It’s been 20 years since Cynthia Rylant’s beloved middle grade novel Gooseberry Park introduced the world to Stumpy the squirrel and her quirky, clever, community-minded friends. Now, the furry and feathered bunch is back in Gooseberry Park and the Master Plan, and readers will delight in discovering that the Gooseberrians are as adorable, smart and resourceful as ever.
Teamwork and lots of laughs help solve a water shortage in Gooseberry Park.
The park is still a peaceful, beautiful place, too. As Gwendolyn the hermit crab observes, “There was a stillness to Gooseberry Park that is rare in this world. It seemed that every tree, every flower and bird and creature, had taken a deep breath and settled in.”
Despite the lovely qualities of the characters and place she’d created, Rylant hadn’t been particularly keen on writing another Gooseberry Park novel. She explains to BookPage via email from her home in Portland, Oregon, “Animal fantasy is harder for me. My imagination is not really very good. . . . So even though I wished I could write a second story, I wouldn’t try, sure I couldn’t make it happen.”
It must be noted that in the intervening years since Gooseberry Park, the Newbery Award- and Caldecott Honor-winning author was busy writing many, many other books, including entries in her Henry and Mudge series, seven other series and numerous standalone titles.
And then, one day, the characters pushed aside Rylant’s doubts and demanded another outing. “All I know is that Kona and Gwendolyn and all the rest of the gang came back. I went to a coffee shop to read the New York Times, and before I finished page one, suddenly I was fishing my little notebook out of my purse, and I wrote the entire first chapter without stopping. No editing. No pausing. What I wrote is what is in the book. It’s inspiration, and it just has its own calendar.”
She adds, “I didn’t know what the book would be about exactly, just a water shortage. I like the characters to be able to do brave and noble things, so I give them weather disasters.”
Everyone at Gooseberry Park rises to the occasion, working diligently to craft and implement the titular Master Plan to bring water to everyone in the drought–bedeviled park. First, Gwendolyn and Kona (a black Labrador retriever) realize they need their neighbor, a genius crow named Herman, to help them figure out the mathematical aspects of their ambitious strategy.
Herman agrees to join the cause (thank goodness he likes a challenge). Next, they need to recruit a few more animals, gather 20 packs of chewing gum and corral 200 teamwork-averse owls. Good thing Murray the bat’s long-lost brother is coming to town; he’s super-aggravating to Murray (who copes by using his “toesies” to shove raisins in his mouth even as he complains to his friends), but he’s also got the gift of gab—just the thing to get those owls to work together, even for a little while.
And yes, the book is as funny, even funnier, than it sounds here. Rylant’s gift for sly yet sweet humor is on every page, whether describing Herman’s learned family of crows (“At suppertime . . . every member . . . ate with a book in one foot”) or Kona’s wandering thoughts during a serious discussion about the need for water (“For a moment he wished he were someone else. Maybe one of those dogs on a surfboard in Hawaii.”).
As with Gooseberry Park, Gooseberry Park and the Master Plan will simultaneously entertain and teach readers about the relationship between human actions and consequences for our earth, and inspire them to look at animals with a more imaginative eye.
The illustrations by Arthur Howard contribute to that cause and are wonderfully suited to Rylant’s prose. His portraits are evocative: Augustina the owl looks thoughtful, a bit skeptical and ultimately, er, unflappable. Howard’s action-shot drawings are a joy to behold as well: pictures of animals solving problems, cooking with The Zen of Stir-Fry cookbook and relaxing, as in the hilarious image of Gwendolyn giving Murray a soothing Reiki massage in the warm glow of a single candle.
That perfect pairing of words and pictures is no surprise. Rylant and Howard have worked together for decades. The author says, “He and I have still never met. We did our first Mr. Putter and Tabby book back in the 1990s. . . . Arthur has been a part of my life ever since. I think he and I have the same child inside us.” In fact, she says, “I don’t tell him what to draw. Arthur is really a genius (just like Herman).”
Speaking of Herman, Rylant says that while much of the book came to her as she wrote, there was one sticking point: “The hardest part for both Arthur and me was trying to figure out Herman’s mathematical calculations. We drove ourselves crazy counting seconds and minutes and making sure the clocks had the right time in the drawings. Our editor also. She even called in her math-teacher husband to double-check our numbers.”
Headaches aside, she says, “We had a really good time with all the work, because we all really love the characters. They are part of us. They are our better selves.”
That respect and appreciation for nature and its creatures is palpable in Gooseberry Park and the Master Plan, in the way the characters communicate, accept each other’s differences (not without a little teasing, of course) and work to ensure a healthy, safe environment.
Here’s hoping Rylant’s latest inspires her readers, young and not-as-young, to enjoy and care for their own version of Gooseberry Park.