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The Reading Life: Chester Cricket's tale of the city

January 5, 2011 |  6:00 am

Crickettimessq My favorite books for kids are those that start out naturalistically and then go quietly, gently off the rails. "Charlotte's Web" is a perfect example: E.B. White's descriptions of New England farm life are so precise, so deftly rendered, that it seems entirely believable when the animals start talking and Charlotte begins to spell out words in her web.

This, of course, is one of the wonders of children's literature, its sense of the world as mysterious, even magical, its recognition that there is much in daily life beyond our reach. At its best, childhood is like that also, although more often, it can be a landscape of arbitrary rules and inexplicable adult tension, in which too much happens (literally and figuratively) above our heads.

George Selden's "The Cricket in Times Square," which celebrated a quiet 50th anniversary in  October, is another book that, like "Charlotte's Web," takes place in a recognizable universe that has been tweaked to make a place for the wondrous alongside the mundane. It hasn't been overlooked exactly -- it won a Newbery in 1961 and was made into a 1973 animated film by Chuck Jones -- but somehow, I think, it's never quite received its due.

Maybe that's because of its similarities to "Charlotte's Web" -- both are evocatively illustrated by Garth Williams, and both involve, in part, a child developing an intense relationship with a creative insect -- or maybe that it takes place in Manhattan, where I grew up. It's hard, as a kid, to see the miraculous in the familiar, or at least that's how it seems to me.

Either way, "The Cricket in Times Square" is a subtle masterpiece, a story that unfolds almost entirely in the Times Square subway station, where a family named Bellini owns a small, beleaguered newsstand. One evening, the Bellinis' young son Mario hears the chirping of a cricket and makes the displaced insect his pet. We see the development of a bond between them, as well as the growing friendship between the cricket, whose name is Chester, and two other animals who call the station home: Tucker Mouse and Harry Cat. The first time, Chester sees Harry, he is terrified that the cat is after Tucker, but the two city-dwellers set him straight.

"Hello," said Chester. He was sort of ashamed because of all the fuss he'd made. "I wasn't scared for myself. But I thought cats and mice were enemies."

"In the country, maybe," said Tucker. "But in New York we gave up those old habits long ago. Harry is my oldest friend. He lives with me over in the drain pipe."

This is my favorite scene in the book, with its understanding of the urban promise, the idea that in the city, we can (must) somehow set our tribalism aside. It's as hopeful a moment as can be imagined, because if cats and mice can get along, why not human beings?

The same is true of the rest of the book, which is expansive, optimistic, marked by a sense of New York as a place of wonder, "full of the roar of traffic and the hum of human beings," in which "Times Square were a kind of shell with colors and noises breaking in great waves inside it."

That's great writing, concrete enough for kids yet nuanced enough for adults, and each time I read it, I fall in love with Manhattan all over again. How could I not, especially after Chester begins to play arias and pop standards that draw hundreds of customers to the Bellinis' newsstand? Fifty years later, the message remains consistent: Everything is possible, after all.

-- David L. Ulin

Image: A Garth Williams illustration from "The Cricket in Times Square," in a limited-edition lithograph available from Every Picture Tells a Story. Credit: Used with permission of Every Picture Tells a Story.

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