Short Reading Lessons in Writing: Mr. Putter & Tabby Write the Book

A morning short story reading group meets at one of our library branches on the second Monday of each month.  The library provides the short stories, snacks, and a staff member to make coffee and keep things moving along. 

That staff member is me.

And the snack this month was mini-cupcakes.  What else?


You want to have fun?

Take a group  who has waded through and critiqued short stories by Mary Shelley, Stephen King, Mark Twain, Theodore Dreiser, Hemingway, D.H. Lawrence, et al . . . and give ’em a picture book.

More specifically, give ’em one written by Cynthia Rylant and illustrated by Arthur Howard—and make it a Mr. Putter & Tabby.

Mr. Putter and Tabby love snow, but they can’t go out in it as they did when they were young—they might fall and break something. But Mr. Putter remembers how much fun it had been to stay inside during snowstorms and read mystery stories and drink hot chocolate.  So he decides to write The Mystery of Lighthouse Cove and discovers that writing is sleepy, hungry, slow work . . . until he tries writing what he knows.

I wasn’t sure at first about offering this book.  It seemed like a good idea last year after we’d done Aleksandar Hemon’s “The Conductor” in all its layered glory,  but I wasn’t sure we would be able to discuss a children’s story for a whole hour.

It wasn’t a problem.  Everyone loved it—at length.   Most of the reasons boiled down to these:

This book was genuinely appropriate for all ages.  The older among up appreciated that young readers were being introduced to elderly characters who did things despite their limitations.

The youngest among us—which included a ten-year old and a teenager—appreciated the humor and the illustrations.

And we middles appreciated a series of books that we could read over and over again to our children and our older relatives* without being driven insane.

It didn’t hurt that the drawing fit the words so well that a few readers assumed the same person did both.

We could all relate to the characters.  Many of us saw our fathers, grandfathers, husbands, and ourselves in Mr. Putter,  and a few saw themselves in Mrs. Teaberry, who is a hoot and a half.**

In fact, most of the hour was taken up by our own stories, inspired by this one.  We’ve all had inspiration that fizzled when it came to following through.  We’ve all found out that wanting is easier than doing and we’ve all procrastinated.  We all have memories of being young and we’re all becoming older.

One of our members even gave a beautiful elegy to her father, who recently passed away.  The story was bittersweet for her, but brought back comforting memories.

The youngest of us decided that they would like to be this cool when they were old.  The oldest of us looked very pleased about this.

It’s a happy, pleasant book.  And funny, too.  Everyone thought it made for a nice, gentle break amid all the heavier stories we’ve read lately.

In fact, the group found this book to be (according to my notes) comfortable, happy, cozy, enchanting, dazzling, hilarious, adorable, cozy—and wonderfully funny.  If the words weren’t wry, the illustrations took over—especially Tabby’s expressions—but mostly Mr. Putter’s avoidance techniques stole the show.

The conversation digressed momentarily in the middle to how long it should take to make a cheese ball,*** which was the point at which most of us had decided The Mystery of Lighthouse Cove wasn’t going to be written during this snowfall.  We agreed that when it comes to levels of avoidance, making a cheeseball—and boiled eggs and vegetable stew and muffins—is the culinary equivalent of toothbrushing one’s grout.

This book holds  universal truths that were not hammered home: Simple things matter.  It’s not the intent, it’s the follow-through. You can start out one way and end up another, and it will still be fine.  Old doesn’t mean useless or unhappy.  Write what you know—and never on an empty stomach.

And, to quote Mrs. Teaberry, Mr. Putter’s friend and neighbor, the world is full of mystery writers. But writers of good things are few and far between.^

And at the end, when we had five minutes left, the group asked me to read Mr. Putter & Tabby Bake the Cake, which I’d mentioned is my favorite of them all.  And I think almost every person checked out a book from this series before they left.

Now that’s an endorsement.


*A terrific idea, by the way.

**And exactly who I want to be when I grow up.  If you’re interested in my vision of this character, she’s the lady in the green pantsuit in this video.  All she needs is a good dog named Zeke.

***I was asked point-blank, “What’s your recipe for cheese balls?”  I immediately replied, “My recipe is to watch my MIL make them.  But it looks like a complicated process.”

^Which may be a new contender for Sarah’s Literary Tattoo . . .