Once upon a time, almost one hundred years ago, a family called the Moffats lived in Cranbury, New Jersey. There was Mama, a widow who made dresses for the town ladies in her living room, (her mannequin was referred to as Madame), and her four children: Sylvie, fifteen; Joey, twelve; Jane, nine; and Rufus, five and a half. They lived in a rented yellow house on New Dollar Street with Catherine-the-cat.
The Moffats, the first book in the series, introduces the family told mainly through the eyes of Jane, the middle Moffat. The second book picks up where the first ended – with the sale of the yellow house by its owner and a move to a new house.
I never read Mrs. Estes’ books growing up. I don’t know how I missed them since they were exactly the kind of stories I loved as a child: compelling but simple, realistic adventures that introduced a new and different world but one that was also intimately familiar. I happily stumbled upon The Moffats at the library not too long ago. My daughter, Dusty, a kindergartener who reads at a second grade level, fell in love last year with the Little House on the Prairie series and now enjoys anything that takes place in “old fashioned times.” So I glanced through the book, was captivated by the charming sketchy illustrations of Louis Slobodkin, and brought it home.
Estes prose is so fresh and modern it’s hard to believe these books were written seventy years ago (the first Moffats book was published in 1941). The language is straight-forward and funny. Jane’s adventures in her small town filled with ladies in hats and gloves, the chief of police, the corner grocery store, are timeless.
Estes based the books on her childhood in Connecticut in the 1910s (she was Jane) and clearly knew her audience. Years as a children’s librarian didn’t hurt either, and no doubt exposed her to the best and worst of children’s fiction during that time. She never left the Jane she’d been and writes like a good friend rather than a grown up, the mark of any skilled writer of children’s literature.
What made the books such a find for us, is that they offer a glimpse of an “old fashioned time” that are ready-made for impromptu discussions of history. They introduced Dusty to things like hitching posts, blacksmiths, bread boxes, drinking troughs for horses, coal stoves and oil lamps, trolley cars, scarlet fever, quarantine signs, hurdy-gurdy men, and a world where a nickel could buy enough candy for several children and automobiles were new and rarely seen. Our initial discussions about unfamiliar vocabulary words led to comparisons with other books and where certain of her favorite characters fit it to the history time line: Laura Ingalls Wilder grew up 30-40 years before Jane came along. What had changed? What remained the same? What aspects of Jane’s life are just like ours?
Jane’s “adventures” are normal, believable ones for young children. She does not get lost in a wardrobe and find herself in a snowy land. She does not fall down a rabbit hole or kill a witch with her house. Rather, she fears she’ll get sent to jail when the neighborhood pest, Peter Frost, catches her mimicking the gait of Mr. Pennypeppy, the rotund Superintendent of Schools, as he walks down the street. She encounters a Salvation Army man in a horse-driven wagon on his way to a revival. He stops to ask for directions and the Moffat children end up not only driving the wagon so the man can take a nap in the back, but they manage to get lost, drive the wagon into ditch (which throws the sleeping man out of the wagon) and get caught in a sudden thunderstorm.
Jane’s simple delights mirror those of all children:
It had been a good day in school because the drawing teacher, Mrs. Partridge, who visited every class in town once in the fall, once in the winter and once in the spring, had paid her autumn visit.
Everyone in Jane’s class had drawn an autumn leaf. Everyone in Rufus’ class had drawn a pumpkin. Everyone in Joe’s an apple. All the children in the grammar schools came home with a drawing fluttering in the wind – a drawing of a pumpkin, an apple, or an autumn leaf. It is true that sometimes the children grew tired of drawing leaves, pumpkins and apples. However, Mrs. Partridge never thought of letting them draw anything else.
There are several things about this passage I like. Estes’ use of repetition, “Everyone… Everyone…Everyone…” is reminiscent of books for younger children, of nursery rhymes, of poetry. Jane is happy to get a chance to draw even though she restricted to drawing one thing. But she’s also aware, at some level, that her teacher’s vision is limited and limiting. And yet, she is the “smiley teacher,” and is forgiven this shortcoming. I also can’t help feeling fortunate that, as much as some things stay the same, my daughter has art class once a week, not three times a year. And, she is allowed to draw more than just a pumpkin, an apple, or a leaf.
In The Middle Moffat, Jane encounters the oldest inhabitant, Mr. Buckle, who is 99 years old and a Civil War veteran. Jane is unhappy being “the middle Moffat” and accidentally introduces herself to Mr. Buckle as the “mysterious middle Moffat.” He plays along with this “mysteriousness” throughout the book and it becomes their inside joke. (Mr. Buckle references Hawkshaw the Detective, a popular comic strip character of the time who eerily resembles Sherlock Holmes.) They become fast friends, underscoring the importance of befriending the elderly folks in our lives. The book closes with a town celebration of the oldest inhabitant’s 100th birthday. Mr. Buckle invites the Moffat family to join him for a limousine ride through town.
There are four books in the Moffat series. Estes is also the author of The Hundred Dresses (winner of the Caldecott medal in 1944) and other novels. I look forward to reading them all to my daughter and exploring further a world we never knew. I invite you to do the same.
FreshHell lives in Virginia with her musician husband and two brilliant daughters, Dusty (6) and Red (2). She writes a lot and reads a lot. Occasionally she makes cookies. This is her first book review for AJ’s Clubhouse.