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Saturday, 11 February 2017

Henry and Mudge: The First Book

Author: Cynthia Rylant
Illustrator: Sucie Stevenson
Publisher: Simon Spotlight, 1987, edition featured Aladdin Paperbacks 1990

I know very little about this author (I just looked her up: Cynthia Rylant) and very little about the educational context of this 'ready-to-read' series of books ( Henry and Mudge), but I absolutely love this book, and I'm cherishing passing it on to my children. 

Henry and Mudge: The First Book is about a young boy, Henry, who feels lonely. He has no siblings nor friends in his neighbourhood; he asks his parents for a dog. His parents agree, so along comes Mudge, a puppy. This puppy grows into a huge drooling heavy-weight of a dog and a lovely friendship between boy and dog is forged, seemingly impenetrable. There's a humourous 'growing up' moment in the story when we see all the collars Mudge grows out of, before meeting giant Mudge himself. This sweet, charming story is so well written, it reads aloud so effortlessly as an adult, and with its many moments of pause and reflection, it reads easily to the child as well. Bert read the series when four and a half years old, and he was a fair to good reader at the time. It's an ideal book as part of the Summer Reading Challenge, as one of many in an American early years reading scheme.

Now what I especially like about this man and beast relationship, is that it's shown to be reciporcal, so dog Mudge, loves Henry as much as Henry adores Mudge. They spend all their time together, sharing the same bed, smelling each other, lying on each other. 

Henry gains confidence through having Mudge, described concisely yet poetically: 

Rylant's economy with words is Orwellian. She gets across the idea perfectly, with no unnecessary exposition. As an early reader these books are perfect, very short smart 
sentences, interesting vocabulary but most importantly a gripping story. I remember my heart beating in my head reading these books as a child, wondering if Henry will find Mudge once Mudge goes missing in the wood. Rylant sets up this moment of loss and worry so nicely, showing how the landscape suddenly seems big and empty, showing the desperation in Henry as he shouts and shouts for his dog. The pastel watercolour and pen illustrations feel a tiny bit dated, but mainly thanks to dad's handlebar moustache (though admittedly back as a fashion faux pas again currently). Saying this, I like how Sucie Stevenson has captured a sense of flow in the tree detail and the idea of a vast lonely sky with the formation of birds migrating overhead in the Mudge being lost scene. 

The ending of the book is also suprisingly solemn, with Rylant reminding the reader about the fear and loss Henry felt when Mudge was missing. As such, this story really stays with children; after reading it yesterday Bert asked if we could get a dog (fairly predictable), recalling how Mudge was Henry's best friend. He said that in the story Henry had learnt how much he loved Mudge, especially when he was gone. Loyalty, and valuing friendship then, is a theme children take from this book. 

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