Feeling Cranky

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 DoodleCran­kee 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.

Man Who Enjoyed GrumblingPhyl­lis: 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.”

Worst Person in the WorldPhyl­lis: 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.

James Stevenson Worst Books

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.

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Norma Gaffron
Norma Gaffron
8 years ago

Phyl­lis, I LOL over your review of THE MAN WHO ENJOYED GRUMBLING. I think I live with his broth­er. And Feb­ru­ary is the worst. We’ve been togeth­er 62 years…