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Wednesday, August 01, 2012

Ah, Fudge! Tales of a First-Class Children's Author

Do you want to know what one of my favourite memories of school was?

I know, I know, some of you are probably crying foul over the fact that I would even mention school a month before it starts back up again for another year.  But, just hear me out here.

When I was a little boy, I used to really enjoy it when the teacher would call us over to the designated “story time circle” (usually it was a carpeted corner of the classroom) and read us a section of a children’s novel.  From first grade to fourth grade, usually just before the afternoon recess began, our teacher would call all of us down to the story time circle, grab whatever book that he or she happened to be reading at the time, and picked up where we left off. 

Depending on how interesting the story was, some of us kids would be absolutely hooked on the book, and actually cried out in horror when the teacher announced that she was finished reading today’s chapter.  We wanted the book to go on.  We would have been happy just listening to the teacher read us the entire book all day long!

Let’s put it this way.  If shows like “The Young and the Restless” and “Days of our Lives” were the adult versions of story time circle, well, characters such as Jacob Two-Two and Winnie-the-Pooh were our versions of Victor Newman and Sami Brady.

(Not that Jacob Two-Two or Winnie-the-Pooh ever had illicit affairs or tried to kill anybody...that we know of, anyway.)

I guess the point that I’m trying to make is that story time circle was a fantastic part of growing up.  Teachers who took the time to open our eyes and ears to wonderful new worlds and who chose each book with care, hoping that the stories that they chose would keep us entertained and excited about reading.

(Or, at the very least, they held story time circle in the hopes of keeping a classroom of twenty-two students quiet.)

Mind you, some of the books that the teacher read were not exactly my kind of book.  When one of my classmates brought in a copy of one of those “Babysitters Club” books, it took everything in me to sit still through the reading.  The girls in my class loved it...the boys just wanted to play with the various toys in the room.  Heck, I imagine some of us boys would have rather studied the multiplication tables than sit through a reading of that book!

But there were other books that were so fascinating that you couldn’t bear to miss a day of school, because you’d be otherwise lost in the plot.  This happened to me one year in school when I was sick with the flu for an entire week.  I was there when the teacher read the first chapter, and became sick the following day.  By the time I was well enough to return to school, the teacher was already halfway through Chapter 7!  I was so upset!

Fortunately, the book my teacher was reading just happened to be available in our school library.  So the first chance I got, I immediately checked the book out.  To my surprise, I found that the book happened to have a sequel, which naturally I had to look for as well.  In fact, this particular series happened to spawn a total of three sequel books written between 1980 and 2002. 

The books were written by best-selling author Judy Blume.  At 74 years old, Blume has written 27 novels for children and young adults.  Her works have sold upwards of eighty million copies, and has been translated into 31 different languages.  Some of her books for teenagers have been widely regarded as “coming of age” stories, as those stories often tackled subjects that were long considered taboo.  In “Are You There God?  It’s Me, Margaret”, the story deals with the subject of menstruation.  “Iggie’s House” tackled the subject of racism.  And “Forever” dealt with the issue of teenage sex.  Despite the controversial subject matter, I can’t think of one person who didn’t benefit from reading those sorts of books.  I think for many, it helped them cope with these very real problems knowing that someone else was experiencing it too (albeit fictional).

But there were other books that Judy Blume wrote that didn’t have such a heavy subject matter.  The series of books that I wish to discuss in this blog entry are perfect examples of the light-hearted, witty humour that Blume was also known for.

Remember how I told you that I was upset that the stomach flu kept me away from school missing half of the book that my teacher was reading?  That book happened to be the first of the series known as the “Fudge” series.  It was “Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing”, originally written in 1972.

“Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing” depicted the story of the Hatcher family, who lived in an apartment building right in the heart of New York City.  In the first book, the Hatcher family is a family of four.  Warren Hatcher works at an advertising agency, while Anne Hatcher stays at home raising their two sons, Peter and Farley Drexel.  But Farley Drexel hates being called by that name (with a name like Farley Drexel, who wouldn’t?).  As a result, he is called by his rather sweet nickname, “Fudge”.

