The problem with books about childhood is that they're always written by adults. Adults usually make one of two mistakes when writing about children—either they cast childhood in a golden nostalgic haze that mistakes innocence for naivete, or they imagine children to be far more mature and grown-up and somber than any child has ever actually been.
Eleanor Estes makes neither mistake in her many books about childhood and children, and this is especially the case with her classic dog story, Ginger Pye. The tale of 10-year-old Jerry Pye, his 9-year-old sister Rachel, and their fox terrier Ginger, this book reveals the thoughts and behavior of children as realistically as possible.
Jerry and Rachel are just two kids living in Cranbury, CT in 1919, enjoying healthy home life, adventures in the neighborhood, and telling each other the neverending story of Martin Boombernickles before going to bed each night. But everything changes when Jerry sets his eye on Mrs. Speedy-You-Bet's new litter of puppies.
On one puppy in particular, that is. The only problem is that the puppy costs one dollar, and Jerry doesn't have a dollar since his father, a bird man, isn't the wealthiest man in Cranbury. Fortunately for Jerry, Sam Doody (the tallest boy in town, captain of the basketball team, and church janitor) needs someone to dust the church for him, and he'll pay whoever does it one dollar.
When Jerry finally gets his dog, a brief shadow is cast over the situation when both he and Rachel hear footsteps following them, and see a brief glimpse of a person wearing a yellow hat. They hurry home, however, and after awhile they forget the whole thing, lost in their love and admiration for their new puppy, Ginger.
But tragedy soon strikes, and Ginger Pye disappears from the Pyes's backyard on Thanksgiving Day. What follows is a months-long search for the dog and the Unsavory Character in the Yellow Hat. While all ends happily, there are some frightening moments, and it isn't at all certain that Ginger Pye will be found during the long months of his absence.
This isn't just a mystery story, though. It's filled with all the wonder, sorrow, and outright hilarity of childhood itself, all written in Estes's brilliant way. She doesn't write as a child, but she writes with all the insight into the way children think and their motives that any adult could reasonably be expected to have.
Which makes for an extremely funny book. Both Estes's commentary and the circumstances occasioning it are among the most humorous in children's literature (or any literature, for that matter). Like the fact that Jerry and Rachel's Uncle Benny is a local hero because he's only three years old and an uncle. Or Rachel's confidence that "villain" is pronounced "villyun" because that sounds much more villainous than "villun."
Of course, all of this is much funnier in context and when presented with Estes's particular simplicity. Fans of her amazing series about the Moffats will be happy to recognize some of the same characters in Ginger Pye, though the Moffats themselves are only mentioned. And if you're worried about content, don't be—there's absolutely nothing to be offended by here, unless you're offended by families living together peacefully and going to church.
There is some reference to animal theft and abuse near the end of the book, but none of it is explicit, and it's cast in a very bad light. As mentioned above there are also a few mildly frightening scenes, like the Pye children being followed in the dark by an unknown shadowy figure, but these are more reflective of the way kids's imaginations run wild than anything else.
Ginger Pye is probably the most worthy winner of the Newbery Medal in the nearly 100 year history of that award. It's hilarious, wholesome, and perfectly suited for a young audience. Yet it's also the kind of book parents will be happy to read, since no one's credulity or intelligence is insulted. This is a great book, deservedly hailed as a classic, and we highly recommend it.
Review by C. Hollis Crossman
C. Hollis Crossman used to be a child. Now he is a husband and father, teaches adult Sunday school in his Presbyterian congregation, and likes weird stuff. He might be a mythical creature, but he's definitely not a centaur. Read more of his reviews here.
Review by C. Hollis Crossman
C. Hollis Crossman used to be a child. Now he's a husband and father who loves church, good food, and weird stuff. He might be a mythical creature, but he's definitely not a centaur. Read more of his reviews here
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