By Cynthia Rylant
Illustrated by Julie Downing
If you ask a Penn State Alumni of the past 30 years a few of the people or things they remember most about their time at Penn State, they are very likely to mention Mike the Mailman. Mike the Mailman continues to love his job as a mail clerk and because of this, he always made a trip to the post office an enjoyable and entertaining experience. As I read through this Cynthia Rylant picture book, I kept thinking of Mike the Mailman. Also, the words, “Speedy Delivery,” from Mr. McFeely echoed in my mind.
Of course then, having fond memories of United States postal workers who’ve entered my life, I initially read this book with a set of gleeful eyes. Rylant writes about a postal man, Mr. Griggs, who loves everything about his job. In fact she writes, “Mr. Griggs loved his job. He thought about it almost all the time.” These words are accompanied by Downing’s beautiful pastel illustrations of Mr. Griggs weighing his container of juice, organizing his bathroom supplies in mail slots, and washing postal themed dishes while wearing a US Mail apron and a blue checked shirt with red buttons. Mr. Griggs could not even get a good night’s sleep without worrying about the mail and would sometimes find himself wandering to the post office in the middle of the night to find out, “how much it would cost to mail a one-pound package to New Zealand or a three-ounce letter to Taiwan.”
Even a peaceful walk through nature reminded Mr. Griggs of the mail. A blue jay reminded him of express mail, a squirrel carrying an acorn up a tree to another squirrel reminded him of special deliveries, holes in a rotten tree would remind him of mailboxes, and a chipmunk would remind him of a stamp from 1978.
When Mr. Griggs got sick, I was worried about Mr. Griggs. In fact, I was wondering if he was going to die since this was about a man who was pretty old. Mr. Griggs was not worried about himself though—he was worried about the mail! When he was finally well again and able to return to work, you’d think that it was the happiest day in all of his life.
Hmm—the happiest day in all of your life being one where you return to work at a post office seems awfully suspicious. Hmm. And just like that, it hit me. This book is more similar to Rylant’s The Old Woman Who Named Things, and An Angel for Solomon Singer, than I initially had realized. I turned back and reread the book again—this time, with different eyes. The eyes that have seen some of Rylant’s other books and have noted similarities between them. Mr. Griggs is an old man who is all alone. Sure, he has customers that come to see him everyday, but they aren’t his family. Why is he worrying about the whereabouts of a package that was mailed by someone else fifteen Christmases ago? As I looked through the illustrations again, I looked beyond all of the postal-themed paraphernalia that initially stood out from each full-bled illustration and I noticed the details of Mr. Griggs’ home—particularly when he was sick. Where were the pictures of his wife and kids? Did he ever marry? There isn’t anybody at home to take care of him.
In the eyes of a child, Mr. Griggs is simply an old man who loves his job. I wonder if kids see Mr. Griggs as a grandfatherly figure. I do not think I personally would because Mr. Griggs seems too absorbed in his work to truly develop relationships with other people. In the eyes of an adult, Mr. Griggs is lonely. Although he is portrayed as being relatively happy through colorful illustrations and poetic text, what does he have without the mail? It does not seem like much of anything. Is he lonely because of his job? Or, does he choose to love his job because he is lonely?