One night I was coming home on the subway, and I did hear a cricket chirp in Times Square. The story formed in my mind within minutes.
—George Seldon, Wikipedia
Tucker Mouse. Harry Cat. Chester Cricket. These three creatures are George Selden’s most famous characters. I have loved all four books about them since my childhood. When my cat Lucy took sick back in December of 2013, I pulled the set from my shelves to read aloud during her convalescence. Although she never recovered, our family’s three current pets have been treated to hearing one chapter per day.
The unique plot is what most stands out to me about The Cricket in Times Square. You see, it involves a cricket who one day while on his stump in Connecticut follows the smell of liverwurst to a picnic basket. Already you can tell this will be a most unusual story, because whoever heard of a cricket being the main character of a story? Moreover, whoever heard of one who loves liverwurst? This particular cricket hops inside the basket, and after nibbling on a bunch of other delectable foods, Chester falls asleep. The next thing he knows…. The basket is on a moving train with him inside. The train doesn’t stop until it reaches Times Square.
The rest of the story is about how Chester, like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, just wants to go home again. Problem is, Chester doesn’t know how. The boy Mario who rescued him provides Chester with a cricket cage, but doesn’t know how to talk with a cricket, and so Mario is unable to provide the help which Chester most desires. Chester later meets up with Tucker Mouse and Harry Cat, best friends who also don’t know how to help, and have to settle with trying to make Chester feel at home. They start by showing off Times Square to Chester, who finds the towering buildings, flashing neon lights, roar of traffic, and hum of human beings to be nothing like his willow tree and running brook back home.
However, Chester is a curious cricket and so he decides to make the most of his new life, which starts out pretty good. Mario gives Chester his own cup, from which Chester can drink soda pop. Others at the subway station also take an interest in the cricket, giving him treats such as sundaes. At night, when Chester finds the cricket cage too uncomfortable, Tucker Mouse and Harry Cat come to the rescue by filling it with tissues and paper bills. The problem with the latter is that the money has been borrowed from Mario’s family, Chester dreams that it’s a leaf, and the next thing Chester knows…. He has eaten it! And so now Chester not only still desperately longs to go home, he also needs to find a way to repay Mario’s family for their loss. Oh my!
Tucker’s Countryside stands out less for its plot than its characters. At the end of The Cricket in Times Square, it seems inevitable that Tucker and Harry will one day go to Connecticut to see Chester. Sure enough, one spring day the two receive an urgent message via John Robin that their help is needed. All is not well with Tucker’s meadow. Houses are creeping closer, construction is closing in…. The story isn’t particularly a new one, but the characters remain original.
First, Tucker Mouse is back. Mice have been often featured in children’s literature. Two such books, Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH and The Tale of Despereaux, have even won the Newbery Award. Tucker is most notable for two reasons. First, he rivals Templeton of Charlotte’s Web for his scavenges. In fact, those are one of the reasons Tucker stalls for time when asked to visit Chester. How can Tucker leave behind a heel from a lady’s shoe? Or how about the pearls, which Tucker salvaged during rush hour after a lady’s necklace snapped? Then there are his beautiful buttons. Not to mention Tucker’s life savings of two dollars and eighty-six cents, all neatly piled up. Second, Tucker is known for his clever ideas. If not for him, Chester might still be in Times Square. Is it any wonder that now Chester wants Tucker to help save the meadow?
Second, Harry Cat also returns. There are dozens of fictional cats, including the one in Newbery-award winner It’s Like This Cat. Harry is most notable for being Tucker’s friend, but also stands out in other ways. He’s an alley cat, through and through, which gives him a tough side. However, he also has a tender side, which shows in how he can gently but firmly calm down Tucker who can get rather hysterical. Another cool feature of Harry is that he full of surprises. When the two best friends visit Chester in Connecticut, Harry seems to betray Tucker by becoming a house cat. It’s fun seeing how much street-wise Harry loves being pampered. Yet it’s equally delightful to discover that Harry has a second reason for allowing Ellen to get close to him, one that is designed to help his friends.
Third, of course, is Chester Cricket. He appears again as a main character. If you haven’t yet discovered Selden’s eclectic characters, you’ve missed out on one of the great joys in children’s literature.
Reprinted from Allison’s Book Bag. This article is original in content and not to be reproduced without permission. Copyright 2014.