I was saddened to hear of Jean Merrill’s passing as she wrote one of my all-time favorite children’s books, The Pushcart War. And so to memorialize her and to draw attention to a book that may not be so well-known today (in fact, it seems to be out of print) here are a few of my thoughts and memories of this delightful work.
I don’t know when I came across it, but it was one of my absolute favorite books to teach years ago. It is the story of a war between Lower East Side New York City pushcart peddlers and truckers. The trucks are taking over, pushing the underdog peddlers out of the picture, often literally. Part of the charm is that the story is told through a wide variety of documents — a cleaning lady’s notes as she eavesdrop on a secret meeting, the transcript of a television talk show, newspaper articles, and more. And, of course, it is a Cinderella tale in that those small underdog pushcarts peddlers, with the help of the city’s children, win the war with a clever and simple weapon — the pea shooter (or rather tack-shooter as they shoot tacks into the truck tires causing create massive traffic jams).
Way back in the early 80s I did this as a play which was loads of fun and then, a few years later, I made a movie of it. While my students (4th -6th graders) played all parts in the play, for the movie my 4th grade students played the pushcart peddlers and children while various adults in the school played the other characters. The school head played a scholar who wrote about the significance of the war within history and my 4th grade colleagues and I played the roles of so-called experts on a television talk show. We made pushcarts and trucks out of cardboard and such for both productions and for the movie we filmed the battle scenes in the NYC street in front of the school. (When I get back to school in September I have to find the video and arrange to get it transferred to DVD so I can view it after all these years.)
I did a little looking around and found a bunch of videos that give a tiny taste of the book. But go to your library, find a copy, and read it for yourself. And if you like it — put out a call for getting it back in print!
Here’s a kid’s Lego trailer:
Here’s Lin-Manuel Miranda‘s third grade video book report (circa 1988):
Here’s another kid’s claymation video:
Here are some scenes from a 2007 HS production
And you can see a slide show of another school’s production here.