With 25 books in the series, Cynthia Rylant’s “Mr. Putter and Tabby” books range from sweet and endearing to naughty and questionable. I think that the series can best be understood by reading a sample of just two or three particular examples. The inaugural book, Mr. Putter and Tabby Pour the Tea, is one of the most delightful books of its kind, and yet Mr. Putter and Tabby Take the Train, is nothing short of a disappointment.
In Mr. Putter and Tabby Pour the Tea, we meet a kind and lonely old gentleman who is looking for a four legged companion at the local pet store. When Mr. Putter realizes that the store only has kittens who are “cute” and “peppy,” he is not delighted. Mr. Putter “had not been cute and peppy for a very long time.” The pet shop owner recommends that her disappointed customer go to the shelter where he is “sure to find a cat.”
“Its bones creaked, its fur was thinning, and it seemed a little deaf. Mr. Putter creaked, his hair was thinning, and he was a little deaf, too.”
Sure enough, the animal shelter has an old yellow cat who Mr. Putter named Tabby, and “that is how their life began.”
In this 6 to 9-year-old early chapter reader, Cynthia Rylant treats us to a series of tender vignettes which highlight how Mr. Putter and Tabby build a charming life out of little routines and acts of friendship. The writing is accessible, the illustration is darling, and the message in this story is edifying. Rylant makes “old,” “creaky,” and “a little deaf” appear vibrant and rousing. Every time I read this book, I think that this storyline has a beautifully pro-life heart. Mr. Putter and his old, worn out cat seem to testify to the dignity and value of life at any age.
Sadly, however, two years later Rylant wrote one of the most disappointing books in the series. In Mr. Putter Takes the Train, Mr. Putter and his neighbor “Mrs. Teaberry had the train ride of their lives.” In order to have such a wonderful train ride, however, Mr. Putter and Mrs. Teaberry consciously and creatively break the rules. When the friends arrive at the train station with their pets in tow, they find out that pets are not allowed on the train. The neighbors return home, stow their pets in a picnic basket and a backpack, and return to the train to sneak the animals on board. After that, we have several pages of antics related to the pets’ dishonest ride. I was so sad to see this kind of willful deception, and then a celebration of getting away with it, feature so prominently in a children’s book.
Overall, the series is uneven. Some books are creative and charming. Some books make little sense and resort to potty humor or other naughty tricks. I wish that Rylant had just given us three to six well-crafted and wholesome stories. I’m not sure we need 25 uneven stories which must all be previewed by discerning parents before handing over to our children. I’m also not sure how anyone could write 20 excellent stories about a kindly old gentleman and his cat. I suspect that even Shakespeare would have groaned at the prospect of attempting something like that.
If you do want to have a little Mr. Putter and Tabby on your selves, I recommend the following volumes:
If you would like some other more time tested reader recommendations, check out this article we wrote about pairing readers with Audible in order to help an emergent reader practice their reading.