The Cricket in Times Square

I’ve been seeing The Cricket in Times Square ever since the librarians let me sneak into in the “big library” when I was in first grade (the primary levels in our school used to have a separate kiddie library), but somehow I never got to read it, not until I found the audio book at the bargain bookstore.

I can’t listen to an audiobook without having read the book first, because my attention tends to drift away after a while, and I end up tuning out the sound. I wanted to listen to the Cricket audiobook because the box said it was narrated by Tony Shalhoub, so I dug out the wornncopy of the book I had lying around in Planet TBR and decided it was finally time to give it a shot.

The Cricket in Times Square by George Selden (illustrated by Garth Williams) won the Newbery Honor award in 1960. Set in New York, the story is about Chester cricket, who ends up on Times Square after falling asleep in a picnic basket that is taken along on a subway ride.

A boy named Mario, who works at his family’s struggling newsstand, finds Chester and decides to take him in because he believes the cricket will bring them good luck. At the Bellini newsstand, Chester makes friends with Tucker, a chatty Broadway mouse, and Tucker’s best friend, Harry Cat (alley cat! :D) and the three of them cook up a scheme that brings luck to the Bellinis.

If you’ve read this blog long enough, you know I’m not all that fond of animal stories, because a lot of them turn out horribly twee, but this book was surprisingly lovely.

The talking animals — that’s Chester, Tucker, and Harry — were candid and  clever and amusing, and I enjoyed  their escapades: the New York adventure, the dollar debacle, and the “parties” they had!

The human side of it, however, I find a bit problematic. Granted it was written decades ago, but there’s no way around this: the book is racist.

The Bellinis are your stereotype Italian working class immigrants, which is not all that objectionable, as the third wave of European immigration was after World War II (but if you’re Italian and you find the book offensive, well, let me know). But there’s a Chinese character, Sai Fong, who owns an Chinese novelty shop (“also do hand laundry”) in Chinatown who speaks this way — and I quote:

“Oh velly good!… You got clicket! Eee hee hee! Velly good! You got clicket! Hee hee hee!”

And this is belaboring the point, but weirdly enough, not all the R’s are L’s; when Sai Fong narrates the legend of the cricket (in broken English), the cricket some of his R’s are intact, like star, read, desire, and hear, as if the writer forgot to come back for them when he was doing the substitutions.

And oh, the Chinese novelty shop carries “Chinese odds and ends” like “silk kimonos,” and after Sai Fong sells (for loose change) Mario a cricket cage shaped like a pagoda, he gives him a fortune cookie! Ok, fine, fortune cookies were adapted by the Chinese in America after World War 2. But Sai Fong offers it to him, saying “You want Chinee fortune cookie?” On another visit, Mario sits down to a Chinese dinner (where they wear robes that sound suspiciously like kimonos) and eat chow yuk, chow mein, and some sweet and sour duck. American  Chinese dishes were popular that time, but would two old Chinese gentlemen have them for dinner? (Or would they have it delivered from the Chinese place around the corner?)

I’m not Chinese but I do have some (muddled) Chinese blood from both sides of the family, but even if I didn’t, jI still find how the depiction of Sai Fong in the novel offensive.

I read the 1970 edition, and from listening to the audiobook, some parts have been rewritten. Sai Fong still speaks in somewhat broken English but he does get his Rs (and Shalhoub speaks Sai Fong’s lines with a “Chinese” accent), and he doesn’t laugh quite as maniacally as he does in the 1970 edition.  And the “kimonos” are changed to just “robes.” The food is still Chinese takeaway fare, but well, that’s a small complaint.

But Tony Shalhoub does a bang-up job of voicing this audiobook, I must say, and I normally don’t have the patience to listen from start to finish (I haven’t even finished Harry Potter on audio yet!) but Shalhoub’s animated reading makes it worth the while. Chester’s song is orchestra music, and that’s just lovely.

I’ll have to try and look for a later edition of this book to check how they’ve rewritten it, but racism aside, I thought the overall story was lovely, and whatever rewrites they make to keep the book, erm, how do you say this, polite, will not affect the story in any way, unlike, say the controversial Huckleberry Finn rewrite.  Oh, and Garth Williams’ drawings are spectacular, too.

I found out tonight that the book has sequels — I don’t remember seeing any yet, ever! But I’ll keep an eye out for them when I go book hunting; ‘d love to read about Chester’s adventures with Tucker and Harry after this book.


The Cricket in Times Square, turtleback copy and audiobook, 4/5 stars (for the story, not the racism) for the book, 4.5/5 stars for the audiobook

Books #64-65 for 2011







6 thoughts on “The Cricket in Times Square”

  1. It is a lovely story, and yes, so many children’s books written in the last century are racist or what we now term politically incorrect. I recently read the unabridged version of HR Haggard’s King Solomon’s Mines and was shocked to find out how racist (colonial) it was. But I too looked for Chester’s other books – several now live on my shelf alongside The Cricket in Times Square, which incidentally is a lovely gift for people who live in or love NYC :)

    1. My favorite childhood book was the racist Little Black Sambo!

      Oh, that reminds me, I want to give the audiobook to Alonso — I think he’ll love the cricket songs in it! :) I’ll bring it along next time I see you

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