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July 26, 2010

Old School: The Cricket in Times Square

I always kept five or six of my favorite childhood chapter books on my shelves, all the way through adolescence and young adulthood and marriage. I was never entirely sure why, other than my general reluctance to get rid of, well, anything. (Yeah, I’m one of those.) 

So for all those years, there sat George Selden’s The Cricket in Times Square next to the Sartre play (yeah, I’m one of those, too). It was my very first favorite chapter book—to a kid growing up in a still-gritty Manhattan, Selden’s classic about an out-of-town cricket who becomes the toast of New York City and saves the family newsstand of the boy who befriends him had a comforting familiarity. Heck, two of the three main characters were New York City archetypes, seen on a daily basis in my Upper West Side existence. It’s also not a classic for nothing; the story itself, while undeniably dated in certain ways, is a true kid’s page-turner.

The book was originally published in 1960, and is set in what was, I now realize, a very different city than the one I was living in about twenty years later. But there were enough touchstones in it for me to recognize my city, too: The teeming insanity of the Times Square subway station hasn’t changed that much even now, even if the layout has, several times. More than that, though: Selden’s writing itself has a timeless quality, especially in his portrayal of his lead characters. If you’ve spent any time in New York, you’ve almost certainly met a Tucker Mouse or twelve, and you’ve probably encountered a few Harry Cats as well.

So the first moment I thought there was even a prayer of his having the slightest interest, I introduced my old, tattered paperback copy (the price on the cover: 95 cents!) to my older son’s bedtime reading. It was his first chapter book, and it was really way too early. I don’t think he was three yet, and while The Cricket in Times Square does feature many wonderfully vivid illustrations by the great Garth Williams, they are occasional, not ubiquitous—it’s a chapter book, not a picture book. But as ever, I couldn’t hold myself back; worst-case, I figured, we’d give it a shot, he’d be bored, and we’d stop.

We didn’t stop. Dash loved the book from day one, and became pretty obsessed with it for about a year. It inspired some of his first playacting, involving both scenes from the book—the fire in the newsstand was a favorite—and ones of his own invention, using Selden’s characters. (Dash was always Harry, while his mother and I traded, in repertory, the roles of Tucker and Chester Cricket.) At bedtime, we would read it over and over again, until my already old and fragile edition began to fall apart. Once, during a visit to my office in Times Square, Dash wanted to go down to the subway station to see Mario’s newsstand and Tucker’s drainpipe, and was nearly inconsolable when I informed him that the station has changed since that time (well, it has!) and so we probably wouldn’t be able to pinpoint their exact locations.

In summary, my first favorite chapter book became Dash’s first favorite chapter book. And yeah, I probably did force the issue a little, but it was still pretty heartwarming.

That isn’t the end of the story, though. The Cricket in Times Square turned into the gift that kept on giving in our household. First there were Selden’s own sequels, of course, which I’d read myself as a child. But then, just as Dash’s interest in the books was beginning to lose some of its heat, I discovered an audiobook version, read by actor Tony Shalhoub (of the TV show Monk and many films, including Big Night). It’s a fabulous rendition, among the best children’s audiobooks I’ve encountered; Shalhoub captures each character brilliantly with his voice work. Dash was hooked anew. (Plus, now we had a new fail-safe tool for long drives and plane rides.)

A bit later, I found (courtesy of my former colleague Christopher Healy) a Chuck Jones Collection DVD that includes a 1973 animated short of The Cricket in Times Square by the animator, as well as two odd but entertaining holiday-themed sequels that use Selden’s characters. The immortal Mel Blanc provides Tucker Mouse’s voice for all of them, which demonstrates just how spot-on Jones and his team are with their adaptation. (The DVD is advertised as featuring several stories from Kipling’s The Jungle Book, also well worth seeing.)

At five-and-a-half, Dash still loves every version of The Cricket in Times Square—books, audiobook, videos—and comes back to each of them often. (Though it does seem to be time for a new edition of the book, as pages are starting to fall out and go missing!) Which means, now that I think on it, that The Cricket in Times Square has been among his most treasured books for more than half his life. And, alarmingly, more than three quarters of mine.

[Photos: Whitney Webster]

1 comment:

  1. I was just thinking that the kids might enjoy reading this before our trip to NYC next month. Thanks for the info about the audio version.