Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Pure and Applied Research about Henry Reed

When I was a kid, I wanted to spend my summers with Henry Reed in Grover's Corner, New Jersey.

I couldn't imagine anything more fun than helping Henry and his friend Midge douse for water, hunt for truffles, babysit bratty kids, and stage a big show. And who wouldn't want to accompany them on their riotous coast-to-coast road trip across the United States?

Created by author Keith Robertson (and aided by illustrator Robert McCloskey) Henry Harris Reed is an early teenager who has spent most of his life overseas because his father is in the diplomatic service. In the summer before eighth grade, he comes to visit his Uncle Al and Aunt Mabel in Grover's Corner, New Jersey, just outside of Princeton. It's a sleepy town of only nine houses, but Henry shakes it up when he opens his own business (HENRY REED, INC., 1958), specializing in "pure and applied research." With his new friend Midge Glass, the protagonist digs for oil, launches his pet beagle in a hot balloon, and (like another literary Henry before him, Henry Huggins) sells earthworms to fishermen. By the end of that busy summer, the name of the business has been changed from "HENRY REED, INC." to "REED AND GLASS ENTERPRISES, INC." Of course I used to wish it had been "REED AND GLASS AND SIERUTA ENTERPRISES, INC."

The following summer, Henry returns to the United States, touching down in San Francisco to join the Glass family on a road trip back to New Jersey (HENRY REED'S JOURNEY, 1963.) During the trek, they inherit a parakeet, visit Disneyland, get adopted by Hopi Indians, and make a stop at the Grand Canyon -- where Midge drops the family car keys over the rim. Every moment of the trip -- and the book -- is enjoyable, but I've always been disappointed by how truncated the journey is. Once Henry and Midge make it to Missouri -- barely halfway home -- the book reaches its conclusion and the rest of the trip is wrapped up in less than ten pages.

Many fans think HENRY REED'S BABYSITTNG SERVICE (1966) is the funniest book in the series. This story picks up right where JOURNEY left off, telling us about the remainder of Henry's second summer in the States as he and Midge begin a new business (no wonder they rushed home from that road trip!) At first the protagonist dismisses babysitting as "a sissy job," but is soon matching wits with his creepy little client Belinda Osborn, setting up a sixties-version of a day-care center, and getting even with a pair of teenage neighbors who are, in the words of Midge, "stuck up, rude, conceited, selfish, uninteresting, overbearing, loud, and dumb."

The following summer, Henry returns to Grover's Corner again (HENRY REED'S BIG SHOW, 1970) with the idea of becoming a stage director or producer. Less focused than the previous books, BIG SHOW has Henry and Midge toying with the idea of producing a music festival, a renaissance event, a play, and finally a rodeo. Although the earlier volumes are also products of their era (JOURNEY, for instance, features references to Tab Hunter), this book contains talk about Woodstock, protest marches and even a visit by long-haired musicians in a flower-covered vehicle performing a number called "Never Mow the Lawn When It's Wet." Strangely, these plot devices -- considered very contemporary at the time -- now make BIG SHOW the most dated book in the series.

Most of us assumed that the adventures of Henry Reed ended there, but author Keith Robertson surprised everyone with one final volume, HENRY REED'S THINK TANK, which was published in 1986, five years before the author's death. In this go-round, Henry and Midge set up a business to solve neighborhood problems, such as helping a girl who needs a bigger allowance and a chubby boy seeking approval from his father. The story is set at the end of the "big show" summer, which means Henry should be at least sixteen in this volume...but he is portrayed as if he were much younger. Perhaps the author realized Henry was growing up too quickly and wanted to find of way of keeping his series running a little longer.

These brief summaries of the books don't really convey what makes them so memorable. I think the success of Henry Reed can be attributed to several factors:

* The nonstop excitement and activity in each book. Henry and Midge seem to be at the center of every adventure that hits Grover's Corner -- in fact, they usually instigate it. What kid reading these books wouldn't want to be in the middle of all that fun?

* The character of Henry isn't purposefully funny. He rarely cracks jokes or acts silly. This bespectacled kid is practical, earnest, and has a deadpan approach to most of the hysteria going on around him as he studiously records these experiences in his journal. Because he seems so doggone serious he ultimately becomes the funniest character in the books.

* The illustrations by Robert McCloskey are the perfect match for Keith Robertson's prose. Two-time Caldecott winners don't illustrate many chapter books, so it's quite a big deal that Mr. McCloskey agreed to do this series. Even Keith Robertson said, "I don't think the books would have been nearly as successful if they hadn't had these illustrations."

Considering how popular this series once was, it's disappointing to realize that only HENRY REED, INC. and HENRY REED'S BABYSITTING SERVICE remain in print today -- and that's in paperback only. And I'm surprised by how little information I can find about these books. Details can be gleaned from an author profile here...an interview there...and even from a study of Robert McCloskey by Gary D. Schmidt...but there's still not a lot of information much out there.

But remembering that Henry Reed was always all about doing "pure and applied research," I still did my best to gather together ten interesting facts:

1) Most intriguing is that the character of Henry Reed was based on...a female fourth-grade teacher! According to Keith Robertson:

I always had in mind a female fourth-grade schoolteacher. It seems rather ridiculous, but we had a friend who taught school, and it always seemed that wherever she was, there was trouble. There was all sorts of activity, and things went wrong -- not her fault, of course. Just a turmoil!

Obviously, I couldn't write a book about a fourth-grade teacher and have children read it. I converted her into a boy, who was Henry, joined by a girl, Midge. Some incidents resemble what my children did in a similar area of New Jersey. Essentially, Henry is based on a fourth-grade teacher.

