The Universal Notebook: Meet Mr. Gumpy, Mr. Putter and Mr. Magee
When it comes to children’s books, I prefer naturalism. I’m not a big fan of anthropomorphic animals, though Uncle Wiggly, Paddington Bear and Frog and Toad do pass muster.
One of the great pleasures of grandfatherhood is having little children to read to again. I now have four little ones who will listen as long as I am willing to read. At this point I believe I hold the world record for most readings aloud of "Mr. Gumpy’s Motor Car" by John Burningham.
I read it hundreds of times to my daughters and now I have read it scores of times to my grandchildren. There is something about the simple repetition of that innocuous little story of a man taking kids and farm animals for ride (not to mention Grampy’s superb sound effects) that mesmerizes children.
Perhaps because I’m getting to be a bit of a codger myself, I find I quite like stories that feature old men. Our copies of "Mr. Gumpy’s Motor Car" and "Mr. Gumpy’s Outing" got so well-worn I had to replace them. I’m also very partial to Mr. Putter.
The Mr. Putter and Tabby series by Cynthia Rylant and illustrator Arthur Howard now number some 20 titles; among our favorites are "Mr. Putter and Tabby Pick the Pears," "Mr. Putter and Tabby Bake the Cake," "Mr. Putter and Tabby Spin the Yarn," and "Mr. Putter and Tabby Fly the Plane."
These homely stories of old Mr. Putter and his fine cat Tabby turn the ordinary into amusing and intelligent little life adventures. And Mr. Putter’s old purple Buick makes me wax nostalgic for the cars of my youth.
I also highly recommend the Mr. Magee stories by Maine’s own Chris Van Dusen. "Down to the Sea with Mr. Magee," "A Camping Spree with Mr. Magee," and "Learning to Ski with Mr. Magee" are much more fanciful than the Mr. Gumpy and Mr. Putter stories, but they are grounded in Maine realities – and they rhyme. Van Dusen has become a favorite of my grandchildren, who have nearly memorized some of his other books, "If I Built a House," "If I Built a Car," and "The Circus Ship."
Maine, of course, has been home to some of the greatest picture book author-illustrators of all time: Barbara Cooney, Robert McCloskey, Margaret Wise Brown and Dahlov Ipcar. Cooney’s "Miss Rumphius," McCloskey’s "One Morning in Maine," Brown’s "Goodnight Moon" and Ipcar’s "The Cat At Night" are classics of children’s literature. Chris Van Dusen will be there soon.
Whether Mr. Gumpy, Mr. Putter and Mr. Magee, all of whom live alone, are bachelors, divorcees or widowers is never explained, but something about these singular fellows is very comfortable and familiar. Personally, I don’t much care for disturbing children’s books. Chris Van Allsburg’s "The Polar Express" and "Jumanji" just creep me out.
I also confess I find that many children’s books seem designed to appeal to the adults who purchase them. Such is the case with a book I purchased for Christmas and wished I hadn’t. "The Day the Crayons Quit," written by Drew Daywalt and illustrated by Oliver Jeffers, made a lot of best-books-of-the-year lists, but I guess I should have read it before I bought it. It takes the form of letters from different crayons complaining about the way they are used. I don’t think little kids get it and I didn’t find it all amusing.
But lest I leave what is intended to be an upbeat column on a down note, let me recommend one more picture-book series that is so popular with my family that I just ordered five more titles. "Katie Morag and the Two Grandmothers," "Kate Morag and the Tiresome Ted," and "Kate Morag Delivers the Mail," written and illustrated by Mairi Hedderwick, are realistic stories of life on a Scottish island, but I always think of Vinalhaven when I read them.
I write for a living because I love language. I love children, too. I have tried writing a children’s book (about all the houses I lived in growing up, a dozen or so in all), but it’s not as easy it might seem. Still, words and pictures, written and spoken language, never coalesce quite as pleasurably or as meaningfully as when I am snuggled up with a book and a little one. Or two. Or three.