Embracing Reading with “A Pet Named Sneaker”

What does it mean to enjoy reading? When do you get the curiosity to read Sunday book reviews, or re-read that classic you breezed through in high school, picking up Cliff Notes because you didn’t see the relevance of less time at the mall? But why didn’t you see the relevance of less time at the mall? There’s lots of talk about our dwindling reading standards, then again, should reading be gauged by test scores?

Just like mastering a sport, reading needs to be practiced and encouraged by mentors who help you discover the many imaginations and opinions found inside books. Sure, there are people who are extra talented and can comprehend verbiage faster than others. But like athletics that keep bodies in shape, reading keeps your mind in shape; the more you read the better you get. But where does desire come from? Reading begins with well-constructed books introduced in early childhood.

I know what it’s like to be that kid who finds reading an insurmountable task. In third grade my parents must have been told I couldn’t read because cartons of books began appearing in my bedroom. I was instructed to read out loud which resulted in not comprehending very much. The words I read were empty noises, letters wouldn’t stay still. I could read better upside down.

In the sixth grade I was sent to a woman from Boston’s Children’s Hospital who presided over a grey box containing colored cards imprinted with stories. I was told to read a card and answer questions while outside my window classmates were having recess fun—a few months later I was removed from the school. In high school I was one of those students who plodded through assignments, and graduated unnoticed.

Then I met Dave. As a child, Dave was left alone a lot, so he learned to read for company. He read books while brushing his teeth, he read the phone book if nothing else was around. Dave became my husband and when I bathed or fed our young children, Dave would read to me. When Jennifer, our oldest, started reading Dave’s childhood favorites, books still in print a generation later, they were a novel experience for me too. Once when I was asked to read to Jenn’s kindergarten class, I froze.

One evening we dined with a work colleague of Dave’s. My dinner partner was his mother, a reading specialist, who told me meaningless bouncing words were a sign of a reading disorder. In the seventies there wasn’t much on Alaskan television, so we passed long winters in our mountain cabin reading out loud from Dave’s stash of books, an amusing bonus, books provided needed home insulation. Suddenly, reading clicked in for me. I became voracious, ordering books from catalogs, browsing through bookstore shelves. I could appear before the local assembly and read a complaint from the neighborhood. I went back to college and onto graduate school, reading over four hundred pages weekly.

My cousin Joan Heilbroner began writing stories for Random House Beginner Books in the early sixties. These stories had simple plots, line drawings and repetitive words that children wanted re-read again and again. Adults reading to children enjoyed them too because the messages could be construed on several levels. Before authors like Heilbroner, post-war books intended for primary grades contained little to no plot. Illustrations that often didn’t match story-lines, were poorly drawn then colored in with diluted pigments. Ubiquitous Dick, Jane and Dog Spot have become clichés for what was served up to elementary students as entertainment porridge.

Post-war Beginner Books had simple repetitive rhymes heightened by silly characters saturated in color, having been drawn by professionals who matched their art to the plot lines. Authors and illustrators worked to place narratives in settings familiar or at least relevant to baby boomer America—the vertical city and the burgeoning suburbs. Heilbroner set stories in her native New York City. Thus her illustrators were drawing apartments, corner banks and neighborhood groceries that didn’t look like just Anywhere, USA.

Jean Bundy Robert the Rose Horse

Joan Heilbroner’s Robert the Rose Horse (1962) was illustrated by renowned P.D. Eastman and remains in print. Robert is a horse who lives in the country. His farm doesn’t sport grazing cows or fenced pigs but a personified horse family. Robert’s parents are knitting and reading the newspaper on a Truman-esque front porch. Trouble begins when Robert invites his animal friends to his birthday party and sneezes at roses on his cake. The local doctor, who resembles many of P. D. Eastman’s characters, advises Robert to find a plant-free environment. In Heilbroner’s books, adults can enjoy what lurks beneath surfaces. After all, it was probably time for Robert’s parents to kick him out the proverbial nest. And of course the country doctor would think city folk lacked plant life.

Anyway, Robert heads to the city and attempts various urban jobs: draft animal and rent-a-horse. Sadly, he is fired for his allergic reactions — no workmen’s compensation in Robert’s world. After being hired by the New York City police who still use horses for crowd control, our horse hero finds himself in the midst of a bank robbery. This time he deliberately sniffs roses and sneezes the bad guys into oblivion. Not only does Robert stop the robbers, his gigantic sneeze cures his allergies. As Heilbroner quietly implies, what is bad for you can be good in the right circumstances.

Joan Heilbroner does the New York Times crossword weekly and has mastered half a dozen languages but decided to come out of literary retirement, publishing another Beginner Book called A Pet Named Sneaker (2013).

Sneaker is a snake in need of a home. As Heilbroner’s readers will comprehend, not everyone belongs to an in-crowd. And sometimes being different is OK. At the pet store, would-be owners ignore Sneaker until a boy named Pete finally adopts him and of course wacky things occur. When Sneaker is told snakes aren’t allowed in Pete’s school, Sneaker, yes, sneaks into Pete’s must-have- twenty-first-century- backpack.

Jean Bundy A Pet Named Sneaker

Pete’s classmates discover Sneaker and of course find him “gross” until a Cambodian girl decides to speak up. Here, Heilbroner imparts a lesson about the individual rising above the common throng. When something gains acceptance, there are generally followers right behind. Sneaker becomes a smash hit and learns to read and write at the feet of a hipster teacher in overalls and mod eyewear.

When summer comes, Pete takes Sneaker to the local swimming pool –a sign reads, “no pets.” Our hero Sneaker defies authority to save a drowning child. As Heilbroner shows, sometimes choices have to be made along life’s journey. Happily, Sneaker becomes assistant to the lifeguard. OK, Heilbroner doesn’t address the cost overruns to the local government who will have to foot the bill for the extra chlorine as the pool now allows pets. Perhaps she will address this in another book.

Sneaker’s illustrator is Pascal Lemaitre who scans his pen and ink drawings into a computer. Saturated primaries help turn Heilbroner’s pages and nicely move the story from odd urban characters at the pet store to the buff lifeguard.

Fifty years have elapsed since Joan Heilbroner wrote Robert the Rose Horse. I presume Robert’s late illustrator P. D. Eastman had to painstakingly construct four-color overlays, now done electronically. Eastman’s line quality is exquisite when drawing city brownstones, and carries through to his priceless facial expressions as seen on the face of the snooty rotund lady who rents Robert for a trot in presumably Central Park. The clothes on Eastman’s street people are now charmingly dated as men no longer wear hats and hardly ever ties — P. D.’s bank robbers sport neckwear too.

Sneaker’s illustrator Pascal Lemaitre hasn’t let the convenience of computer rendering detract from his work and it’s nice to see book illustrators getting deserved recognition. His characters are dressed as kooky New Yorkers. And his multi-racial kids have aesthetic volume and remain consistently drawn in their trendy t-shirts and jeans. Sneaker appears as a warm earth tone image and is nicely contrasted with brighter colors–hard to do well. Heilbroner’s words and Lemaitre’s imagery blend on every page especially where Pete twists Sneaker into a necktie, turban and handcuffs. It’s nice to see a kid not just resorting to electronic play.

The idea of Sneaker came from Plato, the late snake belonging to Heilbroner’s grandchildren, Quentin and Katrina. All three appear on the dedication page of A Pet Named Sneaker. Another Joan Heilbroner book still in print is Meet George Washington (1964), a Random House Step-Up book. Cousin Joanie dedicated Washington to me and my two sisters, “for Jean, Harriet and Lorraine Nelson”—what a priceless gift.