Long before Friends of Bill arrived on the scene, there were Friends of Freddy.
Freddy is the porcine protagonist of 26 children's books written by New Yorker staff writer Walter R. Brooks and illustrated by Kurt Wiese. On the sunny farm of William and Martha Bean in Upstate New York, readers meet their pig--who is by turns a pilot and balloonist, detective and baseball player, poet and newspaper editor.
Even though he is lazy and his tail uncurls when he is scared, Freddy manages to foil a series of villains with help from barnyard friends like Jinx, the swashbuckling cat, and Mrs. Wiggins, a self-deprecating cow.
Fans claim Freddy as the predecessor of such famous literary pigs as those in George Orwell's "Animal Farm" and Wilbur of E.B. White's "Charlotte's Web." But to their great dismay the books, which appeared between 1927 and Brooks' death in 1958, have been allowed to go out of print, one by one.
In 1986, with prodding from the Friends of Freddy, Alfred A. Knopf reissued eight Freddy titles. Sadly, all copies of the books are now gone and the publisher has no concrete plans to reissue the titles. What would it take to bring back the books?
"One hundred passionate people are not enough," said Arthur Levine, Knopf's new editor for children's books. "There needs to be broad interest from booksellers and libraries around the country."
But at a time when children's publishers are economizing and narrowing their offerings, Freddy is somewhat hogtied in the quest for a coveted back list spot.
"Publishers are trying to put out new and exciting titles and at the same time keep their back list books from going out of print," Levine said. "Returning to the back list a book that has already had a life takes up resources."
Although the books may not be politically correct--Mrs. Bean bakes wonderful cookies and the male animals are generally more adventurous than the female ones--there's a richness to the world of the Bean Farm and a strong moral code that is timeless. Freddyites believe that with a little commitment by a publisher, the classic tales of friendship could sell just as well as "Charlotte's Web."
Among them is Friends of Freddy "founding pig" Dave Carley, a Toronto playwright who launched the group in the mid '80s when he discovered that the three remaining Freddy titles--held together by hockey tape--in his local library were still loved and read by kids. Like Carley, many Friends of Freddy are connected with writing and books.
"The disappointment when you reached the last book was so great, you felt obliged to try to write one yourself," Carley said.
When the Freddy books were reissued in the late '80s, branches across the Los Angeles public library system happily replaced worn editions. A healthy sign--especially given the length of the books, said Susan Patron, senior children's librarian. The books run more than 200 pages--in big type, and with illustrations--but most of today's middle-grade children's books average 100 pages.
"The interest level is still there, but children today aren't as good readers as when the Freddy books were published and their length may be off-putting," Patron said. "I do have faith that the books will find a readership through adults who loved them as children. Once a teacher or a librarian introduces the books, they do fairly well."
While the chains are mostly unfamiliar with Freddy, independent booksellers express delight at the prospect of this pig's return to their shelves. San Marino Toy and Book Store and Pages children's bookstore in Tarzana still get calls from parents whose children pick up Freddy books at the library and want to purchase copies.
"The Freddy books have a strong sense of adventure that has male appeal. Those of us who care about young people developing a love of reading feel most challenged by the school-age male reader," said Pages owner Darlene Daniel. "More important than the issue of anthropomorphism is how good is the story and how well told is it. With Freddy, we have well-written adventures using a rich vocabulary in fully told stories."
True believers refuse to give up on their Renaissance pig. They stress that the paperback relaunch in the late '80s missed the entire market of adults who would buy hardcover copies to share with their children and collect. Devotees also believe that the plug was pulled on their pig prematurely before word had time to reach the network of kids and parents, teachers and librarians.
From just a few charter members, Friends of Freddy has grown to include about 300 Americans and Canadians dedicated to promoting their pig. The Bean Home Newsletter comes out quarterly, and the group holds its pork-chop-free biennial convention in Upstate New York.
Michael Cart, a former director of the Beverly Hills Public Library, discovered Freddy as a third-grader in his hometown library in Indiana. So enamored is Cart with the books that he is working on a biography of author Brooks--who also created the talking horse that became television's Mr. Ed.
"I identified absolutely with Freddy . . . I was Freddy," Cart said. "To many adults, having to read children's books is cruel and unusual punishment. But the Freddy books are every bit as good and satisfying to adults as they are to kids. They have a multi-generational appeal--that can't be said of a lot of books."
Connie Arnold read "Freddy Goes to Florida" nine times before her fourth-grade teacher finally suggested a visit to the D.C. public library. As a child, Arnold identified with Jinx the cat, Freddy's sidekick. But it was Brooks' inventive use of language, including humor, satire, puns and clever names--such as Watson P. Condiment, Mrs. Underdunk and Ollie Groper--that drew the Friends of Freddy secretary-treasurer back as an adult.
"Not only did the books hold the same attraction, I understood the underlying satire that went over my head as a child."
When Aladdine Joroff, 16, discovered Freddy nine years ago, she began adding the books to her collection of stuffed and porcelain pigs. As the new FOF president, the Concord, Mass., high school junior hopes the group can re-interest a publisher in Freddy's adventures.
"It's the year of the pig," Joroff enthused, referring to the Chinese calendar. "Pigs are in again."
* For membership information, write to Friends of Freddy, 5A Laurel Hill Road, Greenbelt, Md. 20770-1779.