I'm a little torn about the movie version of Mr. Putter & Tabby Spin the Yarn (Harcourt, 2006). I'm tempted to cast Tim Conway and Carol Burnett for the central roles of elderly Mr. Putter and his good (and also elderly) neighbor, Mrs. Teaberry, but I worry that they wouldn't be able to play it straight. They might, you know, start laughing, because this is a funny book. But it's a funny book that doesn't let on that it's funny; ..Spin the Yarn leaves it up to the reader, who will just know. So, for that reason, I'm calling on Bob Hoskins and Dame Judi Dench, who are more than capable of reserve. Zeke, Mrs. Teaberry's sweet mess of a dog, will be played by the skateboarding bulldog on YouTube. I'm not sure yet about Tabby, Mr. Putter's lovable cat. The Morris the Cat types have too much self-confidence. In Arthur Howard's illustrations, Tabby often looks rattled.
If you don't know what I'm talking about, you need to get a hold of the latest in Cynthia Rylant's series of easy readers. To me, the book is right up there with Mr. Putter & Tabby Feed the Fish, in which Tabby cannot contain herself over some new goldfish. She must bat at them. She must. She gets carried away batting. By my count, there are 15 books in the series so far, and a new one, Mr. Putter & Tabby See the Stars, hits the stores in August, according to Powell's. (How come nobody throws a party for that, huh? I'd line up at midnight.)
In Mr. Putter & Tabby Spin the Yarn, Mrs. Teaberry starts a knitting club. Because he is worried that he is not a good neighbor (and always eating treats that Mrs. Teaberry makes without reciprocating), Mr. Putter announces that he will serve the knitting club tea. This is typical of Mr. Putter, whose good ideas often lead to adventure, if not chaos. There's an unexpected quality to the dialogue that I admire. (James Marshall's Fox series shares this.) Upon entering Mrs. Teaberry's house to start the tea-making, Mr. Putter encounters the following:
Everyone said a cheery hello to Mr. Putter and Tabby. "Where's Zeke?" asked Mr. Putter. "I closed him in the kitchen," said Mrs. Teaberry. "He was bothering Gertrude's hat."
On the next page, we see Arthur Howard's picture of Gertrude's monstrosity of a hat, which is ringed by plastic vegetables. Of course the sweet lunatic Zeke would want a piece of that. Tabby, meanwhile, spots numerous balls of yarn/prey, and her teeth begin to chatter with desire. (Our cat does that when he sees a squirrel.) Needless to say, "excitement" follows. My son laughed his way through the book, and so did I.
I put the Mr. Putter & Tabby series between Frog and Toad and Magic Tree House books in terms of difficulty. The challenging easy readers feature 18 point type, plenty of white space between the lines, short lines, no more than eight words a line, four short chapters, and, always, cheerful homage to friendship and love. From experience I can tell you that they make good read-alouds for younger children and that more experienced readers still enjoy returning to the books. Arthur Howard's illustrations work hand in hand with the text, letting a young reader see what Rylant means by the words "tea cozy," for example.
Easy readers don't get enough attention in the press. Sure, series like this sell themselves; many school libraries and reading resource rooms at elementary schools contain lots of Mr. Putter & Tabby books. But unless you're a teacher or librarian or read one of the trade magazines, you don't necessarily hear much about the genre other than the Dr. Seuss books and a few others. From time to time I will try to highlight some good ones. Meanwhile, I must get back to casting the movie. Good books can inspire that in a person.