Worth the Candle

The Little Brute Family (My Readers) By Russell Hoban, Lillian Hoban (Illustrator) Cover Image
By Russell Hoban, Lillian Hoban (Illustrator)
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ISBN: 9780312563738
Published: Square Fish - November 8th, 2011

Sometimes you can love a book solely for the reason that it introduces children to a great and useful word: In this case, brute. Here is it the patronym of a family of red-haired monsters who know nothing of refinement. The quarrelsome Brutes breakfast on sand and gravel, make kites too heavy to fly, and are summarized in the remarkably economic lines:

They never laughed and said, “Delightfu!.”
They never smiled and said, “How lovely!”

Their creator was the astounding Russell Hoban, who died in December. A man of many talents, he wrote for adults and children and somehow never got quite as much recognition as his devoted fans would wish. (He is best known for the Frances books, a feat that made sure children outside of Wisconsin would learn the definition of badger.)

In The Little Brute Family, a little child (Baby Brute—named for his birth order, as in the way of all such fables) will lead his family toward constructive change faster than you can say cognitive behavioral therapy. Walking in a field of daisies one day, Baby Brute catches a good feeling and takes it home in his pocket. The good feeling is contagious, and the Brutes begin to collect salad greens and berries and to stop snarling at one another. Before long they’ve changed their name to Nice.

That sounds a little precious in synopsis, but we assure you the story is “delightful!” and “lovely!”

This book went out of print for a while, and it now is back in the early-reader format—a change that we hope assures it more longevity. Publishers have been backing off picture books, in part because the panic to teach reading to ever-younger children means that parents move their children out of picture books into chapter books faster and earlier. We rant against this trend, but in the spirit of looking on the bright side, we can applaud when a book like The Little Brute Family moves into an affordable and classroom-adoption-friendly format.

Finally, we’ll mention that a preschool teacher Hicklebee’s knows well would read aloud about the Brutes and then give every child a cotton-ball “blossom” to keep in her or his pocket. This assured an outbreak of good feelings—at least until Moms washed little clothes without checking the pockets.