books I love


greengablesI’ll always remember watching Anne of Green Gables on PBS (I think it was PBS) with my family and some of the vivid images: the dead mouse in the plum pudding, the Avonlea fashion, Rachel Lynde’s face when Anne insults her, the broken slate.

When I found out the miniseries was based on books, I quickly checked them out of the library and lost myself in the romantic, dreamlike prose of L.M. Montgomery. (How I loved the “of” construction—it sounds so dramatic: Anne OF Avonlea; Anne OF the Island, and my favorite, Anne OF Windy Poplars. Windy Poplars!!)

It’s funny—I just read a piece by Margaret Atwood talking about how the original novel, Anne of Green Gables, has just turned 100. Reading it again, the book seems so fresh and full of life that it’s unbelievable that Anne, Marilla, Matthew, Gilbert Blythe have all been around for that long.

The characters, the writing, everything just hums with energy somehow—I can understand why there’s such a huge Asian fanbase for Anne—her charm transcends time and race and place.

You fall in love with Anne Shirley and all her misadventures, and stay there—to Ms. Montgomery’s enormous credit—as she changes and grows. I’ve always admired the beautiful nature writing in these books that make a forest or garden on Prince Edward Island seem magical, but I appreciate now the equally masterful little touches that make Matthew so sweet and good-hearted, Rachel Lynde so tart-tongued but fiercely loyal, Josie Pye such an almost-lovable bitch and Gilbert Blythe so dreamy slash fucking hot.

It’s the character of Marilla Cuthbert, the thin, angular, crisp, no-nonsense spinster who takes Anne in and experiences maternal love (in a non-gushy way since she constantly keeps a prim and tight lid on her emotions) that stands out to me now.

The beauty of the love between adopted mother and child is the real romance in a book full of romance (The Lake Of Shining Waters, The Snow Queen, The Haunted Wood), and I find it even more touching as I’ve gotten older than I did as a kid.

Marilla, convinced she is plain and unlovable but stern enough not to care—at least not outwardly—finds new life through the brilliant, fairy-like Anne, and her wry comments that deflate Anne’s more flowery protestations are gems of dry wit.

This is a beautiful, beautiful book, throbbing with life, and I look forward to returning to it again and again. I wonder how the upcoming prequel Before Green Gables will be. Once I get it from the library, I’ll turn a Rachel Lynde-ian eye to its pages…

coverI loved whenever my parents would go out and my sister and I would get a babysitter. Suddenly, our house seemed new and exciting—who knew what kind of adventures we’d have while they were gone? Although this never happened, it was just exciting to have a babysitter: someone young enough to know all the pop culture references we loved, but also just old enough to be a little mysterious and cool. “Wow…Kat McNiel goes to HIGH SCHOOL! She has a BOYFRIEND! She went and saw Vibes in the theater and painted her room walls…BLACK!”

 

My parents, sweet and loving as they were, just didn’t have the same mystique that the Beastie Boys-loving Kat did when she’d show up on our doorstep (she drove!!) with the board game Sorry! under her arm and wearing a fedora. We’d sit around the kitchen table, playing, while she’d turn on the radio or MTV (forbidden when my dad was around), and my sister and I would just kind of stare lovingly at her: she was the coolest girl we’d ever seen.

 

One of the reasons why I love, love, love Eating Ice Cream With A Werewolf (besides the title) is that it reminds me of those days so strongly.

 

When Brad and Nancy Gowan’s parents go to Bermuda, they leave their kids in the care of wacky babysitter Phoebe Hadley, who brings along Dr. Curmudgeon’s Book Of Magic. Spells, zaniness and surprisingly touching moments follow. I always really identified with Brad to the point where I really felt like this book could have been about me. He’s quirky and goofy with a sweet, sensitive side. He struggles with the fact that he’s different from his former athlete father, he loves and takes care of his little sister (who’s inherited said athleticism) and he’s got a great, wry sense of humor. Okay, maybe an idealized version of me. Also: they live in Madison, Wisconsin.

 

The mother is a housewife/freelancer writer who hates housework (more inspiration!). What aspiring writer can’t identify with this passage:

When she sells a story, she throws her arms into the air and exclaims, “I may be a failure as a housewife, but I’m a success as an author!”

