The Moffats by Eleanor Estes (1941)

The Moffats (1941) by Eleanor Estes original cover

The Moffats is a children’s novel by Eleanor Estes, the first of a series of four books about a fictional family. The four Moffat children — Sylvie, Joey, Janey and Rufus — live with their widowed mother in Cranbury, a small town in Connecticut.

Though the novel was published in 1941, the story begins in the World War I era. It’s notable for focusing on a family headed by a single, working-class, working mother. Mama, as she is called, is a dressmaker.

Rather than being plot-driven, the book is episodic, with each chapter containing a more or less self-contained adventure of the Moffat children.


The Moffats was has always been a well-regarded series by reviewers, and popular with readers. Early reviews compared it favorably to Margaret Sydney’s series, Five Little Peppers. Later reconsiderations continued to be favorable, citing the universal appeal of a book centered on simpler days of childhood. Here’s a description of the book from a later edition:

 

Meet the Moffats

From the 1968 Harcourt Brace & Company edition of The Moffats (1941) by Eleanor Estes:  Meet the Moffats: “Sylvie was upstairs saying her lines for the play at Town Hall. Joey had gone bicycling up Shingle Hill, Rufus was playing marbles down the street, and Mama was busy peeling apples.

There wasn’t anyone to play with, so Janey picked up her doll, Hildegard, stuck her in her knitting bag, and went out to sit on the hitching post in front of the house.” That is how the first chapter begins — before it ends the Moffats and the reader are friends.

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The moffats 60th anniversary edition

60th Anniversary edition of The Moffats on Amazon

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To live in Cranbury on New Dollar Street, to have another who could make both ends just meet and have fun doing it, to be one of a family of four children (four is such a handy number — you can divide things evenly) — all this spelled a rich, adventure-studded existence to the Moffats.

Joey could do practically everything well except dance, but dancing brought him his brief moment of fame. Sylvie had natural curls and a sweet reasonableness. Jane was a child of inspiration; if she tired of the world right side up, she viewed it upside down.

Five-and-a-half-year-old Rufus meant well but was the prey of circumstance — once he racketed to New Haven in a freight care moved by a pure sense of duty.  The whole story is planted in reality and lit by the special enchantment which attends things remembered with laughter and with love.

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Ginger Pye by Eleanor Estes

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How The Moffats begins: Chapter 1

THE YELLOW HOUSE ON NEW DOLLAR STREET

The way Mama could peel apples! A few turns of the knife and there the apple was, all skinned! Jane could not take her eyes from her mother’s hands. They had a way of doing things, peeling apples, sprinkling salt, counting pennines, that fascinated her. Jane sighed.

Her mother’s peelings fell off in lovely long curls, while for the life of her, Jane couldn’t do any better than these thick chunks which she popped in her mouth. Moreover it took her as long to peel one apple as for Mama to do five or six. Would she ever get so she could do as well?

“There,” said Mama. That’s finished. She set the blue and white kettle of apples on the stove. She sprinkled sugar and cinnamon on the apples with the same deft fingers. 

Jane at with her elbows on the kitchen table and her chin cupped in her hands, watching her mother and considering vaguely what to do next. Upstairs she could hear Sylvie saying her lines and saying her lines. She was going to be Cinderella in the play at the Town Hall. Joey had gone bicycling up Shingle Hill with Chet Pudge, and Rufus was probably playing marbles down there at the end of New Dollar Street, waiting for him to come home.

There wasn’t anyone to play with, so Jane picked up her doll, Hildegarde, stuck her in her knitting bag, and went out the back door.

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The Moffat Museum by Eleanor Estes

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Quotes from Eleanor Estes’ Children’s Books
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