As a child, I spent a vast majority of my time reading books. My mother often made sure I had a vast home library, even on our simple means. She would hunt the local thrift shops, acquiring a large amount of children’s books. Our collection was so large, I’m not entirely sure I read all of them, despite my best efforts. While the most memorable titles were often by famous authors such as Dr. Seuss, Tomie DePaola, or Maurice Sendak, there were still a few hidden gems that stuck with me, even as I grew older. One particular book that impressed itself to me was Tales of Mr. Pengachoosa. Written by Caroline Rush in 1965 and published in 1973 by Crown Publishers, Inc., it’s a fairly old book. There’s very little information available online, with only a handful of comments on various sites wistfully reminiscing this piece of childhood.
Like most stories for children, Tales of Mr. Pengachoosa maintains a very simple plot. A young girl becomes ill in the winter, and is given a hamster by her parents to keep her company. She finds she is able to speak with the hamster, who tells her larger-than-life tales about his grandfather, Mr. Pengachoosa. Each of the eight chapters delves into a standalone tale of the titular character, holding the entire piece in only 6 or 7 pages. In these simple stories, Mr. Pengachoosa encounters magical children, a mermaid, talking trees, and a unicorn. What I find fascinating is how well the book captures a writing style I find underrepresented in most children’s books today. It’s a simple storyteller format that I find has roots in past folklore, echoing the work of Hans Christian Anderson in its own humble way.
I’ve already noted just how short each tale is, only six or seven pages long. Caroline’s work is quick, and to the point, only working with one or two fantastical premises in each story. These bite-sized chapters allow children to read at their own pace, and keep the story simple and approachable. I’ve also noticed how the author typically limits her descriptions of objects, allowing the reader the opportunity to use their imagination to fill in the gaps. Instead, there is an emphasis on action, and using small actions to bring the stories to life.
Tales of Mr. Pengachoosa is most impressive for how it frames its stories. Rather than simply relaying each fantastical tale directly, our narrator is a young girl, who hears these stories from her hamster. The narrator becomes relatable towards children, the targeted demographic. The narrator also reflects the image of a quiet, imaginative child who is often dismissed by older relatives. Perhaps the author assumed this is the most likely personality of a child who would sit and read this book. The young girl is also the only character who can hear the words her hamster speaks, giving way to each child’s secret desire to be special, seeing as the narrator is a stand in for the reader. Most of the stories also end somewhat unexpectedly, reminding the reader of the overarching story of the girl and her hamster. While the hamster narrates the unbelievable stories of Mr. Pengachoosa, the story typically remains coy about whether or not his adventures have actually happened. However, there is often an object, such as a painting, a necklace, or a button, from the stories that find their way into the narrator’s world, blurring the lines of fantasy and reality. By using its framing in this way, the story invites readers to speculate about all the answers it leaves untold, and encourages the imagination long after the story is over.