Mrs Piggle-Wiggle by Betty MacDonald, 119 pp, RL4
I am worried that the singularly remarkable works of Betty MacDonald, first published in 1947, are not as well known and read as they once were. I was lucky enough to grow up in a home with a copy from my mother's childhood and have read and reread these hilarious stories over and over to myself and then to my children, each one in turn, with the older ones listening in. What is so marvelous about Mrs Piggle-Wiggle? Well, she was way ahead of the curve when it comes to Super Nanny and Nanny 911. And, in retrospect, she was also probably a tiny twinkling spark that influenced the generation of dedicated, child centered (indulgent?) parents we have become. Mrs Piggle-Wiggle is no Mary Poppins. There are no rules at her house. In fact, the rules at her house are to make any and all children as comfortable, secure, well fed and highly entertained and acknowledged as possible. I WANT a Mrs Piggle-Wiggle to play with my kids so I don't have to! I want a Mrs Piggle-Wiggle to teach them to enjoy doing dishes and eating vegetables and sharing! Actually, what I really want is to be 8 years old again and walk down the street to Mrs Piggle-Wiggle's house and play dress-up with her wardrobe and make cookies and drink tea with her. So, I have totally revealed myself. Mrs Piggle-Wiggle brings up some serious wish fulfillment fantasies for me, as a parent and as a child. And, when you read even one of these books, you will want her to live down the street from you, too!
Betty MacDonald had a true gift for names. Just reading one of her stories out loud is a treat in and of itself. Let me share some of her brilliance with you - Charles Dickens, move over - Paraphernalia Grotto, Cormorant Broomrack, Harbin Quadrangle, Wetherill Crankminor, Pergola Wingsproggle, Calliope Ragbag and Gregory Moohead. The Quadrangle family also a dog named Mr Pierce and ababy named Old-Timer who says,"Googlewhopshinogrit," which still cracks my kids up when I say it. The more outlandish names are reserved for the minor characters, the ones who are not problem children. Which brings me to the basic set-up for every story, most of which are under ten pages and have one full and one half page illustration. A child have a behavioral quirk. The mother calls all the other mothers she knows asking if their children have a quirk like this. The other mothers all insist that their darling child is perfect, but one mother eventually suggests Mrs Piggle-Wiggle as someone who might have a solution to the problem. Mrs Piggle-Wiggle, while in no way (not the Harry Potter way, anyway) capable of magic, has a common sense "cure," and occasionally a powder, pill or spray (precursors to homeopathy???), that, if instructions are followed, will cure the darling child of his or her quirk.
Here are a few of the story titles, "The Won't-Pick-Up-Toys Cure," "The Answer-Backer Cure," "The Selfishness Cure," "The Never-Want-To-Go-To-Bedders Cure," "The Heedless Breaker Cure," "The Thought-You-Saiders Cure," and, one of my favorites, "The Radish Cure." The radish cure is for Patsy, who has suddenly decided that she can not take a bath, no matter what. Mrs Piggle-Wiggle suggests that her parents allow her to go unwashed. When she has a nice layer of top soil on her body, they should sneak into her room at night and plant radish seeds all over her. Once the radishes are ready to harvest, there should be a change in her attitude towards baths. These books were written in the fifties and the parental discussions reflect that. The reserved, matter-of-fact way that they deal with their children is intentionally humorous and makes for entertaining reading for adults.
There are four, now five, Mrs Piggle-Wiggle books. The most recent, Happy Birthday, Mrs Piggle-Wiggle, contains an unpublished story by MacDonald and notes for stories that her daughter, Anne MacDonald Canham, completed. Because I loved Mrs Piggle-Wiggle so much as a child, I can't bring myself to read it. I am also deeply distressed that Harper Collins, the publisher, has ditched the crisp, evocative, expressive illustrations of Hilary Knight, of Eloise fame. This is especially curious at a time when Robin Preiss Glasser, illustrator of Fancy Nancy who's frilly pinkness is currently saturating the world of children's picture books, is so clearly influenced by Hilary Knight's distinctive style. If you do want to purchase these books to read to your children, I beg you to seek out the older editions illustrated by Knight. These include Mrs Piggle-Wiggle, Mrs Piggle-Wiggle's Magic and Hello, Mrs Piggle-Wiggle. A fourth book, Mrs Piggle Wiggle's Farm was originally illustrated by none other than Maurice Sendak. For me, as a child, though, Mrs P lost a little of her charm when she left the suburbs for the country and I never finished reading this particular book.
But, whatever format you read these in, please read them to your children, even if it is only one story. These books are meant to be shared and read out loud and they are about things that kids and parents can relate to and will undoubtedly make for some good discussions later afterwards!