Monday, May 1, 2017

Reviewing George Selden's "A Cricket in Times Square"

One of the cool things about reading fiction in particular is the way it causes the reader to shed their own identity in order to relate to the characters. It’s a way of learning to see life from different perspectives—even perspectives we may not agree with—and to reevaluate our own preconceptions even after we’ve shut the book and are going about the rest of our day.

I think children’s literature does this better than any other type of fiction. I get particularly aggravated with the Adult Fiction section of my library because it seems like the inside blurbs are all variations on only a couple themes. The thriller books with rough, practically unlikable protagonists, the “artsy” books with characters that seem permanently depressed, or historical fiction where the characters and plot are so bland it gives history itself a bad rap.

But here is an example of how a children’s story can make us relate to something or someone we normally wouldn’t even think about as having a perspective at all: A Cricket in Times Square. Exactly. A cricket. Those annoying, icky, pests that keep you up at night or don’t know when to keep quiet during an awkward silence. This is the protagonist of not one, but several books by George Selden. 

Aided by Garth Williams’ illustrations, which somehow manage to make a cricket look cute, Selden begins this series of books with poor Chester Cricket, minding his own business by stealing some picnic food, being suddenly uprooted from his home in the Connecticut countryside and dumped in a subway in New York.*

At first frightened, cold, starving, and lost, Chester is finally rescued by Mario, the son of the impoverished owner of a failing news stand. Although Mario’s mother has the most realistic reaction of the book and wants to immediately get rid of Chester, Mario and his dad eventually convince her to keep Chester as a pet, as long as he’s kept in the newsstand and not at their home. 

Chester is next befriended by Tucker Mouse and Harry the Cat, fellow denizens of the subway. Tucker is probably the most developed character in the book, a disgusting, hoarding, and arrogant rodent who somehow is still lovable. Harry the Cat is more of a foil for Tucker, pointing out the flaws in the mouse’s grandiose schemes.  For some reason, Harry does not try to eat either Tucker or Chester…but soon that proved to be one of the less unbelievable things that must be set aside in the interests of this fantasy story.

Because the premise of this story, if set in an ostensibly realistic world, is that of fantasy. Chester Cricket, it turns out, is a virtuoso violinist…albeit a violinist who plays with his legs against his wings instead of the actual instrument. His ability not only to reproduce any sort of human composition he hears, but also to arrange medleys and compose his own works, makes him famous, redeeming him in the eyes of Mario’s mother, impressing the local music aficionado, and eventually saving the newsstand with his newfound fame.

I remember really liking this book at eight years of age. I remember rereading it, as if the book had sympathy for me, when I was ten and moving to a new neighborhood and felt as uprooted as Chester.  Reading it as an adult, I enjoyed many aspects of this story. 

The two things I didn’t care for were 
a) it’s more glaringly obvious to me now that the only female character is the mother, who while she softens towards the end of the book is the villain for the beginning chapters of it; and 
b) somehow this simple fable gets a bit dark at the end, as Chester begins to deal with the negative, paparazzi-level of celebrity. 

Not that this doesn’t add some much-needed drama to the tale, but somehow this time around it read sort of awkward, almost as if it didn’t fit in the sort of world where the entirety of New York City stops still to listen to a cricket’s song.

One other thing I noticed as an adult which I didn’t quite connect as a child, was the similarity of A Cricket in Times Square to Charlotte’s Web. Granted, Charlotte would probably eat Chester if given half a chance. But the two stories are about bugs with incredible talents that help others against incredible odds, as well as have sort of melancholy (if realistic) conclusions.
While I think this book's ending is a bit melancholy, I also must remind myself that this is only the first of what became a decent-sized series involving Chester, Tucker, Harry, and even more characters. I haven't read all of these books (yet), but if I'm hoping for a happy ending, maybe that's what I'll have to do.  It's a heavy task I'm placing on myself, but I'm willing to make this sacrifice.

*And not that kind of Subway, either. Chester wouldn’t have minded being dropped off in a sub sandwich joint, though I doubt health inspectors would have approved, and that would have been a completely different story….

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