Rose meets Mr. Wintergarten by Bob Graham has been around for awhile. I’ve been reading it to kids for almost as long as it’s been on this side of the pond. But I’ve read it two different ways, and I’m ready to confess that now.
I love most everything about this sweet picture book. I adore the Summerses — what a great hippie-like family! — especially Mom in her loose fitting dress and sandals and crazy earrings. I love the illustrations — particularly the gobs and gobs of flowers. And I experience nothing but delight with the marvelous contrast provided by Mr. Wintergarten — his dark house that the sun never hits; his cold, gray, uninviting dinner with floating gristle and mosquitoes breeding on top; his dusty coattails and huge empty dining room table. I think the not-so-subtle puns found in the neighbors’ last names (which a four-year-old had to point out to me) are brilliant.
And the story itself! Sweet Rose, brave enough to venture over to her neighbor’s house despite the neighborhood children’s stories of Mr. Wintergarten’s mean and horrible reputation, his wolf-dog and saltwater crocodile, his penchant for eating children…. I love it all.
Except that last bit. “No one ever goes in there,” said Arthur, “in case Mr. Wintergarten eats people.” I hate that. And it functions almost like a spell in the story, because as soon as Arthur delivers this worst-of-the-worse news, Rose’s ball goes over Mr. Wintergarten’s fence.
For a long time, I just left off the incaseMr.Wintergarteneatspeople part of what Arthur says. I thought it sufficiently exciting for my wee story-listeners that nobody ever went in there…(drumroll!)…and now Rose would go in there. It was but a small change — a tiny omission, I reasoned. It’s not like I totally changed the story.
When Rose goes to ask her mother what to do and her mother suggests, like all good hippie-mothers, that she simply go ask Mr. Wintergarten to give her ball back, Rose says she can’t “Because he eats kids.” To which her no-nonsense hippie-mother says, “We’ll take him some cookies instead.”
Again, the cannibalistic innuendo was just too much for me. I’d look at those sweet little faces, rapt in the story I was reading them…and it was just easiest to have Rose remain silent when her mother asks why she doesn’t just go make the proper inquiry. Then all I had to do was leave off the word “instead” when her mother suggests the cookie idea. The book taught hospitality among neighbors — excellent!
I read it like this for years. I didn’t feel bad about it at all. I was protecting the children! And then one day, amongst the crowd of children at my feet, there was a reader.
“Hey!” he said. “You skipped a line.”
“I did?” I said.
The boy stood and approached. “Yeah, right here. “No one ever goes in there,” said Arthur, “in case Mr. Wintergarten eats people.” He underlined the words with his index finger. I feigned surprise upon seeing them. I complimented him on his astute reading skills.
Nervously, I checked on the rest of the wee vulnerable storytime children at my feet. They were looking up at me in what I can only describe as thoroughly delighted horror.
“He EATS kids?” a little girl said.
“For real?” said another.
“Probably not,” said the reading child. “They probably just think he eats kids.”
“Oh….” Big eyes looked at me and the older, wiser, more worldly reading boy.
So when Rose’s Mom says they’ll take cookies, I, of course, put in the word “instead.”
“That’s a good idea,” said a sweet little girl with dark curls. She nodded vigorously. “A really good idea.”
“Yeah,” said her little brother. “Everyone likes cookies.”
As you might guess, Rose’s brave overtures earn her a new friend in Mr. Wintergarten. Turns out her old neighbor hadn’t even opened his drapes in years. Once he goes outside and kicks Rose’s ball back over the fence — losing his slipper in the process — he’s pretty much a new man. As are the children, who learn their reclusive neighbor’s reputation might be a bit exaggerated.
I’ve not omitted the cannibalistic lines since. I bite my tongue so I don’t soften them with a “Oh that’s just silly, isn’t it?!” I just read it straight. Kids love this book — I think, much as it pains me to admit it, all the more so because of the previously censored lines. They can take it, I guess. Who knew?