On March 26, 1947, Lippincott publishes Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle, Betty MacDonald's (1907-1958) first book for children. The book's title character, endlessly patient and eminently pragmatic, dispenses quirky but practical cures for common childhood misbehavior. Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle and its eventual three sequels become enduring classics of children's literature.
The book's price was $2.00. The publication date was also MacDonald's 39th birthday.
Betty MacDonald's first book, The Egg and I, had been published by Lippincott in 1945 and rocketed up the nonfiction bestseller lists, surpassing the million-copy mark in less than one year and making Betty a household name. As Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle went to press, Egg was being filmed by Universal Pictures starring Claudette Colbert (1903-1996) as Betty and Fred MacMurray (1908-1991) as her first husband, Bob Heskett.
Inspired By Perfect Angels
A multi-page article about life with the MacDonald family in the March 18, 1946, issue of Life included a photograph of Betty's niece Mari Jensen, then about 10 years old, identifying her as the inspiration for the forthcoming Mrs. Piggle Wiggle (p. 137). MacDonald's dedication in the book reads, "For Anne, Joan, Mari, Salli, Heidi, Darsie, Frankie and Stevie who are perfect angels and couldn't possibly have been the inspiration for any of these stories" (frontispiece).
Biographical information in later paperback editions of Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle and its sequels note that the stories were first told to MacDonald's daughters, Anne and Joan. The other children mentioned in the book's dedication were MacDonald's nieces and nephews, all then residents of Seattle or Vashon and frequent visitors to her Vashon home.
MacDonald's affection for children in general was her impetus for the new book, Lorene Smurthwaite reported in The Sunday Oregonian:
"Children are the author's favorite companions. She reads aloud to them, then writes about them. ... Children's books are largely dull and unimaginative, she believes. Kipling she considers one of the best authors for the young, with the Doctor Doolittle series more lately entertaining. She is convinced children enjoy humor aimed at their own shortcomings, and this is the angle she has used in her book" (January 19, 1947).
Newspaper interviews with Betty MacDonald frequently mentioned the important role her children, grandchildren, and nieces and nephews played in her busy life. She told The Seattle Times that Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle, like The Egg and I, was written while her house "crawled with children ... I had so much help that I almost never got it finished. Most of my best writing has been done to the accompaniment of heavy breathing, sniffing, and fat hands poking the wrong key of the typewriter. I hope this book sells. If it doesn't it will prove that all these years I've been boring children instead of amusing them" (March 23, 1947). A few years later she told the same publication, "I have tried writing in the kitchen, the dining room, the living room, our bedroom, the guest house, the porch, the patio [but] it is always the same. I am first, last, and always a wife and mother and must stop whatever I am doing [to help my family]" (July 25, 1954).
Smelling Of Sugar Cookies
Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle boasted an upside down house complete with the late Mr. Piggle-Wiggle's hidden pirate's treasure, pets Wag and Lightfoot (whose offspring were periodically divvied up among the neighborhood children), the patient willingness to bake sugar cookies with and for disgruntled little boys and girls, and quasi-magical solutions for behavior parents found trying, worrisome, or just plain naughty.
MacDonald's opening description of the title character probably evoked wistful longing in the hearts of her child readers:
"Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle has brown sparkly eyes and brown hair which she keeps very long, almost to her knees, so the children can comb it ... (her) skin is a goldy brown and she has a warm, spicy, sugar-cookie smell that is very comforting to children who are sad about something ... she wears felt hats which the children poke and twist into witches' and pirates' hats and she does not mind at all ... she wears very high heels all the time and is glad to let the little girls borrow her shoes" (p. 10).
The book was instantly adopted by parents and teachers as a read-aloud and devoured by readers old enough to take up the book themselves. Betty MacDonald's Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle character entered the pantheon of children's literary classics, and the popularity of the series has endured.
Character names in Mrs. Piggle Wiggle were quirkily offbeat: Children included Hubert Egbert Prentiss (named for his grandfather), Calliope Ragbag, Paraphernalia Grotto, Cormorant Broomrack, and Pergola Wingsproggle. Adults answered to Mrs. Moohead, Mrs. Grapple, and Mrs. Crankminor. In addition to assisting parents with problems like selfishness, sibling quarrels, and answering back, Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle offered solutions like the Slow-Eaters-Tiny-Bite-Taker cure and the Radish Cure, which called for radish seeds to be sprinkled by night over the grimy skin of a reluctant washer, resulting in a healthy crop of the vegetable.
A Local Connection
The original edition of Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle was illustrated by Richard Bennett (b. 1899). Born in Ireland, Bennett moved to what is now Bellevue near Lake Sammamish when he was 4. He studied art at the University of Washington before moving to New York City, where he had a successful career as an artist and illustrator. In 1970 Bennett Elementary School in Bellevue, located on what was once the family's farm, was named in honor of the Bennett family.
At the time Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle was published, Bennett's illustrations were appearing regularly in The Horn Book, a magazine celebrating literature written for children.
Wiggling On And On
Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle was MacDonald's first juvenile book and second published work. For the remainder of her life, MacDonald alternately published juvenile and adult books. In addition to Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle, her works for children were Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle's Magic (1949), Nancy And Plum (1952), Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle's Farm (1954), and Hello, Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle (1957).
The Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle stories were adapted as a stage musical by Jeff Church and Chad Henry and received their world premiere at the Seattle Children's Theater on November 3, 1989, under the title The Magic Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle. Showtime television aired Shelly Duvall Presents Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle with Jean Stapleton (b. 1923) in the title role.
On July 16, 2007, Publisher's Weekly announced the fall 2007 publication of the first new Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle book since 1957: Happy Birthday, Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle, by Betty MacDonald and her daughter, Anne MacDonald Canham. The book's publication celebrates the centenary of Betty MacDonald's birth.