2)While Henry may have been based on a female teacher, his image seems to be a self-portrait by illustrator Robert McCloskey:

3) In the early pages of the very first book, Henry asks his uncle to call him "Hank" and that's what he's called by Uncle Al repeatedly through the series. Midge refers to him as "Hank" as well. Yet everyone (and that includes you, doesn't it?) thinks of him as "Henry." (I know I do!)

4) Robert McCloskey and the designer of HENRY REED'S BABYSITTING SERVICE had some fun with the name of the publisher, Viking, using a diaper pin for the letter "V" on the spine:

Kids who see the book at the library today probably have no idea what that pin represents. Aren't diapers now attached with double-sided sticky tape?

5) HENRY REED, INC. won a William Allen White Award, which is voted on by schoolchildren in Kansas. Mr. Robertson and his wife drove there for the award ceremony (could this have been the inspiration for Henry's Reed's upcoming road trip?) and then visited several schools. The last stop on the tour was Robertson's old hometown of Caney. But the author was stopped outside town by the chief of police. He didn't know what was happening until a high school band and baton-tossing majorettes suddenly appeared and marched in front of the car to his old grade school. He would later dedicate HENRY REED'S JOURNEY "To all Henry's Kansas friends who made him feel so welcome."

6) The dustjacket of HENRY REED'S JOURNEY referred to the book as "a unique Baedecker." I had no idea what that meant back when I was a kid (maybe another name for "trip," like "expedition" or "peregrination"?) In fact, I didn't find out what it meant until today when I Googled it. We didn't have the internet in the sixties and seventies. Plus I wasn't very bright.

7) Although all the books are presented in the form of journals written by Henry Reed, the author had originally intended to write part of HENRY REED'S JOURNEY from the perspective of Midge, but his editor -- the famous May Massee -- said that it didn't sound like a girl and made Mr. Robertson rewrite that section in Henry's voice instead.

8) Speaking of changes, HENRY REED'S BIG SHOW was originally titled HENRY REED'S GREAT RODEO.

9) Robert McCloskey was very unhappy with the appearance of HENRY REED'S BIG SHOW and told Gary Schmidt that the volume "looked like it came out of a Xerox machine." Even though he lived until 2003, Robert McCloskey never illustrated another book after HENRY REED'S BIG SHOW in 1970.

10) When HENRY REED'S THINK TANK was accepted for publication, Viking asked Robert McCloskey to illustate it, but he refused. The book was therefore published with no illustrations. However, the dustjacket by Gail Owens contains three notable errors. First, as a blog reader pointed out to me several months ago, the name of the town is wrong on the sign:

It's "Grover's Corner," not "Grovers Corners."

Secondly, according to the text of the books, this sign should not say:

but should have an "AND" instead of an ampersand.

Finally, how come Henry isn't wearing his glasses on the cover? They're his most distinguishing personal characteristic throughout the series!

Please don't tell me he went and got contacts.

I know these are minor details, but Henry Reed is a detail-oriented guy.

I wonder if he'll appreciate all this research I've done about him.

Hey, maybe there's still hope that he'll let me join his research business someday!


Cathy Reeve said...

I loved these books when I was a kid! In fact, I've reread them a few times over the years :) I have to agree with you that The Big Show is the most dated of the books. I actually hadn't heard of the Think Tank until I saw it in a library book sale a year or so ago and snagged it.

Thanks for bringing back some fond memories!

Anonymous said...

I'm so glad you mentioned these, Peter! I, too, loved Henry Reed when I was growing up and I cannot wait to share these with my son for some great summer reading.

Thanks, as always, for a wonderful column.

Cathy B
Blue Willow Bookshop

Anonymous said...

Loved all 3 that I've read, still have to track down Journey and Big Show

Tammy Wilson said...

I was a huge Henry Reed fan myself and was actually trying to find them for my kids when I came across this blog. It was a fun trip down memory lane...

Anamaria (bookstogether) said...

Fortunately, I still have my childhood copies of the first four books, but I haven't been able to find Think Tank anywhere. I can't decide which of the first three is my favorite, but it's definitely not Big Show.

Chuk said...

Weird, it looks like you just posted this and I was looking up Henry Reed today for totally unrelated reasons. Plus now I need to find a copy of Think Tank, which I've never read.

I think Journey was my favourite, I loved the part where they lower the swimming pool on giant ice blocks. Great post.

Bybee said...

I'm enjoying your blog so much. I added you to my blogroll. I just finished reading a book called Jane Eyre's American Daughters that rekindled my interest in children's lit.

Candice said...

Thank you for this wonderful blog! I've been searching for "Henry Reed's Journey" all morning on the web. I read it as a child, 20-some years ago, and couldn't remember the title or author. I was getting it mixed up with Henry Huggins!

This book has inspired my travel bug all these years. It's also inspired me to create a children's multimedia travel series.

The illustrations in "The Good-Luck Horse" are amazing!

Robert Spillane said...

I, too, loved these books as a young boy, and enjoyed re-visisting them as I read them to my twelve year old twins boys a couple of years ago. They conjured up that feeling of limitless possibility and freedom of summer that even a small town can provide for its youth, if the youth is open to it. What a wonderful trip down a nostalgic, warm, country-summer lane! Thank you for the memories!

CarlJ said...

I was just thinking about these books about 2 weeks ago. I had forgotten the names of the books, but remember reading them when I was in grade school in the 70's. Great books, now i am trying to find them to reread and to hopefully have my girls want to read them. Thanks for the blog, great info on the author and illustrator.

Warren Fahy said...

I loved Henry Reed books, too, when I was a kid. I had to track them down through a used book service to buy them for a friend of mine's son, who ate them up with a spoon. Thanks for writing about them! (I grew up to become a writer myself...)

-Warren Fahy