What the Moffat Family Means to Me

In the 1940s, a gifted writer named Eleanor Estes wrote a series of books about a fictional family called the Moffats. The books were based on her own childhood in Connecticut and took place during the 1910s, when she herself was a child.

I read the Moffat family books during the 1960s, when I was a child, and found many things about how children spent their time in 1966 to be quite the same as how children spent their time in 1916. Like the Moffat children, I lived in a safe neighborhood in which I felt certain that all adults had my best interests at heart. I was free to explore, whenever I wasn’t in school, which meant I was free to explore a lot of the time!

Once, when I missed the bus home from the library (yes, a child taking the bus alone), and I was afraid that waiting for the next bus would make me very late for supper, I knocked on a stranger’s door and asked to use her phone to call home. She kindly let me in and, in addition to being able to inform my mother that I would be late, I got a chance to see the inside of a house I had only ever seen the outside of before! It was supremely interesting. That experience could easily have happened to Jane Moffat — the middle Moffat — my favorite family member, for obvious reasons.

Why so obvious? Jane Moffat was me. She pondered things. She rehearsed things in her head before they happened, and when the actual events didn’t match her imagined scenario, she awkwardly dealt with the real situation and muddled her way through. She got nervous, but she found something to feel triumphant about, always. She worried about being good. She tried hard at everything she did. She wanted her friend to like her. She loved her family, and she knew they loved her.

And what a wonderful family she had: Mama, so gentle and wise. Sylvie, the talented, almost grown older sister. Joey, the shy boy and yet the responsible man of the house, since Papa died. And Rufus, the baby brother, full of energy but full of deep thoughts, too.

I can think of few other children’s authors who delved into the minds of children as deeply as Eleanor Estes did. The great pleasure of reading a Moffat book is losing yourself inside the thought processes and emotions of whichever Moffat child is the subject of the particular chapter. Last night, I read a chapter of Rufus M., the book primarily devoted to the little brother’s escapades. Estes touched on detail after detail that made the story so rich and real in my mind: Rufus knitting his washcloth for the soldiers going off to World War I and feeling proud of himself but worrying because the washcloth kept getting wider and wider as he knitted; Rufus noting with admiration how manly the soldier waving at him from the train looked; Rufus receiving a thank-you note from the soldier who got his washcloth and reverently keeping the note in his pocket, from which sacred place he took it out often and read it, over and over again. I related to why Rufus did or thought all these things. I became Rufus. I became a child.

I think that is why those of us adults who still read good children’s literature do it: to become a child again.

Here are the Moffats, as drawn by Mr. Louis Slobodkin, whose illustrations I stared at to the point of memorization in the 1960s.

Mama, with Jane

Mama, with Jane

Sylvie

Sylvie

Joey

Joey

Jane

Jane

Rufus

Rufus

So, what does the Moffat family mean to me? They are a family I know well, a family whose values I share and whose rituals I understand. They are good, kind, decent people trying their best to lead good, kind, decent lives in the town and the country they love. They mean that I always have a place to go where I can recapture my own childhood.

Thank you, Eleanor Estes.

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