If you put P.G. Wodehouse, Kenneth Grahame, and Mark Twain into a martini shaker, the cocktail you’d pour out would be Walter R. Brooks.
Brooks is the author of the hilarious “Freddy the Pig” series that from 1927–1958 kept his American readers awaiting the next installment. The 26 “Freddy” books combine talking animals à la Kenneth Grahame’s classic “Wind in the Willows,” American flavor the likes of Twain, and snappy conversation and convoluted scenarios worthy of P.G. Wodehouse’s Jeeves and Wooster tales.
What the four have in common is an exceptional ability to write books purportedly for children that grown-ups appreciate at least as much. Or the other way around: books for adults that do not exclude themselves from immense enjoyment by children.
You may be asking, “Why, in heaven’s name, haven’t I heard of Brooks and his marvelous series?” I asked the same question when I happened upon one of the series, “Freddy and the Ignormus,” among the juvenile audio books at our local library. My 12-year-old daughter and I have been devouring them piecemeal ever since by scouring purveyors of secondhand books and audio recordings. Why would books this enjoyable go out of print, and why does no one know about them anymore?
Who Is Freddy the Pig?Our hero, Freddy, is a remarkable member of the Bean Farm in rural New York of an indeterminate time, roughly falling within the parameters of Brooks’s lifetime (1886–1958). Bean is the farmer, incidentally, not the crop grown.
Freddy is a clever and affable fellow (yes, a pig, but a pig of the world), who manages to get out of as many scrapes as he and fellow citizens of Centerboro get into—but not without extended complications and the assistance of friends, both animal and human.
The first of Brooks’s books, “To and Again,” involves the animals’ decision to escape the coming winter in a drafty barn by migrating south, like the wild birds. It is no simple feat for a pig, cow, chickens, ducks, cat, dogs, horse, mice, and a pair of spiders as they face robbers, politicians, alligators, and more. It is a raucous success, both migratory and literary.
A Pig of DistinctionFreddy was not originally cast as star in the early books, but he began to distinguish himself in subsequent stories through his emerging skills as detective (and disguise artist), poet, newspaper editor, problem solver, and friend to all (except a few reprobates). It is he who suggests forming an animal government to manage the farm while Mr. and Mrs. Bean are on vacation. He founds the First Animal Bank, develops fundraising schemes, and leads battles against Simon the Rat and his legions, who are the main animal antagonists in the adventures.
By the third book, “Freddy the Detective,” Freddy takes center stage and thereafter receives top billing in most of the titles. The first book has even been renamed “Freddy Goes to Florida” in later editions to reflect Freddy’s acceptance as titular character of the book and series.
Ever the regular, dependable pig, success doesn’t go to Freddy’s head. Well, maybe a little, as can be seen by his proclivity to poetry in praise of himself, such as “The Courageous Pig,” which appears in “Freddy and the Ignormus.”
The other animals and even the people at the Bean Farm help keep him humble if he should get carried away. One of the most humorous instances is seen in “Freddy and the Space Ship,” when Mrs. Bean makes up a poem on the spot, attributing it to Freddy, to recite to the pig himself, who is in disguise. Mrs. Bean, of course, knows it is Freddy all along and takes advantage of the situation to poke fun at the pig. It begins, “I am smart and I am bright. When I do things I do ‘em right.”
Who Is Walter R. Brooks?Brooks grew up in a well-to-do family in the small town of Rome, New York. Though he lost his father at the age of 4, he had a happy childhood, surrounded with caring relatives and lots of books. His idyllic days came to a sudden end at the age of 15 when his mother died unexpectedly.
His lonely years at boarding school led to a nostalgic imagination and perhaps a touch of cynicism. The fictional town of Centerboro, New York, which is home to the Bean Farm, bears a remarkable resemblance to the Rome of Walter’s childhood. The “Freddy” books may have been a means for Brooks to revisit the happy memories of his youth.
Brooks was not a novice to writing when his first “Freddy” book was published. He was already known as a humorist in American journalism in the 1920s when he began scribbling the animal stories for his own amusement.
Literature LiteSince Brooks didn’t set out to write a book for children, he didn’t fall prey to the fault of writing down to children. He just wrote rollicking stories. In fact, many contemporary readers will be better prepared to enjoy them with a dictionary handy for occasional reference. That’s not to say his writing is highbrow and stuffy. On the contrary, it’s filled with the sort of slang you might expect to hear from farm animals and regular folk. But it is also strewn with the language of more erudite characters, such as Old Solomon the never-known-to-lose-an-argument owl, and Mr. Groper the polysyllabic-uttering hotel proprietor (a Homo sapiens citizen of Centerboro).
These books don’t aim to teach anything, deliver great epiphanies, or grapple directly with universal human themes. They are refreshingly un-self-conscious and yet still make a considerable contribution to truly American literature in the same way that the works of P.G. Wodehouse do to English literature—through their genius in humor.
It’s the sheer volume of wit, sentence after sentence and book after book, that dazzles (true of both Brooks and Wodehouse). The books contain the sort of snappy dialogue delivered in films of the Golden Age of Hollywood by Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn. Perhaps it isn’t surprising that this grand era of film coincides with the first few years of the “Freddy” series. Even Bugs Bunny, making his advent in the late 1930s, shows off the verbal agility of that age.
Not Without Literary MeritAlong with Twain, Brooks ushered in a new, less formal style of writing for children’s literature. It sounds less like the stories narrated by a saintly grandmother and more like the tales told by a single uncle. It is not didactic; if you learn something from the “Freddy” books, you can’t blame Brooks, for he didn’t put it in there on purpose. But, there is still much of value that can be gleaned from them.
Vocabulary and interesting sentences have already been mentioned. The character development draws out a very realistic mix of virtue and temptation to vice. As often as we see the foibles of others in one of the characters, we’ll also feel a spark of self-recognition. Freddy and company are largely honorable and good, and generally sorry when they’re not.
The books offer still more in extracurricular knowledge. Under the entertaining tutelage of Walter R. Brooks, my daughter has come to know a fair bit about baseball, the judicial system, politics, banking, and poetry. Her vocabulary has been expanded to a remarkable degree. Who knew her favorite teacher would be a pig?
If you’re looking for a refreshing escape to a world where order and goodness ultimately win through quick-thinking, good friendships, and clever plots, embark on a reading adventure with Walter R. Brooks and Freddy the Pig. Don’t forget your cocktail shaker!