When New York columnist Nicholas Kristof listed "the best kids' books ever," I was thrilled to see that my very, very favourite book series as a child - the 26 Freddy the Pig books, written by Walter R. Brooks from 1927 to 1958 - were Kristof's "very favourites" too, "funny, beautifully written gems."
The series centred on the comic adventures of a talking pig and his equally chatty animal friends, living on a farm in upstate New York, owned by the only miser with words in the series, Mr. Bean, who was proud yet slightly embarrassed that his animals could talk. And could they talk! Their acerbic, witty, shrewd conversation is as fast-mouthed and sharply funny as the Marx Brothers', as aphoristic and gimlet-eyed astute as Noel Coward's, and yet always affectionate and forgiving.
Unlike many series which, over time, become forced and formulaic, the Freddy books got better book by book; the characterization of Freddy and his farm-animal friends richer - a persuasive blend of animal and human nature; the writing and adventurous storylines ever more amusing, clever and keenly satirical.
Not that I was aware of that when I first fell in love with the Freddy books. I was a devourer of book series, first attracted to Freddy because he was a detective, just like Nancy Drew. But that was where the similarity began and ended. I liked the puzzles of the Nancy Drew mysteries, but Nancy - that was another matter. She seemed too good to be true, not like any person I knew, with her jaunty self-confidence and invincibility. She was "too perfect," as U.S. mystery writer Laura Lippman has said. She had one trait, good girl, and one role, detective.
Freddy, however, was all too human. I could identify with him from the first Freddy book I read, Freddy the Detective (1932). Inspired by his reading of Sherlock Holmes, he opens a detective agency with Mrs. Wiggins, the cow, as his partner, "he supplying the ideas and she the common sense," to solve a series of crimes on the farm, hiring the farm rabbits as operatives (in later books, they become the farm's standing or, more accurately, hopping, army.) No super-heroics here or ever; Freddy tracks down the culprits with his characteristic practical, problem-solving persistence and ingenuity.
But it's not easy, not by a long shot, and it never is for Freddy. By nature, he tends to be lazy and easily scared, and plagued by doubts and insecurities. Freddy likes sleeping and eating too much; he is perennially concerned about his weight, especially when squeezing into disguises that never quite fit. No matter the disguise, as Jinx the black cat dryly says, they never "hide the most important fact about you. … That you're a pig." He is a romantic daydreamer. "I'm just full of romance inside," Freddy says with a sigh, and Jinx, giving him the once-over, quips, "There must be a lot of it, all right."
Freddy is a devoted reader and writer of poetry, and given to getting carried away by his vanity and grandiose fancies about his abilities, which inevitably are deflated by self-awareness, often brought down upon him by his friends - who would do anything for Freddy, as he would likewise do for them. Freddy is as loyal, good-natured, sympathetic, kind-hearted and generous-spirited a soul you could find.
And Freddy wasn't just stuck in one role like Nancy. He may have had his Walter Mitty fantasies, but he had more in common with the can-do practicality and resourcefulness of Ben Franklin. To solve the many dilemmas, quandaries and predicaments facing the Bean animals and their human friends - the motto of the Frederick & Wiggins agency: "We remove quandaries and dilemmas. ... (Also predicaments.) ... No charge for consultation" - Freddy takes on the role of banker, political campaign manager, pilot, magician, explorer, baseball coach for a Martian team (formidable pitchers, thanks to their having four arms each), camper, cowboy and newspaper editor, to name only a few.
And the places he went: Florida, the North Pole, even outer space! His friends weren't insipid goodie-goodies like Nancy's BFF George and Beth. The variety of human nature - good and evil, inspiring and flawed - is on abundant display in Freddy's animal friends, in the smart-aleck sarcasm of Jinx, the black cat, in the garrulous narcissism of Charles, the rooster, the down- to-earth warmth of Mrs. Wiggins, and the sardonic wisdom of Whibley the owl.
Theirs was a world of companionship, camaraderie and solidarity. Together, they organized themselves and foiled (through brainpower and wits, never fistihoofs or claws) the villains of the series, the usual suspects of the animal kingdom, such as a sneaky mafia of rats, and the all-too-usual suspects of the human kingdom, greedy bankers, unscrupulous business magnates, bellicose army generals, conniving, polemical politicians and truth-distorting newspaper owners.