Whenever I enjoy a small success with writing (such as actually doing it), I feel that way: my life and apartment may be a shambles, but the dream’s alive!! This book inspired me then (and now) to want to be a writer, maybe, even to write kids’ books (I hope) as wonderful as this.

 

werewolf2Brad walks to school with his older, friend/semi-crush Julie Bugle, and he tells her about their previous adventures with Phoebe:

  • Cooking for crowds, which ended up with Nancy covered in cookie dough
  • Judo lessons, where she flipped the mailman
  • First aid, where she bandaged Brad so tightly they had to go to the emergency room to have him cut out
  • Lifeguarding, where she kept throwing Brad in the water to save him

Sadly, there are no pre- or sequels to this book, so these other adventures only exist in the mind. I have always wished that Phyllis Green would’ve written another book about these characters. This time, Phoebe shows up in a lavender jumpsuit, matching cape and huge purple tote bag. “I’m a mod, part-time witch,” she says, and pulls out a stuffed cat (she’s allergic).

 

Over the few nights they’re together, Phoebe and Brad cast:

  • A picnic spot spell
  • A barnyard spell
  • An ice cream spell
  • A boyfriend spell…or is it a WEREWOLF spell?!

werewolf3The title comes in while they’re casting a boyfriend spell (for Phoebe, sadly, and not Brad. Meh!), and get interrupted. When Phoebe resumes, she accidentally casts the spell on the opposite page, which Brad realizes is a werewolf spell!There’s a knock on the door, and it’s a hugely muscled delivery man named Ned with two tubs of vanilla-fudge ice cream. He’s a grad student at the university and Ned and Phoebe start falling for each other…even as Brad realizes how wolf-like Ned looks. Could it be that he’s a w-w-w-w-w-w-w-w-WEREWOLF?! (If so, he’s a sexy one.)

 

While my heart will always belong to Kat McNiel, Phoebe’s pretty freaking charming herself. She owns a plant shop called Fortunes & Fernery (she used to do free tarot card readings for patrons until they all started coming true) and names her flowers. She grew up rich in Philadelphia, but left it all to experience life…sadly becoming estranged from her family in the process.

“I just want to be happy,” she’ll say. “There are lots of things I want to do in the world. I want to do them all. I won’t go home and be little Miss Post-Debutante.”

While I was never anywhere close to that kind of life, I really could relate to the idea of needing to go out into the world on my own to find happiness and (I hoped) myself. Most gay kids who grow up in small towns do, I think.

 

There’s a really touching scene where Nancy wants Brad and Phoebe to play telephone with her. Nancy pulls out her pink plastic phone and pretends to call her parents and a series of relatives, friends and neighbors. When Brad puts her to bed (punishing her for making him play along by reading her a couple pages of Macbeth for a bedtime story), he comes back into the living room to see Phoebe holding the toy phone in her lap, dialing it.

“What are you doing?” I asked, startled.

“Making a phone call,” she said, straight-faced.

I decided to humor her. “Who are you calling?” I asked.

“My father.”

It’s her dad’s 49th birthday (so young, I think now), and, into the plastic phone, she tells him she loves him and it’s pretty damn poignant without being over-the-top at all. Brad is moved by this, and finally says aloud how he’s afraid that his lack of athleticism disappoints his father.

werewolf4Another emotional (but gracefully executed) moment occurs when Phoebe, Brad and Nancy all go to the zoo and see some marabou storks. Brad notices one in particular (Phoebe names him Hepzibah) who’s trying hard to fly, but one of his wings has been clipped. (While Phoebe and Brad are discussing living up to their parents’ expectations, Phoebe says, “I guess they want to take me back to Philadelphia and clip my wings. Like Hepzibah…[but] Hepzibah and I keep flapping!”) Brad decides to make Hepzibah wings that work out of old kites and tin foil and some other household supplies, but Phoebe gently tells him that the stork is in the best place for him. They go out for pizza, but later that night, after Nancy is in bed, he finds her putting on the wings. She helps him get into a pair of his own, and he asks what they’re going to do.

“Fly! We’re going to fly!” Phoebe said.

So we got dressed in the wings, and looking like two people-birds, we jumped off our front porch stoop and flapped as hard as we could. Neither one of us got airborne, but we had a fun time trying.

