One of the best birthday presents I gave myself (and Remy) is the brand spanking new umpteenth Mr. Putter and Tabby book, Mr. Putter and Tabby Spill the Beans. Rather than wait for my birthday proper (or, for that matter for it to be released next year in paperback), we read it on my birthday eve, because once it was in hand, we couldn’t wait a moment longer.
If I had to make a favorites list of children’s books, this series would rank extremely high. Mostly, series’ books like this, this many in, fall into that early reader—and by definition, somewhat formulaic—category, rendering them less than a parent’s dream read. No matter. Cynthia Rylant, author, and Arthur Howard, illustrator, so perfectly capture doddering Mr. Putter, his fine, elderly cat, Tabby (for example, Mr. Putter, no longer able to climb a ladder, has “cranky legs” and Tabby has a “cranky tail”) and his dear neighbor, the eccentric, fun-loving Mrs. Teaberry and her good, if occasionally troublemaking dog, Zeke that at least this parent has managed to stay utterly charmed for over a decade (having read these books to three children, and counting). Howard makes visual what Rylant paints with words; these characters that are not cartoon caricatures yet are realized with a loose, playful hand.
Short synopsis of Spill the Beans: Mrs. Teaberry, Mr. Putter’s neighbor and closest friend, wants to attend a cooking class—one hundred ways to prepare beans. Mrs. Teaberry tends to include Mr. Putter in her adventures, whether he is naturally inclined toward them—or not. Cooking? He’s not interested; his mind that day keeps drifting to a yearning for an ice cream soda. However, he’s so fond of his neighbor that he agrees to go along. Tabby and Zeke follow. The instructor says the pets may stay in class, under the table. Read the rest to learn what happens. Hint: think, table (and beans are prominently featured).
What a nice friendship for young readers (and sometimes, their lucky parents) to observe. Mr. Putter is old, although he’s young in his yearning for fun (fly a model airplane, play the horn) and treats (like the ice cream soda) and admirably steadfast in his earnest devotion to his friend, Mrs. Teaberry. In the name of friendship, Mr. Putter bakes Mrs. Teaberry a cake and walks her (not always so good) dog, Zeke. Mrs. Teaberry is at once a bit eccentric, competent, fun loving, patient and loyal. In the name of fun, she not only takes cooking class, she suggests they take a train ride and run a race. There’s a sweetness and sincerity these characters possess that makes them trustworthy and gentle. While there’s a misadventure to each of these Putter and Tabby stories, it’s always a very gentle misadventure, if sometimes uproariously so. Poor Tabby’s being is shaken by the presence of Mr. Putter’s pet fish, to hilarious effect. Yarn, dog on leash, paint… almost anything can border on vehicle for slapstick.
A kid who may be afraid of life’s next small adventure will find so much to relate to in Mr. Putter, how he pushes through his own resistance and often lands outside his comfort zone, only to do just fine, in his own way. I also love that sometimes Mr. Putter does for others and sometimes he does not complete a task he set out to do—write the book—but other times he does—bake the cake. He is a pretty fully realized character, for a series of books aimed at emerging readers. One thing I love about these books is that they are not about children. Having said that, Rylant so aptly describes some issues children deal with what’s more, she does so without being overt or at all condescending. Besides, along with all else she is doing, she is telling the tales of older people here: Mr. Putter is disappointed to win a race for seniors because the prize is golf clubs and he wants second prize, a train set (which Mrs. Teaberry wins, so they trade) and he couldn’t go out in a big snow for he was “too old” (although this meant he had time to attempt to write a mystery novel). Tabby, too, deals with being old. Upon seeing a squirrel on the porch Mr. Putter was painting (pink), Rylant writes: “And that’s when Tabby remembered how good she was at chasing things.” No surprise really that, “Mr. Putter’s porch just sort of painted itself.”
After we finished reading Spill the Beans, I pointed to Saskia and told Remy, “At least I’ve got one more kid to read all these books to. Then, I’m going to have to find some other kids to share them with.” Remy instantly volunteered our tiny pals, Eden and Alazne. I hope their parents won’t mind my coming over—Remy says he may join me—a few years from now bearing bedtime stories.