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Leo Edwards and the Secret and Mysterious Order of the Freckled Goldfish

By Betsy Byars

In 1935, at age seven, I sent off two two-cent stamps to Leo Edwards in order to become a member of the Secret and Mysterious Order of the Freckled Goldfish. The club took its name from Edwards's book Poppy Ott and the Freckled Goldfish. For my two stamps I was to receive a membership card adorned with a comical picture of the freckled goldfish (in top hat), containing the club's rules and regulations along with Leo Edwards's autograph and a coveted club button. I was a little worried because the invitation to club membership had said, "Any boy can join who wants to," but my fears proved to be groundless.

I was living in a cotton mill community in rural North Carolina at the time. Pleasure reading was considered a sort of frivolity there, and most of the kids in my school were marking time until they became fourteen and could go to work in the mill. So there was no hope of my organizing a local chapter of the club as other readers were doing. The local chapter activities were reported in a special section called "Our Chatter-Box." Chapters sent word of their libraries and their fund raisers, and one group even had their own robes with the freckled goldfish on the front and back. I would have given a lot to have had one of those robes.

Leo Edwards was my favorite author then, and he had three series that I read whenever I could get my hands on them —the Jerry Todd, Poppy Ott, and Tuffy Bean books. The Tuffy Bean books were my initiation into Leo Edwards's world and had a special appeal for me. Tuffy Bean was a dog and the narrator of his books. He had various masters throughout the series — the nice Mr. Bean who used to spit tenderly on the end of Tuffy's tail in Tuffy Bean's Puppy Days, a showman named Ebenezer Tiffet in Tuffy Bean's One-Ring Circus. In Tuffy Bean at Funny-Bone Farm, my personal favorite, Tuffy's master is Tod. Forced to move to the country because Aunt Judy loses all her money, Tod and his siblings undertake small money-raising projects, solve local mysteries, and engage in various activities. Tuffy assists the humans in their endeavors, even though he is plagued throughout the book by a domestic problem. Sauerkraut, a female dog, wants Tuffy to be a father to her pups. Here is Tuffy at Sauerkraut's fake death bed scene:

She lay on her blanket in the moonlight.

"Who is it?" she inquired, too weak at first to glance up.

"Me," says I, as I crouched beside her.

Then our eyes met. And as I saw the yearning in hers a lump rose in my throat. I never had loved her. I never wanted to love her. For she wasn't my kind. But she plainly loved me. And I pitied her.

"I'm glad you came," says she. . . . Then, with a supreme effort, she turned to her blubbering pups. "Remember what I told you," she further struggled with her sinking voice. "When mamma is gone, papa will take care of you. . . . Don't forget," the words came faintly, as she fixed her expiring eyes on me, "to squeeze little Oliver if he drinks too much."

The passage seems just as fresh to me today as when I first read it fifty years ago.

Jerry Todd, Pirate opens with an admirable sentence: "Now that we had an island of our own, just like Robinson Crusoe, the proper thing for us to do, Scoop Ellery said in good leadership, was to stock it up with animals." That was my kind of opening sentence, and at once the four all-male Juvenile Jupiter Detectives — Jerry, Scoop, Peg, and Red — were off trading for whatever livestock, mostly dogs and cats, they could acquire. The Juvenile Jupiter Detectives frequently had to contend with ghosts, robbers, and swindlers, and in addition they were bedeviled by a rival gang, the Strickers, with whom they waged a constant and inventive war. The Strickers weren't "on the square," so while the mud-ball naval battle or the ripe tomato fight might occasionally go against the Juvenile Jupiter Detectives, in the end justice and the good guys prevailed.

The Poppy Ott series was a spin-off from the Jerry Todd books. The titles were fantastic: Poppy Ott and the Freckled Goldfish (the swindler here had developed a mud which would cure freckles); Poppy Ott and the Galloping Snail (the snail, I'm almost sorry to report, was a car); Poppy Ott and the Prancing Pancake (the pancakes seemed, for a while, to grow hair on the heads of the bald men who were willing to wear them. At the time, I thought the books more than lived up to their titles.

The appeal of these books was the humor and the vitality which I found lacking in the other series books of the thirties. Leo Edwards's characters were based on real people, and the town — Tutter — was based on Utica, Illinois, so there was a sense of real place and real people, too. When I read the books now, however, there is a Tom Sawyerish, bygone days feeling in the boys' activities and in their instant, all-out belief in the whispering mummy, purring egg, waltzing hen, or tittering totem.

By the time I was about ten or eleven, I had outgrown the books. My new favorite author was Margaret Pedler. Margaret Pedler wrote about spunky English girls who flew airplanes and climbed pyramids and fell in love with English men with gray eyes and dark secrets in their past. The spunky English girls' love went unrequited for the full four hundred pages because of the dark secret, but that suited me just fine.

As a writer, I never felt I owed much of a debt to Margaret Pedler, but I can see Leo Edwards's influence in my books — in my preference for writing boys' books, my pleasure in the lighthearted prank, my desire to have the parents out of the action, my love of the outdoor story. Or maybe I just want to claim kinship with a childhood hero. Certainly I envy Leo Edwards the fact that, as a writer, he showed no signs of uncertainties or doubts about where his next idea or book was coming from.

Indeed, in the closing paragraphs of his books, just after most of the loose ends were tied up (I say most because, for example, the fate of the dogs and cats wandering loose on the island is in doubt to this day), Leo Edwards would speak to his readers, either as himself or as one of his characters, in order to describe the next book in the series. There was a sort of theatrical excitement to these last paragraphs. Coming soon! Don't miss it! A. rollicking, hilarious, outdoor story full of mystery, surprise, and boyish battles! You'll split your sides!

The stories and apparently the man himself teemed with energy and enthusiasm. And in the Our Chatter-Box section he did something unique among children's authors ;— he begged his readers to write. "The more letters the merrier," he claimed. At one point he even invited his readers to visit! "I'm always mighty glad to have my young readers drop in on me at Hi-Lee Cottage, our summer home at Lake Ripley, just out of Cambridge. Boys never lack a welcome here, as many hundreds of boys already know."

And maybe even a lucky girl or two.

[Originally published in The Horn Book; v.61, n5, p533-35, Sept-Oct 1985. For information on childrens author Betsy Byers, please visit www.betsybyars.com. Published by permission of the author.]

 

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