I love that image so much. Like that moment, the entire book is so understated, never overdoing the is-it-real-or-not aspect of the spells or the real emotion. Instead, Green gracefully pulls this all together with a charm and humor that appealed equally to the young boy I was and the man I am. Patti Stren’s illustrations play a huge part in this—charming and squiggly, they’re the perfect complement to the gentle cleverness of the book (even though I wish there weren’t spelling errors in her captions!). The book wouldn’t be complete without them. As it is, it’s beautiful and practically perfect in a quirky, sweet way that perfectly encapsulates something so personal and emotional to me.

werewolf5Phoebe and Brad part ways in a brief, tender, wordless scene, and the Gowans return. The book ends on a forward-looking note when they mention they’re going on vacation next spring, and they’ll need Phoebe again, to which Brad wonders what her hobby will be then.

Me too.

  • mrspwFinally, the original book in the series, and surprise–it wasn’t the way I remembered it! Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle doesn’t use any magic in this one, other than that (blah) magic of manipulation.

It’s funny, though, how most of my memories of the series were about this book: as I reread, I kept stumbling over passages and things that were instantly familiar to me, like the little hump on Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle’s back, which is “a lump of magic.” Oh, and how she dresses up like an evil witch and a cruel queen to show her first two child visitors how to enjoy doing chores! I loved that stuff, and when I was a kid, I wanted to make beds and wash dishes by hand like Mary Lou and Kitty by pretending to be a gorgeous blonde princess with “apple-blossom skin.”

Sigh.

Anyway, I think this book has the most satisfyingly unique cures, even if they’re not magical. There’s also quite a few of them, plus an introductory chapter of the titular lady herself. Continuity becomes a problem, though, when you look at this book and compare the later ones. Here, Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle built her upside-down house herself, and had just moved in, alone, when she starts helping children.

What? In the same book, we’re told that little boys enjoy digging for Mr. Piggle-Wiggle’s pirate treasure in the backyard, and in Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle’s Magic, there’s a whole subplot about him hiding money and jewels in the house for her to use after he’s gone. Whaaaa?

 Anyway, this time, Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle dishes out:

  • The Won’t-Pick-Up-Toys Cure – Hubert Prentiss is left in his room with all his toys, until there’s such clutter he’s trapped. To join Mrs. P-W and the children at the circus, he has to put his toys away.
  • The Answer-Backer Cure – Mary O’Toole gets a dose of her own rudeness when Mrs. P-W lends her Penelope the Parrot (yay!).
  • The Selfishness Cure – Dick Thompson won’t share until Mrs. P-W has his mother label all his possessions, leading to humiliation and humility.
  • The Radish Cure – In the best and most vivid of all the cures in all the books, Patsy (no last name) learns why not taking a bath is a bad idea.
  • The Never-Want-To-Go-To-Bedders Cure – Bobby, Larry and Susan Gray are allowed to stay up as long as they want…but when they start feeling the consequences, they wise up.
  • The Slow-Eater-Tiny-Bite-Taker Cure – Allen (no last name) plays with his food so much that, with Mrs. P-W’s special, tiny dishes, he gets so tired and weak he realizes that he needs to eat like a growing boy.
  • The Fighter-Quarrelers Cure – Twins Joan and Anne Russell get a taste of their own medicine when their parents pretend

There are some really funny moments in the book, especially when good old Penelope’s crossness takes over.

Mary brought her milk and cookies over by Penelope’s cage and was very surprised when Penelope blinked and said rudely, “Gimme a bite, pig!” Mary broke off a piece of the cookie and poked it through the bars of the cage. Penelope snatched it and said, “Thanks, pig!”

I also loved (then as now) the banter between Mr. and Mrs. Russell as they tease their twin girls with exaggerated imitations of them, shrieking at “a big black spider on my side of the bed!”

However, the high point in the weird, wonderful and slightly grotesque world of Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle occurs with “The Radish Cure.” My elementary school teacher always skipped over it, because she found it so disgusting. It kind of is, but not really. Basically, Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle advises Patsy’s mom to let her keep skipping baths until she’s built up an inch or so of “rich black dirt.” Then, using “small, red round radish seeds” (“not the long white icicle type”), they’re supposed to plant them on their daughter in her sleep. When the radish plants have three leaves, she can start pulling them.

