Mean Margaret Paperback – October 6, 2015
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About the Author
Jon Agee is the illustrator of a large collection of children’s picture books, such as Little Santa, The Other Side of Town, Nothing, and most notably the National Book Award–nominated Mean Margaret. He lives in San Francisco with his wife.
Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
One spring afternoon Fred was out foraging for food in the meadow when an inky cloud seeped over the sun. He was a good ways from his burrow—nearly to the pig farm, judging by the whiff of the sloppy beasts he’d just caught. Since there was nothing he hated more than getting his fur wet, Fred scampered up into a hole in a maple by the roadside. This required little effort—woodchucks are distant relatives of squirrels—but the hole was a dreadful mess.
“Woodpeckers,” Fred muttered.
When he poked his head out to look for something better, he was momentarily blinded by a flash of lightning. Then he was nearly deafened by a clap of thunder, and right after that a violent cracking sound set his very bones vibrating.
Seconds later, the skies opened.
“Of all the rotten luck,” Fred said.
Stuck, Fred passed the time complaining about the filthy habits of woodpeckers. “Don’t they know what a broom is . . .” Being a woodchuck who lived alone, he often talked to himself. But he turned silent when a pair of fat, ugly human beings came running in under the tree.
“Goodness!” said the woman.
“We’re soaked to the skin,” said the man, who had a big ham under his arm.
Fred held his nose. The odor of the human beings’ wet clothing wasn’t much better than the whiff of pig he’d gotten earlier.
“You know, Mr. Hubble,” the woman said after a while, “this really isn’t so bad, is it?”
“Nice break from the kids,” the man agreed.
Eventually the rain stopped and the sun returned, scattering the meadow with diamonds of light. But, to the woodchuck’s dismay, the fat, smelly people stayed put.
“Look, Mrs. Hubble,” the man said. “A rainbow.”
“There—right over the pigsty.”
“Oh, my, yes. How beautiful!”
Fred noticed the rainbow, too. However, it was small comfort to him. For now Mr. Hubble put his free arm around Mrs. Hubble’s middle, and Mrs. Hubble leaned her head on Mr. Hubble’s shoulder.
“Good grief,” Fred said under his breath. “I’m going to be here forever.”
But rainbows rarely last very long, and when this one faded away, Mrs. Hubble let out a sigh and said, “I suppose we better head back. They’ll be turning the place upside down.”
As soon as the Hubbles waddled off down the road, Fred evacuated the nasty hole. He’d never been happier to get home—though, even so, he didn’t forget to wipe his feet thoroughly just inside the entrance mound. He took great pride in his burrow. It was the tidiest, most private place imaginable. Digging it had been the low point of his life—nothing soiled your paws like digging—but at least he would never have to go through that horror again. He’d gritted his teeth and dug extra deep, ensuring that he would never be subjected to the creeping of centipedes or the squawking of blue jays. The only time he was ever disturbed was when a certain striped snake chased some prey down his bolt hole. And this was only a minor annoyance, since the snake was a creature of few words—even when his mouth wasn’t full of frog or mouse.
Climbing the maple had mussed up Fred’s fur, so the first thing he did was carefully clean and brush himself. Then he sat down in his favorite armchair, the one by his jar of glowworms, and recovered from his ordeal, basking in the neatness, the dryness, the luxurious peace of his home. Instead of the glare of lightning, there was the soft glow of the worms. Instead of smelly human beings, there was the pleasant fragrance of his pine furniture. And instead of bone-vibrating cracks, there was sublime silence. He didn’t hear a single sound till his own stomach began to growl.
Fred padded into his kitchen and fixed himself a special treat: three snails on a bed of clover. After dinner, he began to feel pleasantly drowsy, and once he’d cleaned up the kitchen, he covered the glowworms with a leaf, crept into his bedroom, and snuggled into bed. He said his prayers, thanking heaven for giving him everything a woodchuck could possibly want, and closed his eyes.
The bed was nice and warm, so when a shiver went through him, he sat up in surprise. “Could I have caught cold in that miserable tree?” he asked himself. “It was damp.” He swallowed. “My throat’s not sore, though.”
Fred checked himself for swollen glands. None. The only thing out of the ordinary was a slight chill in his shoulder. He lay back down, burying his chilly shoulder under the covers. Suddenly he was a married woodchuck, with a wife who warmed his shoulder by leaning her head on it.
Fred woke up in alarm.
“Whew,” he said, realizing he was alone. “What a terrible dream!”
In the morning the dream seemed the height of silliness. “A wife, what a ridiculous idea,” he said as he did his sweeping. “How could you keep things just so with another woodchuck around?”
But come evening, the chill crept into his shoulder again, and that night the same dream woke him in the small hours. It became a nightly ritual—a nightly torture for a woodchuck who hated having his routine disturbed as much as Fred did. He tried everything he could think of: sleeping on his back, cutting out strong foods like mint and dandelion greens, counting field mice. But nothing helped. Time and again he sat bolt upright in his bed in the middle of the night, shuddering from the dream of being married.
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We have multiple copies at the High School as well as all his other books, but who knows when we will get back there.
I have the audiobook version which I can .zip up and send you al link to download it.
I am a huge champion of this book. Years ago it was randomly picked a part of a big pile of kids audiobooks we took out for our annual road trip to New Hampshire.