Brooks was very familiar with both worlds. Born in 1886, he grew up in Rome, N.Y., an upstate New York small town very much like the fictional Centerboro near the Bean Farm. His widowed mother and a loving extended family raised him. An inheritance from two maiden aunts enabled him to write the Freddy series full-time after working as ad copywriter, staff writer for The New Yorker and a writer of short fiction (the most best-known being his stories about a talking horse named Ed, the basis for the sixties TV series, Mr. Ed).
It is that dual perspective of nostalgia for rural life and sophisticated urbanity that makes his wry, perceptive and affectionately humorous narrative voice so inviting and entertaining, and as fresh as ever for readers of all ages. Brooks is guide, companion and confidant, and his appealing narration is peppered with wordplay, puns, ironic observations, droll asides about animal and human behaviour and social and political organizations.
The stories are as much social comedies and satires as they are absorbing adventure stories. There is no better introduction then or now for young readers to the captivating comic spectacle of character virtues and shortcomings and how to be alert to the ways of the world without being mean-spirited. A choice target is the Joe Biden like-Charles: "He was always ready to explain anything, and this is a nice characteristic if you know what you are talking about. Charles usually didn't." Freddy's foibles don't go unnoticed, either: "Freddy was a good executive: that is, he never liked to do any work he could get anyone else to do for him."
Freddy's fans over the decades include literary heavyweight Lionel Trilling, who described the series as "delightful," Lionel Gelber prize-winning journalist Adam Hochschild ( King Leopold's Ghost) who has called Freddy, "that paragon of porkers ... a Renaissance pig" and Saturday Night Live producer Lorne Michaels, who acquired the movie rights
All the accolades, devoted fans and steady sales did not prevent the series from going out of print. It took the efforts of Toronto playwright Dave Carley, who founded the Friends of Freddy ( www.freddythepig.org) in 1984, to give the series the attention and profile that would bring it back into print.
As fortunate Freddy readers would have it, the series turned out to be the favourite as well of former Penguin Books CEO Peter Mayer. Calling Freddy "one of the great figures in American children's literature," as publisher of Overlook Press, he bought the rights and the books are now available in facsimile hardcover reprints and trade paperbacks - which reproduce the mischievous, delectably unforgettable black and white illustrations of Kurt Wiese.
The best introduction to the series is Freddy the Detective. And where to go from there? Every Freddy fan has favourites. One of mine is Freddy the Politician (1939). When the Beans go off to Europe, Freddy and his friends - to prove they are responsible - establish the First Animal Bank. Smooth-talking woodpeckers John Quincy Adams and his father Grover, from Washington, D.C., outmanoeuvre Freddy to assume control of the bank.
In the election for first president of First Animal Nation, between candidates Grover and Mrs. Wiggins, thanks to voter padding and fraud, Grover claims victory over Mrs. Wiggins. Immediately, he establishes a dictatorship, throws his opponents into jail, seizes their property and proclaims war on the neighbouring farms. U.S. scholar Roger Sale asserts that Brooks's political fable, written before George Orwell's Animal Farm, is the better book, "shrewder about its politics."
I'm also fond of Freddy and the Ignormus (1941). Rumours of a bigfoot-type monster living in the woods creates a climate of fear. The animals are turned one against the other after receiving threatening letters from the alleged ignormus, vowing to eat them if they do bring bounty from the Bean farm into the woods. Despite his fear of ending up as pork chops, Freddy goes into the woods to track down the ignormus.
I grew up on the Freddy books, and I wanted to be like Freddy when I grew up, to be up to any challenge despite my many fears and insecurities. I wanted to have a life like his, full of possibility and adventure and surrounded by a circle of encouraging friends who knew me through and through, as I did them, providing an affectionate dose of needed reality - and rescue, too, whenever necessary. Together, we could face anything, even ignormuses and power-crazed woodpeckers.
Sherie Posesorski's YA novel Shadow Boxing is just out.