“Oh, yes, Patsy will probably look quite horrible before the Radish Cure is over, so if you find that she is scaring too many people or her father objects to having her around, let me know and I will be glad to take her over here.”

The image is both fascinating and kind of gross: plants growing off a child covered in dirt. Of course, my elementary school teacher probably had a lower threshold for all things disgusting!

It’s not surprising that this book led to so many others: it’s very strong, and the groundwork is all here. It’s definitely the best place to start in the Piggle-Wiggle pantheon.

mrspwmagic Compared to the other books, I’m not sure that Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle’s Magic really lives up to its title. Sure, there’s magic afoot in all of the stories, but it’s not as creative and exciting as I remembered.

(On a side note, I always wondered if the star effect on the end of Mrs. P-W’s wand and at the top of her hat on the cover were meant to make her seem less like a witch. I used to live across the street from a family who wouldn’t let their kids play the video game The Legend Of Zelda because it included witches. I also remember a conversation I had with a wonderful woman I took Taekwondo with, where I told her I was excited about the premiere of that hot new show, Sabrina, The Teenage Witch. She told me that she wouldn’t let her daughter watch it, just as she wouldn’t watch Bewitched back in the day, because they glamorized witchcraft.)

Anyway, we get an intro chapter here, part of which I have never forgotten. Molly O’Toole is eating a candy cane and reading Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle’s big dictionary, when she accidentally drools juice on the colored pictures of gems. Mrs. P-W, of course, is totally cool and says:

“There’s nothing as cozy as a piece of candy and a book. Don’t look so embarrassed, Molly, I almost drool every time I look at those gems–which one is your favorite?–I think mine is the Lapis Lazuli.”

(Of course, back when I read it, I had to look up a Lapis Lazuli to see what they looked like, and while they were pretty, they wouldn’t have been my favorite!)

This time around, we get:

  • The Thought-You-Saiders Cure – A magic powder in the ears makes kids’ hearing hypersensitive.
  • The Tattletale Cure – Black licorice pills cause kids to exhale smoky “tattletales” that hang overhead for every time they tattle.
  • The Bad-Table Manners Cure – Lester, the trained pig (who cameos in Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle’s Farm) teaches good table manners by example and with a firm hoof. He even handles a mother’s attempts to serve him spareribs and bacon gracefully!
  • The Interrupters – Magic blowers render interrupting children (and parents) speechless.
  • The Heedless Breaker – More powder makes a little girl unable to move any way except slowly and gracefully.
  • The Never-Want-To-Go-To-Schooler – Tonic turns a little boy who keeps missing school stupid until he’s shamed into returning.
  • The Waddle-I-Doers – More on this below–there’s no cure given.

My favorite moment in the whole series–and a testament to how much I love the absurd, even as a kid–occurs in the “Thought-You-Saiders Cure” chapter, where the Burbank children keep creatively mishearing things for maximum comic potential. While their father walks them to school, they ask Marilyn Matson’s mother if she’ll be coming to school with them, but Marilyn “fell in her coaster and hurt her head.”

“Now what’s so funny?” Mr. Burbank asked.

Darsie said, “Marilyn’s mother said Marilyn fell in the toaster and is burnt up dead.”

I remember giggling, giggling, GIGGLING over that line–it’s a sucker-punch you don’t expect. The absurd extreme of falling into a toaster and “burning up dead” in a book as sweet (mostly) as these tickled me then, and does now.

And, like all the great children’s book authors, MacDonald mingles the sweet with the spiky–the tattletales flying out of Wendy and Timmy’s mouths hang grotesquely above them, multiple tales wagging; there’s real pathos when Jody Jones finds himself unable to read, count or do anything but watch “the candle wax drip down the candles in the middle of the table.”

One of my favorite moments in the book is when Mr. Franklin, the father of the interrupting children, asks his wife why she doesn’t use flowers in her flower arrangements.

Mrs. Franklin smiled indulgently at her husband and began explaining, “Flower arranging is an art–“

Later, after her youngest son interrupts her to mention his freshly caught little green frog, he suggests that it would be the perfect addition to her arrangements.

“Why, Stevie, what a wonderful idea,” said Mrs. Franklin excitedly, “But how would I get him to stay in the bowl?”

