March 23, 2017
(+++) OLD-FASHIONED AND PROUD OF IT
The Pyes, No. 1: Ginger Pye. By Eleanor Estes. Illustrated by the author. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $6.99.
The Pyes, No. 2: Pinky Pye. By Eleanor Estes. Illustrations by Edward Ardizzione. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $6.99.
The Magnificent Mya Tibbs: Spirit Week Showdown. By Crystal Allen. Illustrations by Eda Kaban. Balzer+Bray/HarperCollins. $6.99.
The Magnificent Mya Tibbs No. 2: The Wall of Fame Game. By Crystal Allen. Illustrations by Eda Kaban. Balzer+Bray/HarperCollins. $16.99.
Not so long ago, books for young readers did not need a lot of plot or action to succeed – they could simply meander pleasantly through family stories, offering low levels of drama and exploration and reveling in characterization rather than events. Hmm. Maybe that was a long time ago. Eleanor Estes (1906-1988) created quite a few books of this type, in particular her stories of the Moffats (1940s) and Pyes (1950s), largely based on her own memories of turn-of-the-20th-century childhood. In truth, the books have not worn particularly well, being too bound up in their time period to translate well to the far more frenetic pace of life in the 21st century. They have an air of faintly faded nostalgia about them and may be better as read-alouds nowadays than as books for preteens to read on their own – their slow pace and gradual unfolding of events are just too different from what young readers are now accustomed to in both literature and life for them to be readily enjoyed. This observation applies to both animal-focused books about the Pyes of Cranbury, Connecticut, the first of which, Ginger Pye (1951), includes Estes’ own pleasant illustrations and was a Newbery Medal winner. Indeed, it was Estes’ only Newbery winner, although three of her other works were Newbery Honor books. Today it is a trifle hard to see what all the fuss was about. The title character in Ginger Pye is the family dog, a puppy that appears and then sort-of-mysteriously disappears. The family is designed to be gently quirky: Mr. Pye is a “bird man” (ornithologist) who is supposed to solve the nation’s bird problems; Mrs. Pye is a homemaker known for being the youngest housewife in town, because she was 17 when she literally bumped into Mr. Pye, who was 35; and the kids, who have little unusual about them and are intended as “everykids,” are 10-year-old Jerry and nine-year-old Rachel. There are also Mrs. Pye’s brother, Bennie, who is only four and became an uncle at age three, and an old cat named Gracie who is able to unlock the front door. The modesty of the story is shown in the way that one of Ginger’s big accomplishments is finding a pencil and bringing it to school; the not-very-hard-to-figure-out mystery of Ginger’s disappearance hints slightly at animal cruelty when it turns out he was tied up in a shed. The book is essentially a slice-of-small-town-life story, written in the time of today’s preteens’ grandparents and set decades earlier – sweet and mostly pleasant in its way, but scarcely likely to engage many modern young readers.
The sequel is Pinky Pye (1958), and this time the title character is a kitten found during the Pye family’s summer vacation on Fire Island. There are a couple of slight twists here, the most interesting being that Pinky can type – a throwback to a really old notion created in 1916 by newspaper columnist Don Marquis, of a cockroach-and-alley-cat pair that contributed humorous social commentary through stories written entirely in lower-case letters, because the authorial cockroach could not hold down the shift key when jumping on the typewriter. The characters were named archy and mehitabel and were illustrated by George Herriman of Krazy Kat fame. And yes, in some quarters they are still remembered: a wonderful editorial in Science magazine, of all places, written in 2007, of all years, was said to be dictated by mehitabel and typed by archy. Whether or not Estes intended homage to Marquis through Pinky’s typing, the fact is that the story of Pinky Pye has the same distinctly old-fashioned flavor as the old pieces by Marquis, and the same sense of rather fusty charm. Apt adjectives for this tale are “gentle,” “sweet,” “rambling,” “charming,” “cute,” “light-hearted,” “adorable” – positive words one and all, but indicating a bit of a surfeit of happiness and a distinct lack of drama that many contemporary preteens will find on the dull side. The new paperback editions of these Estes books are welcome, and both books deserve to be called classics of children’s literature; but much like classics of literature for adults, they may be honored by the title while still being rather off-putting to residents of a later time.
Some similar adjectives apply to Crystal Allen’s books about The Magnificent Mya Tibbs, but these books are designed to have more-contemporary flair. The first, Spirit Week Showdown, was originally published last year and is now available in paperback; the second, The Wall of Fame Game, is new. Intended for ages 8-12, these books will probably be of most interest to the narrower age range of 8-10, just as Estes’ Pye books are likely to be most engaging for children younger than preteens. In Allen’s novels, Mya is a nine-year-old who is stereotypically well-meaning but prone to making mistakes. She is obsessed with cowgirls and inclined to tell tall tales. In the first book, her predilections get her in trouble and result in her being nicknamed “Mya Tibbs Fibs” and ostracized by the whole school. She also ends up being paired for Spirit Week with the school bully, Connie Tate. Initially desperate to get her friends back – at least the girls she thinks are her friends – Mya keeps getting more deeply into minor but, for a fourth-grader, emotionally significant trouble. All this occurs against the background of the upcoming Spirit Week, which means Mya has no choice but to deal with Connie, whom she discovers to be different from what everyone thinks and maybe not so bad at all. Everything ends well, and Allen is careful throughout to put only small bumps in exuberant Mya’s road to understanding, happiness and success.
The second book follows the same pattern, albeit with a few differences. Mya returns, of course, along with her brother, Nugget, and their father and mother. But this time their mom is pregnant, and Mya is eagerly awaiting the birth of her new baby sister, already named Macey. Instead of Spirit Week, this time the challenge is the “Wall of Fame Game,” a rather odd contest in which children’s names are put on a wall if they are able to recite lists of facts. This seems as if it would be off-putting to Mya, and to readers of the books about her, but Allen makes it a big deal and an important part of the plot. Another major element is Mya’s determination to enter her mother in the annual chili cookoff – because one of the competitors, Mrs. Frazier, has commented that Mya’s pregnant mom has to stay off her feet and cannot possibly take part. Mya and her now-friend Connie, another returning character from the first book, work together to get everything to come out just right (this time Mya has a new nemesis, Naomi Jackson). Sure enough, everything does go nicely, if not always in quite the way that Mya expects. That, in fact, is the underlying message of both Mya books: things will be fine and all will be well, but life does not go just the way you want it to. Some young readers, and some parents, may find Mya rather cloying and annoying, with the odd expressions she sometimes uses and her pink cowboy boots; others will consider her quirky in a pleasant way for the 21st century, just as the Pye family was pleasantly offbeat for young readers in the middle of the 20th.