If you have read enough of my reviews, you know that I am always on the lookout for great books written at the 3rd grade reading level, since there seems to be a definite gap on the shelves in that general area. I am very happy to report that another great series has hit the shelves! The Bed & Biscuit books by Joan Carris, charmingly illustrated by Noah Z. Jones, are kind of a cross between James Herriot's stories of the country veterinarian and Dick King-Smith's wonderful stories with anthropomorphized animals as characters and often narrators. Grandpa Bender, a retired veterinarian, runs the Bed & Biscuit, an animal sitting service, at his farm. His own menagerie consists of Gabby, the mynah bird with the sharp tongue, Ernest, a mini-pig with a good heart and an even better head on his shoulders, and Milly, a persnickety tabby cat who, even though she is a year old, is the baby of the family and thinks she deserves to be treated accordingly.
When Welcome to the Bed & Biscuit, the first book in the series, opens, Grandpa gets a call asking him is he has room for Frou-Frou, a Pekingese. He does, but the only spot open is next to Sherlock, a bluetick hound who does not want his peace disturbed by a yippy little dog. By the end of the first chapter, Grandpa has to cut Ernest's birthday party short so that he can rush to a neighboring farm to help put out a fire. When he finally returns home from McBroom's farm the next morning he is carrying a mystery box and all the animals are very curious to know what is inside. When they finally learn that the box holds a newly born puppy rescued from the fire, Milly immediately expresses her dislike, insisting, "We don't need another baby in this family!" She storms out of the house, her frustration growing as Grandpa Bender ignores her gifts (dead moles) in order to tend to the puppy. Ernest, a typical middle child, is a fixer. Worried about Milly and her increasingly long absences from the farm, he also wants to help his friend Sherlock and his irritation with his yappy neighbor Frou-Frou, all the while making sure Gabby doesn't make things worse by answering the phone and pretending to be Grandpa Bender. A mystery ensues, but the intrepid Ernest gets to the bottom of it and the animals and Grandpa all come together as one happy family again, especially happy since the health of the puppy improves enough for him to leave the incubator and earn a name.
In the second book in the series, out in hardcover this month, the puppy, a Scottish Terrier named Sir Walter, is being trained by Ernest, but it is proving difficult. Grandpa has also taken in a wounded Canada goose, a cranky old muskrat and two fox kits. Both books include excellent Author's Notes at the back of the book that give details on the animals in the story and what their natures and habits in the wild are. Carris's writing is gentle and thoughtful, her characterizations of the animals in the story are equally humane and evocative of the animals' true natures at once. And, on top of that, the difficulties and experiences that the animals have over the course of the books can easily be read as issues faced by real children. The sibling rivalry between Milly and the new puppy and the ways that Milly asks for attention and how she responds when she doesn't get it are so well written that readers should have no problem finding parallels in their own lives. The issues of appropriate behavior and learning restraint in Wild Times at the Bed & Biscuit are also handled deftly, while at the same time making important points about the difference between wild and domestic animals.
This series is perfect for children who are reading above their grade level. The stories are gentle and the plot climaxes are not too suspenseful. Also, Bed & Biscut series is a breath of fresh air in the fantasy dominated world of children's literature.