“Oh, Cheeper’d stay,” said Stevie. “He’s awful tame. He does just anything I want him to.”

The most interesting thing about this book is the last chapter, “The Waddle-I-Doers.” Mimi and Lee Wharton are upset that it’s raining on a day when Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle was leading a hike and picnic to Big Rock. They don’t want to do anything until Mrs. P-W invites them over for lunch and dinner.

On the way there, the storm has flooded the streets, and I love how MacDonald presents the feeling of a heavy rain making your familiar neighborhood unfamiliar. On the way, stuck in a storm drain, Mimi finds a black silk scarf. At Mrs. P-W’s, she discovers that it contains a piece of pirate gold.

While Mimi’s still marveling at her luck, Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle shares some backstory, describing how she ended up with an upside-down house (Mr. Piggle-Wiggle flipped the blueprints of a regular house) and how she’s been paying the bills and buying the gingerbread (hidden treasure drawers left by Mr. P-W).

Whether she is being sincere, or this is another manipulative cure for “Waddle-I-Do-Itis,” she tells the children that she’s out of money, and couldn’t have afforded to go on the picnic if it hadn’t rained. She asks them all to search her house for the remaining hidden drawers and cupboards. Mimi’s pirate coin brings her luck and she finds a secret door in the attic that contains enough treasure to last Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle for the rest of her life. Shortly after, Dick Thompson finds a note from Mr. P-W to his wife in the basement.

Dear Wife:

My last secret cupboard is very hard to find so I am leaving this letter on your gardening shelf in the basement as I am sure that before too many years this shelf will become so crowded and cluttered you will have to clean it off and then you will find this letter. The last secret cupboard of treasure is behind the chimney in the attic. Just jerk hard on that old loose board.

Your loving husband,

Mr. Piggle-Wiggle

It’s frustratingly oblique–no personal touches, no big reveal, no, “I will always love you” to the Mrs. We’re never told (unsurprisingly) how/when Mr. P-W died, but he must have had some inkling since he had time to plan this elaborate scavenger hunt. (Guess a savings account wasn’t as sexy.)

Even so, then, as now, I love the idea of hidden treasure, and wouldn’t it be fantastic to be searching an old house for jewels and gold and money during a thunderstorm by candlelight? My favorite thing about this book has always been that sense of adventure on a rainy day, that your own house can have magical surprises for you, and who knows what’s going to wash down the street during a storm?

I remember looking out at the rain as a kid, the outside world suddenly a scary and exciting place making being inside so much cozier and warmer. I miss that feeling of security but this book helped remind me a little of it.

mrspwfarmThis was always my least-favorite of all the Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle books, mostly because she no longer uses magic cures on the children who need them. Instead, she’s left town and bought a (not the) farm full of intelligent animals. With their help (and, if you think about, some really fucked-up manipulation–more on this later), she dishes out:

  • The Not Truthful Cure
  • The Pet Forgetter Cure
  • The Destructiveness Cure
  • The Fraidy-Cat Cure
  • The Can’t Find It Cure

With the exception of “The Not Truthful Cure” (where exercise, farm work and Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle’s patience solve the problem), the other cures come about by rather serendipitous occurrences that place the children in situations where they have to overcome their own faults. These cures also come with the children facing scary consequences if they don’t change their ways–injury to themselves, to animals or to Mrs. P-W herself.

Here’s how it breaks down:

  • Rebecca Rolfe, the pet forgetter, is left alone on the farm to take care of the animals. The caveat she’s given is to make sure that the ducklings and goslings are locked up safely at night so that Pulitzer the owl can’t get them. She, of course, “forgets the pets” and, in an eerie nighttime scene, has to rush to fend off the hungry owl with a broom. Surprise, though–it turns out that Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle has “forgotten” Rebecca, and she spends several hours locked out of the house at night, crying.
  • Jeffie Phillips, who takes things apart without being able to put them back together, hence, destructiveness, unsuccessfully tries to “fix” various things on Mrs. P-W’s farm, including the gate of Fanny the pig’s pen. Fanny’s an unpleasant bitch to begin with, but Jeffie tickles her with a switch until she breaks free and chases him, snapping. He’s stuck, hanging upside down in a tree while she bites at him until Penelope, the talking parrot, saves him by imitating her owner.
  • Phoebe Jackstraw is a fraidy-cat who is waiting for Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle to return from the basement with some apples to peel. After waiting a long time–and searching the house and farm–she goes down to the cellar and finds Mrs. P-W in the dark with a heavy barrel of apples on her ankle, “faint with pain.” She has to ride the horse to the neighbors’ farm for help.
  • Morton Heatherwick gets the “Can’t Find It Cure” when Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle sends him to search for her cow Arbutus’s newborn calf before a coyote gets it. After some half-hearted searching, he naps and daydreams the day away before coming home and getting verbally smacked down by Mrs. P-W: “I am very disappointed in your, Morton. You haven’t been looking for the calf at all and the sun is going down and pretty soon it will be night and the coyote will come sneaking down from the hills and find the little calf and kill it.” Yikes, Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle!

