Saturday, May 9, 2015

The Best Children’s Book You Never Heard Of



      When I was a child my father traveled often for work. Upon his return he would always bring me back a book as a present. One of those books was The Tales of Mr. Pengachoosa by Caroline Rush. This became one of my favorite books and one of the few I was able to liberate from my mother’s garage sales before I went off to college. It now resides on my daughter’s bookshelf and was one of her favorites as well. However, I have never met anyone else who has read or even heard of this book. That actually is not surprising. In searching the internet for information about the book, I found very few critical reviews, and those I could find were not very positive. On the other hand, there are reader reviews that extol the many virtues of the book. Apparently, I am not the only one for whom it was a childhood favorite. One review I found revealing was from a parent who had not read the book as a child. She felt the stories were half finished and could not wait for her children to lose interest. Whether or not this parent liked the book, apparently her children did. Perhaps one has to discover the magic of this book as a child in order to appreciate it.

      And there is magic in this book. Originally written in 1965, the story centers around a young girl who is suffering from rheumatic fever and is thus confined indoors. To keep her company, her father brings her a hamster that she names Hammy. One day she realizes she hears words among his squeaks. Apparently, she has a gift that allows her, when she is quiet and still, to hear things others don’t. The two then wile away the hours with Hammy telling her stories of the adventures of his grandfather, Mr. Pengachoosa. Each of these smaller narratives reads like a folk tale, and I wonder if they were inspired by older stories the author knew. One, in particular, titled “The Wishes” I recognize as a twist on the Zen story of the stone cutter. In addition, many of the tales have connections to the little girl and her family. They are often inspired by Hammy’s noticing a particular object in the girl’s house that then becomes central to his tale. As the story continues, however, the little girl gets better and needs to spend less time indoors and, therefore, less time with Hammy. The story ends with his escaping after she leaves the cage open. In the final line she recalls something he once said, “nevermind…we all have our own lives to lead,” and she reasons that “maybe now, he is leading his.”

      What I find interesting about this book, and the reason it may resonate so strongly with children, is exactly what critics find troubling. Many of the tales are left open, and there are questions both in the tales and in the book as a whole that are never answered. Is the little girl really hearing Hammy, or is it just a vivid imagination? If Hammy is speaking, are the adventures themselves real, or is he making them up as he goes along? What, if any, is the connection between the girl’s family and Hammy’s grandfather, Mr. Pengachoosa? None of these questions are ever resolved. It is left up to the reader to decide. For adults, this lack of resolution may make the story seem unfinished or even pointless. Children, however, are not generally bothered by such things, and many may even prefer this type of story as it offers a greater opportunity for personal creativity and imagination.

      The book is also missing another element common to children’s stories, that of the moral lesson. While not completely devoid of teachings, the story does not indulge in the heavy handed didacticism that is normally present in children’s literature. The principles that are touted in the individual tales are often more philosophical than ethical or moral, and not every tale has a meaning. Some of them are more of a connection to make or a mystery to solve. “The Wishes” for example tells of a time when Mr. Pengachoosa wanted to be more important. Hammy tells the girl that while his grandfather was well liked, as a gardener he did not feel special. Inexplicably he suddenly has his wishes to be someone else granted. He cycles through being a rich man, an emperor, the sun, and finally back to a gardener. The story expresses the Zen philosophy that everyone has their place; we should accept ourselves as we are. However, “The Seasons” is more about kindness and cleverness. Every few months, as the season turns, Mr. Pengachoosa meets a child in the woods, whom he gives a ride on his bicycle. It is implied by their description that these are physical incarnations of the seasons themselves. Each one gives him a gift as a thank you. When winter comes, he picks up a fourth child, thinking he is the sibling of the others. Unfortunately, he turns out to be a giant in disguise who has imprisoned the other child and does the same with Mr. Pengachoosa. Mr. Pengachoosa then uses each of the gifts to rescue himself and the boy. Yet another story tells of Mr. Pengachoosa meeting a mermaid who seems sad and wears an ugly weed around her neck. To cheer her up, Mr. Pengachoosa weaves her a prettier flower necklace and removes the old weed. The weed, however, was part of a spell placed on the mermaid by a fish to trap her. In removing it, Mr. Pengachoosa has traded places with the mermaid. Mr. Pengachoosa escapes only because the little girl’s grandfather catches the fish, which turns out to be the very fish she has just watched moved from her father’s study to the attic. Whatever the purpose of the tale, one thing remains constant. They all require the reader to use their imagination to fill in parts of the story.

      The final piece that may be missing for adults is the quintessential happy ending. The book ends with Hammy leaving, and the image of the little girl coming home to find the empty cage is indeed a sad one. However, this serves to emphasize several themes that resonate throughout the book. First, there are a number of times when the little girl is not very considerate of Hammy. In those times, Hammy retaliates by becoming cross and either hiding or refusing to finish his story. Again, the lesson is subtle, but there is a message sent regarding simple kindness. That same message reverberates through Mr. Pengachoosa’s adventures. In the end, though, Hammy doesn’t leave in anger. The clue is in the repetition in the last line, “we all have our own lives to lead.” As children get older they outgrow certain activities and, sometimes, even friends. They evolve and move on. It is a natural part of growing up. But just as some friends come in and out of our lives, so Hammy is with the little girl. There are two more books in the series where Hammy returns to offer more adventures, more magic, and more opportunities to use our imagination.

--Cheryl Jensen
     



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