Hi there! Welcome one and all to the Cephalopod Coffeehouse, a cozy gathering of book lovers, meeting to discuss their thoughts regarding the tomes they enjoyed most over the previous month. Pull up a chair, order your cappuccino and join in the fun.
This month I’m featuring a book I read with my kids, so it’s middle grade fiction. If you’re interested in more adult-type of literature, I’d recommend IF NOT FOR YOU (chaste contemporary romance) by Debbie Macomber, or STARTING FROM SCRATCH (transgender romance) by Jay Northcote.
I live in a town close to Chicago–we share a border with the city in fact–so we’re often lucky enough to be a stop for children’s authors and artists on tours, especially because we have a charming indie bookstore which organizes school visits. That’s how we met Jon Agee who happened to illustrate MEAN MARGARET, a National Book Award Finalist for Young People’s Literature (1997) written by Tor Seidler.
About the book:
Question: What do a pair of newlywed woodchucks, a squirrel, a testy snake, a skunk, and a couple of bats have in common with a family of pudgy human beings named Hubble? Answer: Their lives are all turned topsy-turvey by a tyrannical toddler named Margaret.
Question: Will Margaret ever realize that there’s more to life than being mean? Answer: Read this touching comedy and find out.
Truly, this book wouldn’t have been in my usual pick-ups, but Mr. Agee is an engaging artist, and my son begged to see him up-close and personal, and the cover was good, so I said what the heck and got him to sign it for us. (With a few other picture books he’s written and illustrated and this kids adore.) I couldn’t embrace the title–MEAN MARGARET–which was why I didn’t think I’d like it.
So, the story, at it’s heart is about changing one’s behavior. It’s mostly a story about Fred, a fussy woodchuck, who really doesn’t like to get dirty, or dig in the dirt, or be much like other woodchucks. But Fred can’t deny his nature, not when his cold shoulder keeps him from sleeping and he believes the only way to ease the ache is to find a wife. Not just any woodchuck will do for Fred, however, and after much searching, he finds Phoebe, the kindest, sweetest woodchuck who is also shy, and neat, like Fred. And they’re living a mostly quiet, happy life until one day human children abandon their demanding toddler sister in the woods outside Fred and Phoebe’s den–and Phoebe decides she must adopt the human. Fred, because he loves Phoebe, goes along on this madcap adventure, forsaking all his earlier pretensions, and being fussy and tidy, in order to appease this voracious, crabby, ungrateful being–and make Phoebe happy. And Margaret, named by Phoebe, is a brat who must learn to behave. Or else.
My boys laughed a good bit, and the story–though it started slow for me–becomes very engaging. Margaret is the ninth child of a slovenly family and the living embodiment of adage “the squeaky wheel gets the grease.” Her constant clamoring for more attention and more food have driven Six, Seven, and Eight to the desperate measures that lead to Margaret meeting Fred and Phoebe. Soon, Margaret outgrows the woodchuck den–not before mostly destroying it–and Phoebe and Fred must move into a dank cave with a menagerie of forest folk who assist with Margaret’s care, until she wears out her welcome by, yes, being a brat. The humor is sweet, and wry, especially because Fred is such a deadpan wit of a narrator, so I relished those moments where I got a joke that was lost on the kiddos.
For a book I wouldn’t have borrowed from the library, it’s now become a cherished part of our own collection, and I’m sure I’ll read it again in couple years when my 4-year old will enjoy it more. So, yeah, the title was a turn off for me, but the book as charming and I totally get why it was a finalist for a National Book Award.
Thanks for popping in, and hop on over to my see what books my fellow Coffeehouse Reviewers found most interesting this month.