Eeriest of all–Betty MacDonald drops little hints showing that Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle planned all of these events!

  • Even though she locks Rebecca out “by accident,” Mrs. P-W somehow remembers to fill all the animals’ food dishes and to leave them outside, where Rebecca can get to them.
  • Despite the fact that her cellar accident is supposedly just that, somehow Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle just happened to have saddled and bridled her horse so that Phoebe could ride for help.

The case could be made, cynically, that Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle is willing to endanger the lives of her animals (the goslings and ducklings, in case Rebecca couldn’t scare off Pulitzer) and to even injure herself to cure these kids of their faults.

But I’ll let that slide and mention what I really did like about this book: its prickliness compared to the sweetness of the others. This is best embodied by Penelope the talking parrot.

Fetlock ran to the barn door just as a large green parrot plummeted to the ground out of the willow tree.

“Hi, parrot,” Fetlock called.

“Hi, yourself,” said Penelope crossly. “You mind your business and I’ll mind mine.”

“Polly want a cracker?” Fetlock called.

“Don’t be ridiculous,” Penelope said waddling up toward the farmhouse.

Along those lines, there’s more of a wry sense of humor at play in the writing. Mrs. Harroway and Mrs. Workbasket are discussing a cure for Fetlock’s untruthfulness:

“Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle,” said Mrs. Workbasket. “She is a dear little woman who adores children and knows just how to handle them. Really she has cured almost every child in this town of faults.”

“But how does she cure them?” asked Mrs. Harroway beginning to cry again as visions of Fetlock locked in a dark cellar and being beaten with chains floated in front of her eyes.

A little bit later, Mrs. Workbasket passive-aggressively suggests that farm work would be beneficial for Fetlock, because he “looks awfully puny for his age.”

“It’s his tremendous brain,” said his mother. “His brain is so huge it takes all the nourishment from his little body.”

“Be that as it may,” said Mrs. Workbasket drily…

Finally, there are still plenty of delightful little details that I’ve never forgotten.

The luncheon the next day should have been an overwhelming success. The table was decorated with pink tulips, a pink tablecloth, pink candles, pink napkins, and pink nut dishes. The main course was a maraschino cherry, walnut, marshmallow, pineapple, strawberry, cream cheese and cabbage molded salad, accompanied by pink biscuits. There were also pink mints and pink gumdrops. And luckiest of all, Mrs. Harroway just happened to be dressed entirely in pink with even pink gloves and pink roses on her hat.

I love how, with this book, this world is drawn a little more satirically but still lovingly. It’s obvious (and not surprising) that MacDonald sees the hardworking farm virtues as superior to the foolishness of the suburbs. And, more than any other book in the series (except Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle’s Magic), there’s a strong, poignant moment on the part of the good lady.

After being cured, Morton Heatherwick can now find anything, including Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle’s lost cameo brooch that he finds, wonderfully, “under the mash hopper in the chicken house.”

He put it in the egg basket and when Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle saw it she got tears in her eyes. She lifted it out very gently, washed it under the pump, pinned it on her dress, and said, “That was the very first present Mr. Piggle-Wiggle gave me. It means more to me than anything. Thank you from the bottom of my heart, Morton.”

As I said, this was always one of my least-favorite books in the series, but I appreciate it with new eyes now. I like how little glimpses into Mrs. P-W are doled out, like rewards for careful readers.

