I’ve been wanting to re-read The Cricket in Times Square for a couple of years now, but I was a little nervous because I remember loving it as a child. Revisiting a book or a movie that you remember fondly from years past is always a little risky; I’m glad I took a chance in this case, because “adult me” found this book just as delightful as “kid me” did.
The story is about a cricket named Chester who, after accidentally stowing away in a picnic basket, finds himself transported from his home in Connecticut to Manhattan. He ends up in Times Square where a boy named Mario Bellini finds him at his parents’ newspaper stand. Mario hears Chester chirp before he sees him, and author George Selden expresses the beauty of this discovery: “It was like a quick stroke across the strings of a violin, or like a harp that has been plucked suddenly. If a leaf in a green forest far from New York had fallen at midnight through the darkness into a thicket, it might have sounded like that.”
Chester is befriended by Tucker the mouse and Harry the cat, who help acclimate Chester to his new surroundings. Tucker is streetwise and a bit of a schemer, always proudly showing off his haul from the day’s scrounging. Harry is the quieter, wiser presence, perhaps just a touch sardonic towards Tucker’s antics. They are united in their affection for the Bellinis (particularly Mario), whose newspaper stand is struggling.
Mario adopts Chester as his new pet and even goes to Chinatown to buy a fancy cage with what little spending money he has. In Chinatown, Mario learns that crickets are good luck. Unfortunately, Mama Bellini is highly suspicious of Mario’s pet and, after several mishaps at the newsstand, threatens to toss the cricket out on his ear. At just the right moment, Chester starts playing music. Not just regular cricket music of the type he composed in his lush country home. He starts imitating music he heard on the radio, including an Italian folk song that happens to be Mama Bellini’s favorite. He follows up that by playing pieces from operatic works, and soon Chester is a sensation. People are stopping by the newsstand just to see the celebrity cricket and hear his concerts. The Bellinis are doing a thriving business, but. . . .can a cricket really remain happy in Times Square?
This simple story explores the theme of fame and whether it’s all it’s cracked up to be. Selden crafts one of the finest expressions of the difference between doing something because you love it versus doing something because it pays the rent when he writes, ” . . .although he thought the glory was very nice, Chester found that it made you tired. Two concerts a day, every day, was an exhausting program. And he wasn’t used to playing on a schedule. Back home in the meadow, if the sun felt nice, or the moon was full, or if he wanted to have a musical conversation with his friend the lark, he would chirp because the mood was on him. But here he had to begin performing at eight and four-thirty whether he felt like it or not. Of course, he as very glad to be helping the Bellinis, but a lot of the joy was gone from his playing.”
This is also a story of friendship and how friends support each other through their decisions. Tucker, Harry, and even Mario come to terms with Chester needing to be in a place that makes him happy, in spite of their own personal feelings of loss. Additionally, Chester is a fine role model for children. When Chester accidentally eats part of a $2 bill and when a fire breaks out while the animals are partying, Tucker advises Chester to high-tail it out of there, but the cricket insists he has to stay and face the consequences.
If all that doesn’t sound charming enough, you should also take a moment to appreciate the artwork by Garth Williams, which I’ve scattered through this review.
The Cricket in Times Square won the John Newbery Medal in 1961, and I’m happy to agree that it deserves the award. I borrowed this book from the library for this read (the copy I remember from my childhood must have belonged to one of my siblings), but as soon as I’m done here I’m going to begin searching the Internet for a lovely second-hand copy to call my own.