Friday, July 18, 2014

Reading With My Kids: Homer Price and Centerburg Tales by Robert McCloskey

Source of books: I own these.

I chose to read these two related books to the kids because they were some of my favorites when I was a kid. My oldest daughter had already read them herself, but was happy to hear them again.

Robert McCloskey was an author and illustrator of children’s books. Although his output was fairly small, what he did write were enduring classics.

Homer Price and Centerburg Tales are a matched set, both featuring Homer, a boy, probably 11 or 12 years old, living in a stereotypical small midwestern town in the 1940s. The denizens of the town are the source of gentle humor and wry observation.

McCloskey also illustrated the book, and his drawings are a part of the charm. 

The books are both a fond look at small town life and a good-natured satire on the foibles of small town America. Homer is more sophisticated than the rest of the kids - and most of the adults, but he isn’t cynical or sour about the silliness and gullibility of the rest of the town at all. He takes it all in good-natured stride, helping out when he can, and even preserving the dignity of the resident teller of tall tales.

McCloskey pokes fun at snake oil salesmen, automated machines, earworms, marketing, comicbook heroes, tract homes, and more. The highlights (at least in my opinion) would have to be the unforgettable incident with an out-of-control automatic doughnut maker, and the greatest product of all time: “Eversomuch-more-so.”

The San Luis Obispo farmer’s market has a stand employing one of these.
Let’s just say that the kids love watching it…

In fact, “Eversomuch-more-so” has been a running joke between my wife and me for years. (She also loved the books as a kid.) The idea that the placebo effect could be reduced to an invisible, tasteless, odorless product in attractive packaging is pretty funny. As Grandpa Herc (the teller of tall tales) put it, back in his day, you could buy it in bulk, and it wasn’t nearly as expensive…

There’s lots more, of course, from giant ragweed to a new twist on The Pied Piper of Hamelin. Throughout, McCloskey shows a sense of humor combined with goodwill, with even the worst of characters (a group of robbers) eliciting a little sympathy for their hard luck. The imperturbable Homer keeps his head throughout, unfazed by the hilarity that surrounds him.

The name Homer is merely one of the many classical Greek names used throughout. Besides Hercules, Ulysses and Telemachus get characters of their own.

I don’t wish to spoil any more of the books than I already have, so I won’t give any further detail.

I’ll just end with a quote of the earworm song that is so, so much fun to say - and kept the kids in stitches every time I said it. The concept is take from a short story by Mark Twain, which McCloskey references in the story.

Sing hi-diddle-diddle,
For a silly little vittle.
Sing get-gat-gittle,
Got a home in the middle.
Sing dough-de-dough-dough,
There’s dough, you know.
There’s not no nuts
In you-know-whats.
In a whole doughnut
There’s a nice whole hole.
When you take a big bite,
Hold the whole hole tight.
If a little bit bitten,
Or a great bit bitten,
Any whole hole with a hole bitten in it,
Is a holey whole hole
And it JUST - PLAIN - ISN’T!

Say that nice and fast with a good lilt, and it can’t help but be funny.

These two books fortunately still remain in print, and are readily available in paperback. I consider them to be indispensable children’s classics that should be part of everyone’s library. 

Update 2020:

I re-read this with my youngest this year, and figured I might comment on that experience. One of the things that has changed about my blog since I wrote this post in 2014 is that I am more likely to criticize books, rather than just mention the good parts.

I still love these books, but do feel I should mention that there are a few wince-worthy references to Native Americans which are very much of the 1940s when these books were written. Beyond just the use of "Indians," there is a reference made by an elderly character (Grandpa Hercules, teller of tall tales) to "Indian uprisings" and some stereotypes that have not aged well. To a degree, it appears that it is Grandpa Herc, the old guy who isn't quite with the times, who makes these, and it does not really appear the kids share those values. However, I did feel a bit uncomfortable and took time to discuss it with my littlest. (Age 9, so plenty old to understand things.) The sad thing is, the tall tales are otherwise funny, and one just wishes that McCloskey had avoided the stereotyping altogether.

On the plus side, African Americans are portrayed as everyday citizens of the town, and participate in events as seeming equals. Centerburg appears to be an integrated town, with no Jim Crow laws, and the diner is open to all. That's pretty progressive for the 1940s. So, some good, some bad on race.

That said, most of the book is thoroughly unobjectionable and delightful. It is fun to read aloud, has a great vocabulary, and so much imagination. I still reference the books on a regular basis, most recently "Experiment 13" regarding the mystery seeds from China. But also earworms, "Punch Brothers," Ever So Much More So, and the donut machine that wouldn't stop. Oh, and the giant balls of yarn, which seem relevant to living with a knitter.

Note on another McCloskey book:

I didn’t discover Blueberries for Sal until I already had a wife and a kid. However, my eldest daughter looked just like Sal when she was one year old. She also loved blueberries, and would have done exactly what Sal does…


  1. I've never read McCloskey's novels, though my 8 year old daughter read both of these and enjoyed them just a few weeks ago. However, I'm a huge fan of his picture books! I think One Morning in Maine is my favorite of those:

    1. I have not read One Morning in Maine, although I believe we own it. Lentil is a fun read too. And, any child who has not discovered Make Way For Ducklings is deprived ;)

      McCloskey also illustrated a number of books by others, and I have always loved his pictures.

  2. Thanks for this. I always loved both books, and at an early age memorized the donut ditty and found the Twain story with its catchy poem, Punch Brothers Punch, which provides the solution to the earworm epidemic in Centerburg. I used the Twain and other texts about railroads in a 1972 song cycle, "Third Rail."