If only there were a prequel-type book about Mrs. (and maybe Mr.) Piggle-Wiggle…but, like finding out who and what Mary Poppins really is, perhaps mystery and magic are preferable. That doesn’t mean it isn’t fun to imagine the possibilities, though…

hellomrspwI still remember and love many of the books I read as a kid. In elementary school, the teachers would read out loud every day after lunch, and oftentimes I would get so into the story that I would check whatever book we were reading out of the library and tear through it.

One of the series of books we read in school this way were the Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle books. They were really, really charming, and, in case you don’t know, are about a kindly woman who helps neighborhood parents “cure” their children’s faults with a little magical help.

I don’t know why, but I’d started thinking about these books again. From time to time, I get hungry for books I’ve read and loved in the past, and I want to read them again. That’s how I felt about Hello, Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle, my favorite in the 1950s series. (I think I liked the fact that she was talking on an old-fashioned, “Marge, can you put me through to the grocer?” telephones on the cover.)

When I got it from the library (the huge LA public library system a far cry from the converted grocery-store-to-library I went to when I was little), I was happy to see that it was the same cover art I remembered. None of this reimagining for me–I want the covers of these kids’ books to look the same as when I first read them.

The book was just as charming as I remembered. Check out these names:

  • Meg Carmody
  • Edith Perriwinkle
  • Harvard Foxglove
  • Trent and Tansy Popsickle
  • Carlotta Semicolon
  • Priscilla Wick
  • Mary Crackle
  • Corinthian Bop
  • Harbin Quadrangle

I love reading about this charming, idealized world, of mothers baking “thick chewey chocolatey nutty brownies,” of play-coats and workbaskets. The problems these kids have are universal but solvable with love and a little magic, and basically, they’re all good people. Plus, the cures are creative:

  • Show-off Powder, which causes the child to become invisible until s/he stops showing off
  • Leadership Pills, which “evens things up” when “[children’s] bodies grow faster than their patience and kindess.” Plus, they taste like peppermint and are easily tucked into the crust of a warm apple turnover.
  • Whisper Sticks, with their “very nice flavor–sort of raspberry cherry,” that causes whispering, gossiping children to temporarily speak no louder than “a little noise, like someobdy brushing sugar off a shelf.”
  • Unnamed Slowpoke Spray, a little bottle of clear fluid that helps lethargic, daydreamy children (and adults) get a little (or a lot) more pep in their step
  • Crybabyitis Tonic, my favorite, which “tastes delicious, sort of like vanilla ice cream with caramel sauce” but causes the most drastic result of all: a crybaby’s tears flow out like a faucet, enough in the story to flood an empty playground.

While Betty MacDonald (a fantastic author…her adult stuff is wonderful, too) does include gentle winks above the heads of her young readers (especially in terms of the foibles of parents) and moments of real poignance, what stands out most in this, and all of the books, is a sweetness that’s pretty, well, magical. Melody Carmody, the crybaby, floods the playground with tears, unable to stop, until her friend Pergola Wingsproggle brings her “a darling little orange kitten.” Melody is able to smile and stop the tears, and her sympathetic teacher, Mrs. Rexall, takes her to the teachers’ room to get dry. She wraps her up in a blanket and hands her the kitten.

The kitten curled up inside Melody’s arm and the blanket was soft and warm and pretty soon they were both asleep. She woke up when Mrs. Rexall came in with her clothes all wrinkly but dry and then there was Mommy to drive the children home and school was over.

I love the way it’s said, gently, that “then there was Mommy to drive the children home and school was over.” There is and never will be any doubt that Mommy will be there, to pick you up, that life will ever be anything but orderly and full of love, and if you hit any obstacles, a loving adult and a sleepy kitten can help you get back on track.

I used to want to be a librarian, and a big reason for that was wanting to “live” in a world of the books I love, to never be far away from them and to have the opportunity to pass them along to others. It makes me happy to know that I can read something that was important to me 20+ years ago, and it still can move me.

Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle makes an appearance (or two) in each story, but you never find out much more about her than she has a sea chest full of magical cures from her late husband, the pirate; her phone number is Vinemaple 1-2345; and that in her house, which looks like a little brown dog sunning itself on its back in the garden, she hosts the neighborhood children but lives alone.

