Book discussed: Pet of the Met – Lydia and Don Freeman, Viking Penguin, 1953
There is a publishing and educational toy industry devoted to ensuring that even very young children are exposed to the types of cultural experiences that will allegedly expand their brain capacities and ensure success later in life. The “Baby Einstein” series, for all the obnoxious pretense of its title, actually includes cute board books that help toddlers distinguish circles from squares. There are innumerable biographies of composers, authors, and scientists, ranging from appallingly bad to quite distinguished. There are also helpful guides to acquainting older children with the opera, ballet, or theater, sometimes focusing on exciting summaries of the plots, or emphasizing the specific roles of the different professionals involved in these worlds.
There is another route to immersion in the arts, one taken by Lydia and Don Freeman’s unfortunately out of print classic Pet of the Met, in which a family of unassuming and gentle mice live in a harp case in the Metropolitan Opera House’s attic. (Don Freeman is, of course, the creator of Corduroy. I have blogged about him before, and he is the subject at a major upcoming exhibition at the Museum of the City of New York.) The father, Maestro Petrini, supports his family by working as a page turner for the Opera House’s prompter. All is not idyllic, even with a secure job and affordable housing, as a truly terrifying cat named Mefisto, drawn by Freeman with huge green eyes, fangs, and feline muscles well adapted to destroying mice, threatens their home.
So it’s a little bit of a roller coaster for young readers. They learn about the fanciful plot of Mozart’s The Magic Flute, and see the colorful costume and ecstatic expression of Papageno the bird catcher as he breaks into song. The following page’s text states that “the audience was all eyes and ears,” and the picture is literally all eyes, blue ones opened wide against the equally blue background of the darkened theater.
Pet of the Met is not at all didactic, but children will learn while reading or listening to it. They will learn that music and spectacle are composed of many elements: the charm of beautiful sounds, the ingenuity of designing a costume out of “some dark-blue cheesecloth,” the moment when the lights dim and “Everyone was silent and expectant.” Freeman’s dramatic theatrical scenes, evoking action and suspense, alternate with delicate renderings of mouse life that are comforting and oddly familiar.
The three Petrini children watch the production under a brass rail and behind a pair of a human’s white gloves, accompanied by their mother who is, appropriately, wearing pearls. By the story’s conclusion, even Mefisto has been tamed by the music: “He purred himself to sleep with a tune from The Magic Flute.” In the final picture, he and Maestro Petrini stroll arm-in-arm towards the dress circle, the mouse in tuxedo and top hat, the cat, still a bit wild, unclothed as he carries the score to the prompter. This is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.