Books: Walter Brooks and Freddy the Pig
I’m not certain of when I first read one of Walter Brooks’ “Freddy the Pig” series books, but odds are it was somewhere between fifth and sixth grade. We’d moved to Napa, California the summer before my 5th grade year, and shortly after that, my older brother Chris and I both signed on as volunteer “pages” at the local library, located in the historic Goodman Building downtown (deemed an historic landmark in 1974). When you move a lot, you use landmarks and locations to keep track of the years.
The Goodman Library (courtesy of the Napa County Historical Society), long before Chris and I worked there
It was a great gig. On weekends and after school, I’d re-shelve returned and errant volumes, stock the bookmobile (in the summer…we also went on the road!), read books to groups of children, and present puppet shows. In my more leisurely moments, I explored the nooks and crannies of the turn-of-the-century stone building. Each break time was different. One day, I’d listen to some 12″ 78 rpm spoken word recordings, the next I’d thumb through hundreds of National Geographics. Through it all, I acquired a working knowledge of the Dewey Decimal system which serves me to this day.
But most importantly, working at the Goodman jump-started my nascent love of literature. That summer, I discovered the Greek comedies, Keith Robertson and the wonderfully skewed worlds of Richard Armour and James Thurber. And I ventured for the first time onto the Bean Farm (a family name, not a specific cash crop) in upstate New York, and the anthropomorphic adventures of Freddy the Pig.
The initial “Freddy” book, eventually retitled Freddy Goes to Florida and released with new cover art by Kurt Wiese
I’d never met a character quite like Walter Brooks’ every-pig. Even though he stood (albeit frequently four-legged) at the center of the action (more about that in a minute), he was flawed. He could be cranky, self-centered, sarcastic and less-than-heroic. But he was a literate and loyal friend, and could be amazingly resourceful in tight spots and sticky situations. In short, he was real. Well, as real as a talking pig could be, I guess.
But he wasn’t originally the star of what eventually became a twenty-six volume series.
When Brooks — who had already written several short stories for magazines of the day, including The Saturday Evening Post* and The New Yorker — first penned books one and two (To and Again and More To and Again), Freddy was just along for the ride. Those early works featured the animal members of the Bean farm heading off to (respectively) Florida and the North Pole, facing all sorts of adventures along the way. But like many talented members of ensemble casts (see Annette on The Mickey Mouse Club, Barry McGuire in the New Christy Minstrels, and Gomer Pyle on The Andy Griffith Show), Freddy was destined to be first among equals. He finally took center stage in Brooks’ third book, Freddy the Detective, and — after his cameo appearance 3/4 of the way through The Story of Freginald (which immediately followed) — he never looked back.
From To and Again (1928) through Freddy and the Dragon (published posthumously in 1958), Brooks (and his publisher, Knopf) delivered nearly a “Freddy” a year. Along the way, the popular pig and his pals made great friends (Mr. Boomschmidt, Mr. Camphor and Uncle Benjamin Bean) fought unique villans (Mr. EHA, Herb Garble, Watson P. Condiment and Simon, the rat) mirrored cultural trends (spaceships, flying saucers and football) and snuck in some valuable life-lessons to a multi-generational fanbase.
Three representative Freddy titles
For later printings, Knopf “Freddy-ized” the series, renaming a few volumes to put the star in the title. For example, To and Again became Freddy Goes to Florida and Wiggins for President became Freddy the Politician.
I would be remiss to omit the major contribution of prolific illustrator Kurt Wiese to the success of the series. Although he didn’t execute the original cover of the first two books, he created the final twenty-four. Then, when the first two books were re-titled, he rectified that situation by creating new covers for those as well. A prolific and highly-sought artist, he illustrated more than 300 books (many with Chinese themes, such as The Story of Ping). He received the Caldecott Honor Book Award twice. He was also an author, penning The Chinese Ink Stick (1929) and others.
Great sales equal great availability, right? Nope. When I attempted to collect the series in the 1980s, I was dismayed to learn that every volume was out-of-print. After looking through bookstores (in those pre-internet days) for more than ten years, I eventually acquired thirteen of the series in original hardcover. A few titles were reprinted in the late 1980s, but even those were not widely distributed.
Today, the complete series is back in print, thanks to Overlook Press, following years of hard campaigning by a dedicated group known as Friends of Freddy, who (which?) still maintain(s) a marvelous website (CLICK HERE) offering more than you could ever hope to know about Freddy, Brooks and the series. They also produce a newsletter and hold annual conventions. Overlook has now reprinted all twenty-six books, and a couple of “compilation” volumes as well. A few years ago, my wife and I proudly purchased and presented a full hardcover set to our daughters’ elementary school library. And the Xbox generation is reading them.
One of the more well-known FoF, children’s literature expert and library director Michael Cart (who wrote jacket blubs for the reissues), features the Freddy series in his fine 1995 volume, What’s So Funny? Wit and Wisdom in American Children’s Literature. He has also contributed a fair amount of content on the FoF site.
You can pick up the Freddy books through my GIGIG store (click HERE), and also through the Friends of Freddy website bookstore. It would probably be nice if you went to their site for purchases, though, since all profits support the FoF organization.
In a nutshell, the books are, to quote the dust jacket of Wiggins for President (part of my hard-sought first edition collection): “All by Walter Brooks. All Funny.”
*Fans of 1960s sitcom television will be interested to note that “Mr. Ed,” which ran for six seasons and starred Allen Young (and the voice of cowboy star Allan “Rocky” Lane as the eponymous horse), was inspired by a series of Post stories by Walter Brooks.