I’m reminded of a passage in one of the Pippi Longstocking books, where Annika worries that Pippi will be lonely living all by herself, and goes over to invite her to live with her family. Before she knocks though, she sees Pippi through the window, sitting at a table with a candle in front of her, with a huge smile on her face, dreamily staring off, obviously not in need of Annika’s charity. A little mystery like that is necessary, I think, for a magical character, and I love the beautiful ending of “The Bully” chapter:

As Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle walked off down the street in the dusk, her dog Wag on one side, Lightfoot the cat on the other, Mrs. Semicolon wiped her eyes with a corner of her apron and said to nobody in particular, “There goes the most wonderful little person in the whole world.”

slaveofnyI’m in the middle of a few new books from the library (and from Christmas), but I wanted to keep posting. So I figured I’d write about books that I’ve already read but keep going back to.

My friend Elizabeth (sadly, not really my friend anymore) mentioned this book to me the fall of 2003, when I’d moved back out to LA and jumped back into grad school. She, her boyfriend Craig and I would stay up for hours discussing books that we loved, authors we considered our pet finds…people we wanted to be and books we wanted to write. She suggested I read Slaves Of New York, but I already had.

I’d found it in a used-bookstore in Kentucky–the movie tie-in paperback with Bernadette Peters awesomely ’80s-makeup’ed out and wearing an ashtray hat and either Chris Sarandon or Nick Corri on the cover. (I’ve only seen Fright Night once, and, of course, any star of A Nightmare On Elm Street has more prominence with me.) By the way, I can never believe Bernadette as a normal person in movies–she has such a theaterical quality to her. When she’s emoting in the movie, I expect her to break out into song, or something along those lines to make Broadway critics cheer. Even though she physically fit the role, I didn’t really like her in it.

I can pick this book up any time, any place, and be interested in it. The artsy, ’80s New York mentioned is a place where I always wanted to visit, if not live. I adore Desperately Seeking Susan and Smithereens for the same reasons (and more)–the New Wave Alice in Wonderland quality New York has.

If you’ve never read it, Slaves is (loosely) mainly two narratives: jewelry designer Eleanor T.’s misadventures in life and love, and Marley Mantello, a crazy/beautiful artist. There’s some other, random stories (probably my favorite of those is “You and the Boss,” a Jay McInerney-ish second person short story about Bruce Springsteen that mentions the Hollywood Wax Museum) as well, but whenever I pick the book up, I always flip to the Eleanor chapters. Sometimes I remember a certain scene–Eleanor crying into her fondue, Eleanor and her bad boyfriend Stash at a zombie-themed horror movie release party–and I feel hungry to read it again.

There are some strange things about the book that I’d love to ask Tama–whose other work I was never able to get into–and some really strange, beautiful details that I find myself reading aloud to myself, enraptured in the way that writers fall in love with words: “Melinda was tiny and blond with the luminous dark eyes of a loris or some nocturnal animal.”

I love how wry the sense of humor is:

Daria’s mother, Georgette, comes up alongside. “This is the one I made,” she says, pointing to the coconut cake.

“Then I must try it,” I say. I eat a forkful. What a disappointment! The cake is illusory, I mean, it looks like a gooey, fluffy coconut cake, but some basic ingredient such as sugar or coconut has been left out. “Delicious,” I say.

I loved the book so much that I ordered the movie, used on VHS (it was out of print), from Amazon. It was disappointing (although Tama did make a cameo at the end) and needlessly complicated. I’ve only watched it once, and it took some effort not to fast-forward it.

But the book I return to, over and over again. There’s something about the bizarre details, the understated quirkiness…this is a world I want to live in. These are people I want to know. A specific place and time have been captured, and for those of us too late to ever experience it, I’m grateful.

My absolute favorite chapter is “Matches,” where Eleanor throws a party. Reading it always makes me feel hopeful and happy and thoroughly charmed (and wanting to step out on a fire escape in a pair of gold sandals and green satin Chinese pajamas).

And it has the perfect epigraph (a passion of mine), encapsulating the experience of living in New York in the ’80s (or, I’d say, Los Angeles in the ’00s).

But it wasn’t a dream, it was a place. And you–and you–and you–and you were there. But you couldn’t have been, could you? This was a real, truly live place. And I remember that some if it wasn’t very nice–but most of it was beautiful.

Dorothy, in The Wizard of Oz, MGM Pictures