This is a hard book to review.
Why? Because my parents read it to me as a baby. My love for old books, particularly old children's books, all comes from Mister Penny. So naturally I read it to my little boy, often.
It's a book that has been forgotten by the world. Google as much as you like; you won't find a review of Mister Penny (well, except for this one soon, I assume), although you'll doubtless find a few old reasonably priced copies. More than reasonably priced, actually, because this book is a treasure.
But because it has been virtually forgotten, and is unlikely to ever see print again, I feel as if it's up to me to perpetuate the memory of it...at least for a little while longer.
Mister Penny is the story of an old man who lived "in a tumbledown shed on a stony field by a path to the village of Wuddle". He lives there with his "family" of seven animals: Limpy, an old horse, Mooloo the cow, Splop the goat, Mimkin the lamb, Pugwug the pig, Chukluk the hen, and lastly the troublemaker, Doody the rooster. Mister Penny spends his days working in a factory to earn the money he needs to feed them all.
The animals have vivid personalities, and speak to each other when Mister Penny isn't around to hear them. Unfortunately they end up goading one another (led by Doody, who is, as my son says, "very naughty") into devouring a large part of a neighbor's garden. The neighbor is not amused, and Mister Penny is faced with either doing an enormous amount of free farmwork for the neighbor or letting him take the animals to butcher.
What the animals do to save themselves and Mister Penny, and the lesson they all learn from what happens, makes a charming and deeply heartwarming story. Not a moment feels falsely moralistic or out of place, but the moral (although not spelled out as such) is one that children remember. The humor is perfect; my son laughed and laughed throughout the book. And the ending is truly moving.
The voices of the animals are extremely well done and differentiated, making the book a pleasure to read aloud. The extensive black & white illustrations are by the author, and are immediately engaging and very expressive. I can't help but note that most of my favorite old books for children were illustrated by their authors. Most modern books for children, on the other hand, are not illustrated by their authors; in fact, the publishers choose the illustrator, and prefer that there be no direct interaction between the author and artist.
The book is ideal for any child young enough to be read to. Children who are starting to read on their own are likely to enjoy it, too.
Although there's certainly no explicit connection, I can't help but link Mister Penny to the Doctor Dolittle books ofHugh Lofting. The personalities of the animals are quite similar, as is the general tone of the books (though Mister Penny is definitely more appropriate for younger children than the Dolittle books are). Both were written in the same general time period - the first Dolittle book in 1920, Mister Penny in 1935 - and both have the same gentle, kindly tone. Although Mister Penny never learns to converse with his animals, he does talk to them nonetheless, and the interaction between them all is quite reminiscent of the Dolittle household.
Even though it was written in 1935, the language is extremely accessible. There are no jarring anachronisms, with the single exception of this: Mister Penny is sometimes drawn (as you can see in the cover picture) with a pipe in his mouth, smoking. But that doesn't play a role in the story, and it would be a terrible pity if it put any parent off from reading the book to their child.
Marie Hall Ets published two sequels to Mister Penny:
Mister Penny's Race Horse andMister Penny's Circus. While neither is quite as special as the original, they're both worthy and very enjoyable sequels. For a while my son even liked "Race Horse" better than the original book.
Mister Penny is simply a wonderful book that shouldn't have been forgotten: a lost treasure, one well worth the effort of finding. Although it's rare, it can often be found via inter-library loan. Once you read it, I think you'll likely want a copy for your own.