Posted in Book Lovers Community, Practicing Paideia

Freddy the Detective

You know the old adage not to judge a book by its cover?  Never was it more true than in the case of Freddy the Detective. I happen to own this book is several different covers. Not one of them properly recommends the story inside. In fact, prior to getting a really excellent recommendation on the book, I had no intention of ever reading it.  Freddy just seemed dumb.

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Last year I saw Freddy get recommended in our book club group again and again by really great readers. I kept wondering why. In particular, one of my favorite book/homeschool bloggers was expressing love for Freddy. I realized that there simply must be something between those pages that was compelling. I set it aside for a lazy winter day.

After Christmas this year, my kids and I needed something light and delightful. I reached for Freddy on a whim and was laughing within paragraphs. Written in 1932, Freddy has fairly sophisticated language, wholesome traditional values, a rich plot, and just enough whimsy to be worthy read-aloud material.

Without realizing it, we had walked into the middle of a series. Freddy the Pig is the central character in a series of 26 children’s books written between 1927-1958 by Walter R. Brooks. Freddy the Detective is the third book in the series. While it was obvious to us that other books must have come before Freddy the Detective, Brooks does not assume that readers have read them. So, while having read those books may have helped us get to know the characters more quickly, we did not feel as though there was a gaping hole in our understanding.

In this highly entertaining book, Brooks manages to capture the barnyard feel of Charlotte’s Web, the intrigue of Sherlock Holmes, the antics of Thornton Burgess or Beatrix Potter, and the classic Americana of The Andy Griffiths Show. It’s just plain smart. And funny.

Brooks makes a really interesting choice about the animal and human relationships. He furnishes his animal characters with keen intelligence, the ability to read, varied means of communication with humans (except speech), and self-government. The animals have a very complex and exciting barnyard social structure. They have an interesting relationship with Farmer Bean and his wife. They consider themselves (and apparently the farmer considers them) employees of the farm. Each animal has a role to play but they also have a lot of interplay with the humans. For example, the animals are welcome to move in and about the farmhouse during the day. That said, the animals cannot speak human words. Even though they can read and understand English, they cannot speak it. When they need to communicate with the humans, they have to be extremely creative. Brooks accomplishes this in entertaining ways.

We read this book as a read aloud. That said, we had several copies of it from the library book sale. And so, as I was finishing the second chapter on the second night, my nine-year-old was laughing before the jokes. I looked at him questioningly. “Mom! I couldn’t help it. I have a copy in my bed and I read ahead. Freddy is trying to solve one mystery but he ends up solving a couple of others first. It is so funny. I couldn’t stop reading it.” That was all that his seven-year-old sister needed to hear. She smuggled a copy into her bed and also read ahead. Regardless of how much they read ahead (or re-read for enjoyment), they insisted on me reading at our regular pace because they enjoyed hearing it so much. I would say that that was a read aloud win for us!

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Many of the Freddy books are available at Audible, including Freddy the Detective.

Posted in Book Lovers Community

Danny Dunn and the Anti Gravity Paint

In 1956, Raymond Abrashkin and Jay Williams published their first young reader science fiction book: Danny Dunn and the Anti Gravity Paint. Penned almost fifteen years before Neil Armstrong took mankind’s first steps on the moon, the science in this series is dated but still magical and full of wonder. Nearly seventy-five years after H.G. Wells’ publication of War of the Worlds, this brand of science fiction is about possibility instead of terror. At a time when science fiction was exciting and the thing that many little boys dreamed of, the Danny Dunn books are a snapshot of 1950s American childhood with all of its hope and traditional values.

Typical of boys of that era, Danny is smart, curious, respectful of his mother, and famous for getting in and out of trouble. While Danny’s age is never really mentioned, it can be presumed that he is in the 10-14 age range throughout the series.

Danny’s father died when he was a baby. To provide for her little family, Danny’s mother became the live-in housekeeper for an eccentric but wise physics professor at the local university. Professor Bullfinch serves as a loving, kind, and invested father figure in Danny’s life. The home life in this book is heart warming, traditional, and fun to read. Danny’s mom has a good bit of personality, Professor Bullfinch is reliably strong, and Danny could not love and admire both of them more. Through a combination of natural aptitude and the influence of an excellent mentor, Danny desires to be a scientist when he grows up.

In this first book, Professor Bullfinch discovers a substance which they dub “Anti Gravity Paint.” While the science is really unclear, it doesn’t resort to cheap magical tricks. There is a sincere effort to use scientific reasoning and what little information they knew about space to make this plausible. What we know now probably makes it harder to accept the ideas as credible theories, but it really doesn’t detract from the enjoyment of the story line. Perhaps a little bit like watching old Doctor Who or Star Trek, we just laugh at their misunderstandings of rockets and outer space.

Thanks to an emphasis on STEM and the celebrity status of scientists today, there are a number of science-themed children’s series’ available. Many, however, are not that great. This series was created in a time when traditional values promoted a culture of respect and optimism which is sadly missing in storylines today. Highly creative and moderately old-fashioned, I would say that this series is more wholesome than the Lucy and Steven Hawking, “George and the Secret Key” series or the Bob Pflugfelder and Steve Hockensmith, “Nick and Tesla” series, but less “perfect” than Homer Price. I do recommend this book, but I want to highlight a couple of reservations. 

The first book of the series was published in 1956. Danny’s teacher (and the childhood teachers of the others scientists in the story) are unimaginative, small minded, and rather punitive when feeling challenged. Despite the private agreements between Danny, the professor, and his mother that these teachers lack vision, Danny is respectful and compliant when being corrected by the misguided adults. Refreshingly, Danny’s mother and the professor each support the teachers’ corrections despite disagreeing with them; a wonderful classic example of old fashioned parenting.

Sadly, however, Danny has a habit of bending the rules – even when he knows it is wrong. When required to write 500 sentences as a correction from his teacher, Danny accepts the help of a friend after first articulating that it would be wrong to do so. Shortly after that, when Danny has a secret, he tells lies of omission to his mother, whom he otherwise respects and honors. In both cases, Danny rationalizes these decisions and justifies them to himself. I wasn’t impressed with this turn of events.

Because of the lying and cheating, I decided to purchase the two audiobooks, but declined to purchase the spines of any of the fifteen books in the series. My concerns are small ones, but until I have time to preview more of the books, I don’t like the idea of small, poor choices compounding over many books and subtly teaching my son that lying and cheating are an acceptable way to get things done.