But according to Peter, Fudge is anything BUT sweet.  As the story begins, we learn that the relationship between Peter and Fudge is somewhat strained.  Deep down inside, the Hatcher brothers love each other, and Fudge really does try to be a good brother to Peter.  Peter wants nothing to do with it.  He sees Fudge as being nothing but a nuisance, and believes that his parents let Fudge get away with the most obnoxious behaviour because he happens to be barely three years old. 

As the book continues, the reader discovers that Peter may have a point.  In the course of “Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing”, Fudge goes on a hunger strike, knocks out his two front teeth jumping off the monkey bars pretending to be a bird, refuses to open his mouth while visiting the orthodontist, throws mashed potatoes all over the walls of a restaurant, and draws all over a school project that Peter worked on with classmates Jimmy Fargo and Sheila Tubman.

Oh, and unfortunately, at least one turtle was harmed in the making of this story.  That’s all that I’ll say about that tale.

Eight years later, a sequel was written.  1980’s “Superfudge” continued on from where “Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing” left off.  Set two years after the first book, Peter is eleven, Fudge is four, and Anne is pregnant with child number three.  At first, Peter is upset at the news, and he decides that he wants to run away from home, believing that the new baby would be just like Fudge.  His mother convinces Peter to stick it out believing that once the baby is born he’ll change his mind.  Soon enough, Peter does just that when Tamara Roxanne Hatcher is born.  Of course, she ends up being nicknamed “Tootsie”, which sparks the humourous observation by Peter that maybe his parents really wanted a candy store.  The family also relocates to Princeton, New Jersey for a year, which just adds to the frustration that Peter is feeling.

Of course, Fudge is just as mischievous in “Superfudge” as he was in the first book.  He ends up having some good moments, such as getting a pet myna bird named “Uncle Feather” and meeting his favourite children’s author.  But there’s also moments in which Fudge does some rather childish things.  He once called a teacher “Rat-Face” when she refused to call him “Fudge” (though in Fudge’s defense, I had a teacher like Mrs. Hildebrandt who I wanted to call “Rat-Face” myself!).  He also poured ice water down Peter’s back when he was on a date, and he even took off from home on his bike when Peter told him that he couldn’t come with him on a picnic!

In the end of that book though, Peter came to the conclusion that no matter where he lived in the world, he could find a way to make it work.  And, I think that in the year that he spent in Princeton, he began to understand things better, and he even started to get along better with Fudge as a result.

There were two more Fudge books that were released since “Superfudge”.  “Fudge-A-Mania” was released in 1990, and the plot of that novel depicted the adventures that the Hatcher family had while vacationing in Maine.  Peter has to deal with the fact that he has to spend the whole summer with his arch-rival Sheila Tubman, while Fudge makes a new friend named Mitzi.  And in “Double Fudge”, which was released in 2002, the Hatcher family travels to Washington D.C. and meet up with some extended family that also happen to have a child also named Farley Drexel Hatcher!

For the record, I’ve read Fudge-A-Mania, but not Double Fudge.

I think my favourite books in the Judy Blume “Fudge” series were the first two though.  They were the ones that were out when I was growing up and I read and re-read them.  I think I read Superfudge so much that the cover actually fell off of it!  But that was the brilliance of Judy Blume’s work.  She wrote stories that were so entertaining and true to life that she made you want to read them!  She wrote a story so good that I would have gladly come to class with flu germs to hear my teacher read the story...even though I would have sickened half my class in the process. 

I mean, if the books could inspire a 1995 television series that aired on Saturdays, then it had to be good, right? 

TRIVIA:  In the “Fudge” television series, the role of Anne Hatcher was played by Eve Plumb, who you may know better as Jan Brady from The Brady Bunch!

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