Misadventures

It was either in fifth or sixth grade that I first met Henry Reed in the pages of a book. I found Henry Reed, Inc, by Keith Robertson (with illustrations by Robert McCloskey), in the school library. I read the book in a single sitting that night, then proceeded to re-read it several times over the next few weeks.

Henry was the son of a diplomat, sent to rural New Jersey to spend the summer with his maternal Uncle and Aunt. In the tiny township of Grover's Corner, which was built on what had once been the family farm, he decided to set himself up in business. He painted the name "Henry Reed, Inc," on the old barn that resided on his mother's property, befriend Midge, a girl from down the road, and proceeded to experience a series of misadventures. Many of their tribulations came at the hands of the cranky neighbors, Mr. & Mrs. Apple, or involved Henry's beagle, Agony.

I loved the book. I checked out the book several more times, re-reading the tale again and again. When we moved to a new town, as we always did eventually, I was very saddened that I would no longer be able to walk up to that familiar shelf in the library and check out my favorite book. I nosed around the library of the new school and failed to discover my beloved book, but I found something even better: a sequel!!!

Henry Reed's Baby-sitting Service was set in the following summer, at familiar old Grover's Corner. In the first couple of chapters there were references to Henry enduring a road trip with Midge's family, which seemed a little odd. Then I noticed, up on the copyright page, a list of other books by the same author. There, right underneath Henry Reed, Inc was listed another sequel, Henry Reed's Journey.

I devoured the book, reading it about four times over the course of a weekend. It was great! Most of the old familiar characters, new but equally amusing adventures, and even better adversaries than they had had in the first book.

I searched the public library and found a copy of the first book, but no sign of this mysterious Journey. I checked out the first book, went back to school and re-checked out the third book from there, and read them both in quick succession. When I took the books back, I was enthusing about them to the librarian, and being disappointed that the second book wasn't available.

She explained to me the wonder of inter-library loan. We could put out a request, and if another library within the state had a copy of the book, it would be sent to us and I could keep it for a month! Of course I was all over that faster than you can say Jack Robinson.

The second book mentioned that Henry's father had been re-assigned to some country in the Pacific, and so he arrived in the U.S. at San Francisco where, conveniently enough, Midge's family had to be for some kind of conference. They picked up Henry and took him with them on their road trip across America back to New Jersey. Midge and Henry got into all sorts of trouble, again.

Apparently I babbled about how much I liked these books quite a bit, because the following Christmas one of the librarians at the public library (who happened to also be the pastor's wife at the church we attended), gave me my own copies of the first three Henry Reed books. They were published by Tempo, which was an imprint of Bantam that produced "hardcover paperback" editions for libraries. See, while Bantam was producing a paperback version of a book, they would take a small part of the press run and bind it in a miniature hard cover, then offer them under the Tempo imprint. I must say that the books have held up a bit better than regular paperbacks I bought around the same time.

At last I had my own copies of my three favorite books in all the world. I re-read them a couple of times over the next year or so. I still loved them, but I was coming back to them less often. I had read every science fiction book in the public library, and was working my way through dozens more ordered through inter-library loan.

One day when I stopped at the library to return some books, my librarian friend told me I should head up into the children's section and check out the R's. She had a wicked twinkle in her eye. Very intrigued, I headed up. There, next to the library's copy of Henry Reed, Inc, was a shiny, new book entitled, Henry Reed's Big Show.

A new Henry Reed book! I had to check it out, of course.

I found the fourth book decidedly less entertaining. I was a bit peeved at this, first blaming the author. Then I sat down and re-read the first book, then compared it carefully to the fourth. I made myself look at them objectively. The fourth book was just as funny as the first. The misadventures were just as wild. They were new and different than any of the misadventures in the first three books.

The problem was not that Mr. Robertson had gone back to the well too many times (that does happen, I know, but I think it hadn't here), but that I had changed too much.

Between the time I had found the first book and the third book, I started going through puberty and had all the internal drama that entails. By the time the fourth book came out, I had experienced a rather large number of misadventures of my own--including several times when I was certain people would realize just how “abnormal” I was. When you've spent many hours writhing in emotional agony convinced that you're going to burn in hell for all eternity because of desires that you feel powerless to control, the antics of Midge and Henry seemed pretty tame.

The first few books had been aimed at a sixth grade reading level. The fourth one was listed as 7th through 8th, and it did have a slightly higher level of sophistication, but it hadn't quite kept pace with me.

The saddest moment of that experience was when I realized that if I had discovered the first book then, instead of a few years earlier, I would have found it very uninteresting. I probably would have thought it silly and beneath me.

I still have my mini hardback copies of the first three books. I have gone back and re-read each of them at least once as an adult. I still like them, but I hadn't thought about them in months. Sometimes years go by without me giving them a thought.

Then, one morning this week I dreamt that I found a fifth Henry Reed book in a used book store. It was so cheap that I couldn't resist buying it, but in the dream, when I got home, I couldn't find the first three books. I searched everywhere in the house. They were nowhere to be found.

I woke up with a terrible sense of loss. It took me less then three minutes to find the real books in my real home. Even when I saw how thick the dust was on top of them, and realized that I couldn't remember if it was eight years ago or twelve that I last read one, I still knew that I would have been very hurt if they hadn't been sitting on the shelf where I expected them to be.

I searched the web for information on the books. The first and third book are in print and available. They are the only books Robertson won awards for, and it seems they have been reprinted most often. I also saw that he did write a fifth book, Henry Reed's Think Tank, in 1986. That was just five years before the author died.

I felt sad that he was gone, and sad that it had never occurred to me to look him or his books up, before this. Keith Robertson was born in 1921. He graduated from the Naval Academy and served in World War II, where he commanded a destroyer and earned five battle stars. His first book was published in 1948, Ticktock and Jim. He published lots of books aimed at kids between the ages of 10 and 14. He also published a series of adult mysteries. I was a little surprised to see that he was the author of The Year of the Jeep. It was a book I read when I was about 15 or so, and liked quite a bit. I don't know if I realized at the time it was written by the same author as my beloved Henry Reed.

The first Henry Reed book was written in 1958, and has remained continuously in print since. The second was published in 1963, and has been reprinted several times. The third in 1966, and has since been continuously in print. The fourth was published in 1970, just before I discovered the first one for myself. Then the fifth in 1986.

Everything I know about Mr. Robertson is contained there in those two paragraphs. Through the pages of his books I met Henry and Midge, vivid characters who seemed so real. I have stronger memories of Henry and Midge than I do of some real people I knew, even some that I knew very well. So, while I never knew Keith Robertson, a bit of his imagination lives on in me, and in the memories of a lot of other people.

Among the things I found during my web search was a review from a man who had loved the Henry Reed books when he was a kid, and had recently bought a copy of the first book to read to his children. He said after reading the second chapter to the kids, he wound up sitting up all night re-reading the whole thing, because he couldn't wait to find out how it ended. By the time he posted the review, his kids had reached the end of the book, and wanted to know if there was any more of Henry and Midge's story out there.

What more could a writer hope for?

(Originally published 10 April, 2003)