joyful Zealion, they reflect that each animal is deserving of charity despite its faults, and that studied goodness is the only way to overcome the wrongs in the world. In short, brotherly love is the message here. This progression is sometimes confused within the sheer volume of detail throughout this fantastic journey, but the purpose ultimately emerges and we realize that even the more detached characters have played a part in helping us to understand the deeper meaning. Once this is clear, it’s impossible not to want to go back over each poem, combing for details.

The main text of the book is followed by lengthy appendices including a list of alliterations based on the animals’ names, a list of hidden things to look for in the illustrations, and an impressive glossary – half helpful, half humorous – of both the fanciful words and the antiquated or difficult words used throughout (and a fair smattering of literary wit and faith-based wisdom, too). An inquisitive older child might enjoy poring over these on her own, but the lavish details of this book were meant to be enjoyed by adults and children together.

The book is very nicely bound and of a lovely size; it has a huge array of activities and is clearly designed to encourage family reading time. It is intelligently put together, though perhaps so much so that not every reader will have an interest in or appreciation for every aspect (we are prompted to scour the illustrations in search of “an Oxford punting pole from the Magdalen Bridge Boat House” and “three Loeb editions, sort of”). Some of the poems could be a bit earthy for the modern reader – I am thinking of the Rare and the Tanglis particularly – but if you can handle Kipling you can handle these.

M5 (as it’s called) is a jolly, quirky book; perhaps a bit overwhelming at first glance, it materializes into something much more thoughtful, which takes time to explore. The theme so thoroughly permeates this volume – otherwise so frivolous in appearance – that it may take several readings to catch the meanings at various levels. For this reason it could be either a boon or a bore; for families who appreciate classical education, virtuous elevation, and a bit of bombastic erudition, this book is a worthy investment.

If you liked this book you might also enjoy: Big Words for Little Geniuses by Susan and James Patterson and illustrated by Hsinping Pan

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