Friday, January 20, 2017

Book Review: Penny and Peter

Title: Penny and Peter

(That's not the edition I have; it's a new reprint.)

Author: Carolyn Haywood

Date: 1946

Publisher: Harcourt Brace & World

ISBN: none, but the new edition has one: 978-0152052263

Length: 160 pages

Illustrations: line drawings by the author

Quote: "They named him William but they called him Penny because his curly hair was just the color of a  brand-new copper penny.”

When I was six years old, like Penny, or eight, like Peter, that was all I wanted to know about these adoptive brothers. Two boys, but the author gave one of them a girl’s name to try to get girls to read the book? What a dirty trick!

Apparently other kids felt the same way, because the copy of this 1946 book that my local library acquired in 1974 looks almost new—apart from library markings—today. 

That’s too bad, because, as I read the book as an adult (I think the first time I’ve ever sat down and read it) I think it’s as nice a storybook as Haywood’s more popular books about Eddie (and Annie Pat) and Betsy (and Billy). Penny and Peter live next door to an actual girl character called Patsy, so why would Haywood have needed to try to entice girl readers by giving a boy a girl’s name? Possibly she wrote about a boy called Penny because she knew one in real life.

When we were, say, ages five-and-two through eight-and-five, my brother and I loved gender rules that gave us excuses not to conform to, or share with, each other. Our parents were trying to keep every possible door open to both of us—girls can be carpenters! Boys can be cooks! and we were saying things like, “This book is about a boy—I don’t want it, it’s yours,” or “That toy looks like a girl animal—you can have it.”

The good news for parents who don’t want to shut off children’s opportunities n Later Life is that a few years later the gender labels became as unimportant as our parents wanted them to be. We still made fun of the trendiness and often the ugliness of gender-neutral toys, but as we started to form same-sex friendships we stopped bickering about gender labels. We saw firsthand that playing with opposite-sex toys, or even opposite-sex friends, does nothing to slow down the development of heterosexuality.

I remember reading a parody of this idea: “Mother Nature with her magic wand, or magic blush brush, is going to transform Josephine DiMaggio into Barbie!” (I’m not sure, but think Victoria Billings was the author who put it that way.) By the time I read the line, anyway, I recognized it as off the mark. I’d never wanted to be a baseball player. What happened was that Mother Nature’s magic waft of empathy transformed a sulky outfielder into a sincere rooter. “Hating” boys and boys’ things started to seem like kid stuff. Real Women, after all, like Real Men.

Carolyn Haywood consistently kept her little-kid characters attuned to this level of future maturity; there’s no twaddle about future romances in her stories, but each child protagonist has an opposite-sex buddy who shares some, not all, of the adventures.

So, Penny, Peter, and Patsy, like other Haywood characters, get into very minor trouble—spilling things on floors, being scared by big friendly dogs, worrying too much about what an adult means by complaining—and get themselves out of trouble. Some of their stories are funny. None is sad or disturbing. They live on Planet Nice, which can be a pleasant place to visit on rainy afternoons. On Planet Nice, if you spill a lot of live crabs all over the floor, you can catch all of them before they even annoy anybody...and if you spill an open package of food into a stream, you can recover and safely eat most of it...and so on.

Carolyn Haywood no longer needs a dollar so this is not a Fair Trade Book. To buy a clean (or cleaned) secondhand copy here, send $5 per book + $5 per package + $1 per online payment to the appropriate address at the very bottom of the screen. Early hardcover editions of the Haywood books were slightly oversized so I can't guarantee that more than two or three would fit into a package. If you'll settle for newer paperback editions that may not have all of Haywood's wonderful trace-and-color drawings, probably six books will fit into a package for the same $5, bringing the total to $35 (U.S. postal money order to Boxholder, P.O. Box 322) or $36 (Paypal, or Amazon giftcard if that's what you have, to the Paypal address salolianigodagewi @ yahoo will send you; our Message Squirrel is a sorting-and-screening account not a Paypal account).