The combination of having 3 kids and being a children's librarian has brought me into contact with thousands of kids' books. With most things in life some books are better than others, some will never last the test of time and some are destined to be classics.
I am not sure if Mean Margaret will ever get enough attention to become canon for school libraries however it deserves to be. Most literature that is fed to kids is pap! Far too many are sugary sweet and deliver their messages as smoothly as butter on a hot piece of toast. This is one of the reasons kids respond so well to Roald Dahl books, Captain Underpants, Shel Silverstein, and even Doctor Seuss. They don't treat them like little idiots. They are filled with not only the heart but sly humor and easter eggs for both adults and children to find. This is probably why most of these authors always end up on the annual banned book list each year (yes, everyone loves Dr. Seuss until he speaks up about environmentalism (The Lorax) or Fascism (Yertle the Turtle.)
I guess the point I am trying to make is that Mean Margaret is one of those books which really starts our very traditional and is reminiscent of E.B. White. but as the book goes on it turns more Roald Dahl. I was so pleasantly surprised by the updated "frog and toad" verbal wordplay and friendship between the main character (who is not Mean Margaret but a groundhog named Fred) and his very cranky erstwhile pal a Snake. And as the book progresses you start to realize how sly the author is building a very humanistic and inclusive world around the very complicated emotional lives of all the animals in the forest.
This is really not a spoiler but It is the human characters who are the deeply flawed ones here (what a surprise right?). Gluttony, alcoholism, absent parenting, a group of family members who steal off with their youngest member and unceremoniously dump her in a ditch by the forest hoping she will get eaten by a bear or meet some equally gruesome end.
This is the point that more conservative parents and librarians throw the book into the "burn, ban and ignore" pile which is a shame. First off kids (and adults) lead messy, imperfect lives. The real joy of literature and most good art is the universal nature of the human experience which is being reflected back at us. Margaret is from a family of nine children. In order to get any attention or even her fair share of food, she resorts to abysmal behavior, shrieking, grabbing, and making all her sibling's lives miserable in her attempts to get her feelings across, which let's face it is how we real-world adults and kids act. When faced with such a horrible family member wouldn't you lie to plot a way to get rid of them?
But don't worry. It's a book for kids so you know there are lessons which are going to be learned by both the human and animals who populate this world. Kids will do a few double takes during this book which will give them a "did that really happen" shock. Did that fat German kid really get sucked down a pipe towards an incinerator (oops wrong book...however right feeling.). Margaret is awful. You want her to get eaten by a bear. Fred is a very wound up little guy who would be quite at home living in the west village sipping expresso and attending book signings by notable European authors and returning to his lux-modern apartment filled with Scandinavian modern furniture (and I am not talking IKEA here.). He too needs to break out of his shell and really expand his own limited world view.
So do you think this is really going to happen? No spoilers here. While there are some Mean humans, a really uptight groundhog, and snake and a wonderful collection of earnest animals who wear their hearts out on their sleeves. It's a classic battle of diverging philosophies who unlike us humans of the real world find themselves opened up to life's true possibilities through the honest and moral behavior of others.
I remember reading someone's description of what it meant to be a Mod in 1960's England. "Clean living under difficult circumstances!" I am sure Fred would empathize fully with this sentiment.
P.S. I was only going to write you a few sentences about the book to peak your interest. Since I wrote so much I guess this will be my first post on Amazon.
I figured full disclosure is the best way to go. I loaned this book out to a teaching colleague with my assurance that this was a wonderful book that will really not only engage the students but be an interesting read aloud as well.
Upon returning the book to me, I notice that they seem to look at me as one who has questionable tastes and perhaps a very skewed moral center.
I'm not sure "Mean Margaret" is actually the best title for this book as Margaret is not the main character, nor is the story really about her, but she is indeed the antagonist. The book concerns Fred, a woodchuck, and his search for a mate. His eventual marriage to the woodchuck Phoebe brings up the talk of children, which Phoebe loves and Fred hates, putting her off with lame excuses the next day they find a human child outside their burrow. Sally, renamed Margaret by the woodchucks, is the ninth child of the Hubble's, a fat lazy couple with progressively ruder and wilder children. Toddler Sally takes the cake though and no one but a mother could love her. Sharing room with siblings 6, 7, & 8, they plot to drop her off far away in the woods one night to hopefully never have to contend with her again. Such then, is the story of how Phoebe takes in this mannerliness, self-centred child to look after and care for and love as only a mother can love. Along with Fred and Phoebe are a cast of their animal friends including Skunk, Snake, Squirrel, Mr & Mrs Bat & Phoebe's sister with her own three young children. The story mainly takes place amongst the animals in the forest but does switch to the human Hubble family a few times.
This is a lovable, dear comedy where nearly everyone learns a life lesson by the end of the book. Fred and Phoebe are wonderful animal characters and anyone who enjoys this type of animal fantasy will certainly like this book. There are most definitely touches of Roald Dahl in Seidler's humour as his dark humour is laced with a witty meanness that makes this as much a fun read for adults as children. The artwork by Agee is plentiful and reminded me of William Steig in style. A funny story, touching and heartwarming at times, while giggle producing at others. Not exactly a fast-paced story but one to enjoy at its own leisurely pace. This read makes me want to re-read "A Rat's Tale" the only other Seidler book I've read, and go on to reading his other books.