Phyllis: February is the month for lovers and for love. And it’s the month where some of us also get a little grumpy. Gray slushy snow—no good for skiing or building snow people—lines the streets. The weight of winter coats wears old. And even though we do love February, we thought we’d look at books about grumpiness—just in case anyone else might feel a little, well, cranky once in a while.
Crankee Doodle by Tom Angleberger with pictures by Cece Bell, stretches the conventions of picture books with art and text in dialogue balloons depicting a conversation between a soldier and his horse. “We could go to town,” the horse cheerily proposes. Crankee Doodle’s response? A long list of reasons NOT to go. Each of the horse’s suggestions, to go shopping, buy a feather, get a new hat, is met with more negativity. “Shopping? I hate shopping … I might as well throw my money down an outhouse hole.” Crankee Doodle oversteps a line when the horse offers to carry him to town and Crankee says, “No way. You smell terrible.” Seeing how much he has hurt his horse’s feelings, Crankee capitulates, and they drive to town with Crankee yelling “Yee-HAW!” out the car window. “Nice hat,” “the horse tells Crankee in the last spread where they are happily laden with purchases. “Thanks, pal,” Crankee replies.
For a day when you or your kids feel cranky, reading this book out loud and throwing yourself into the crankiness can be cathartic. And just plain fun.
Jackie: I love the way this story ties into the song Yankee Doodle. Crankee Doodle, the grumpy brother to the original, doesn’t want to go to town, (especially not riding a pony), doesn’t want a feather for his hat, and refuses to call his hat “macaroni” (lasagna, maybe, but definitely not macaroni). A reading of this story should always be preceded by a singing of the song.
Phyllis: The Man Who Enjoyed Grumbling by Margaret Mahy, with illustrations by Wendy Hodder (published in 1987 and found on the used book rack of an Allen County public library). features scratchy Mr. Ratchett, who enjoys a good grumble. His neighbors, the Goat family, give him plenty of opportunity to grumble at them.
The Goat family liked making trouble.
They bunted and bleated.
They nibbled his hedge.
Sometimes they put their horns down
And chased the cat.
One day the Goat family, wanting more room for jumping around and tired of their scratchy neighbor, move to the high hills. Mr. Ratchett tries to find satisfaction in the peace and quiet but, without his neighbors to grumble at, things are too quiet. “Trust those Goats to go off and have a good time,” he grumbles. “They don’t spare a thought for the poor old man next door.”
Up in the hills the Goat family, too, finds things too quiet. “We like making trouble and we need a scratchy neighbor close by,” they tell Mr. Ratchett when they move back in next door. Mr. Ratchettt does a little grumbler’s tap dance where the Goats can’t see him because “he was so glad they were back.”
Jackie: This book is so much fun to read out loud:“They bunted and bleated./They nibbled his hedge.”
And it’s packed full of great words and phrases: Scratchy Mr. Ratchett (as he is always called in this book) wears “moaning boots.” And he believes “A man needs a bit of grumbling to bring a sparkle to his eyes.”
Phyllis: James Stevenson’s The Worst Person in the World has a yard full of poison ivy, yells at anyone who comes near his house, eats lemons for breakfast (“Ugh! Too sweet!”), and hits flowers with his umbrella. When the Worst encounters the ugliest thing in the world, who has a self-confessed “pleasing personality,” Ugly enthusiastically plans a party in the Worst’s house with decorations, cake, party hats, and invitations to the neighborhood children. The Worst tells Ugly he wants no party, no children, and no Ugly. The crestfallen Ugly leaves, but the Worst eventually finds a striped party hat in the corner and tries it on. “Hmmm,” he says, and goes off to find Ugly and the children to invite them back to a party. Stevenson doesn’t transform his character into a sunshiney person, but the Worst does have a smile on his face as he leads everyone back to his house.
Jackie: James Stevenson is so funny! Ugly recites the old saw, “if you’ve got a pleasing personality that’s all that counts,” in such a deadpan and earnest way that somehow emphasizes the clichéd quality. I almost think Stevenson invented Ugly so he could use that line.
He, like Margaret Mahy, is funny in the way he uses language. The party is not just a party. When the Worst asks what he’s doing Ugly replies, “Getting ready for the big shebang!” Shebang—much more fun than a party.
You are right, Phyllis, that the Worst continues to be grumpy right up until the end of the story, but we know it’s not quite the same level of grumpiness because he’s changed. At the beginning of the story he looks right at their ball and tells the kids he hasn’t seen it. At the end he looks at it and returns it to them.
The Worst is the grump we love to laugh at, so this seems like just the right amount of change. We don’t want him to totally reform.
Phyllis: Stevenson’s other Worst books include The Worst Person in the World at Crab Beach, The Worst Goes South, The Worst Person’s Christmas, and Worse than the Worst. In all of the books Stevenson’s scratchy illustrations capture the Worst’s crankiness in his person and his surroundings. By the end of each book, if he’s not smiling, the Worst’s frown has at least relaxed a little.
Jackie: My favorite of those I have read on this list is The Worst Goes South. Worst leaves home to avoid a fall festival next door—way too much hog-calling and polka music. He’s the first guest since 1953 in the motel he finds. The owner says, “Clean [your room] yourself. And don’t be bothering me for towels and soap and all that nonsense … don’t be whining for breakfast, … this is not some fancy spoil-you-rotten hotel.” It turns out that there are two Worsts. And the motel owner is Worst’s brother, Ervin.
Phyllis: Stevenson’s Worst books can be hard to put your hands on—within a large metropolitan library system The Worst Person in the World was only available from an outstate library. But his books, along with Crankee Doodle and The Man Who Enjoyed Grumbling, will put a smile on the crankiest face.
Jackie: The Worst books that I found came from Gallatin, Missouri, Newton, Iowa, and Waverly, Iowa. These are not books we can read on a whim, at least not now. Getting them requires advance planning. I wish some publisher would reprint these books.
Phyllis: Spring is on the way, but February has much to celebrate: love, lovers, friends, and perhaps the chance, once in a while, to enjoy being just a little cranky.
Jackie: Phyllis and I were actually a little cranky about how hard it was to find the Worst books and The Man Who Enjoyed Grumbling. I could not find it nor successfully order it. Phyllis had to read it to me over Skype. As we said, we’d love to see them reprinted. Are there books that you love that you can’t find easily, that you think should be reprinted? Let us know in the comments below. We want to start a list.