Saturday, January 19, 2008

Beverly Cleary

Dear Mr. Henshaw
by Beverly Cleary
Recommended Age: 10+

I should have read this book 20 years ago. This story about a lonely boy, learning to live with his parents’ divorce, going to a new school where he has no friends, and making his first efforts as a writer, won the Newbery Medal in 1984 - the year my parents split up. In lots of ways, it’s like reading the story of my life; but obviously it isn’t about me, and the poignancy of the story isn’t just in my head, or it wouldn’t have earned the recognition it did.

Little Leigh Botts, sixth grade (about the age I was in 1984, too), has fallen in love with a book called Ways to Amuse a Dog. He starts writing letters to the author, Boyd Henshaw, telling him how much he likes the book and how he delivers a book report on it year after year. In sixth grade, Leigh is assigned to ask an author ten questions, and he writes to Mr. Henshaw. In return, Mr. Henshaw asks Leigh ten questions about himself. This leads to Leigh starting a diary, and planning to write a story for a school competition.

But what’s going on in Leigh’s life is what the story really is about--what his letters and diary entries are full of, mainly: how a lunch thief keeps taking the best things out of Leigh’s lunch bag; how a kindly custodian takes an interest in the sad, scowling little boy and tries to divert him from becoming an angry menace; how he is hurt by the sense that his trucker father doesn’t care about him much; and how being recognized as someone special makes so much difference in so many ways...even if the results aren’t “storybook neat.”

Here is a profoundly simple, profoundly real story about an ordinary child who speaks with an extraordinary voice. You will love Leigh Botts. You will love this book.

Ramona and Her Father
by Beverly Cleary
Recommended Age: 8+

Second-grader Ramona Quimby is distressed when her father loses his job. This brings changes in her family, which includes an older sister "Beezus" (given name Beatrice) who is going through that "difficult age," a cat who snubs cheap cat food, and a mother who has to work so hard to support the family that she doesn't have time to do things like sewing a sheep costume for the Christmas program. But what worries Ramona most is her father, who is moody and smokes too much.

This is an adorable book about a family crisis seen through seven-year-old eyes. I chose this from among many children's stories by Beverly Cleary because it happened to be a Newbery Honor Book in 1976. But its charm, its generosity to the memorable characters in it, and its relevance to what many families are going through, should win lots of readers to the interconnected series of books that include Ribsy, Henry Huggins, Henry and Ribsy, Beezus and Ramona, and lots more.

The Mouse and the Motorcycle
by Beverly Cleary
Recommended Age: 8+

This book is about the friendship between a boy named Keith, who has a toy motorcycle, and a mouse named Ralph who learns to ride it.

To give you an idea or two about how Cleary thinks, it's no problem for Keith and Ralph to talk to each other because all motorcycle lovers speak the same language, and it's no problem for a mouse to ride a toy motorcycle because any little boy can tell you that if you make a "pbbbrrrrm" noise it will go.

Ralph's adventures are sometimes hair-raising, often hilarious, and the friendship between the two motorcycle fanciers--mouse and boy--is warm and sweet. I understand Cleary wrote several more stories about Ralph the mouse. If they are as charming as this one, I recommend them too. [UPDATE: Obviously, this review was first published before I read the next two books.]

Runaway Ralph
by Beverly Cleary
Recommended Age: 8+

The sequel to The Mouse and the Motorcycle finds Ralph the mouse growing discontented in his hotel lobby home. His younger brothers, sisters, and cousins keep pestering him to let them ride his toy motorcycle, and his mother and uncle won’t leave him alone. Finally Ralph decides to runaway to a camp whose bugle calls he can hear every morning and evening.

Expecting to find lots of middle-sized kids and peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches, Ralph instead finds deadly peril with a watch dog named Sam, a tomcat named Catso, and a boy named Garf--armed with a butterfly net.

Next thing he knows, Ralph is ensconced in a mouse cage next to a grumpy hamster, while Catso tries every trick in the Cat Bible to clap paws on him. Ralph will have to be at his very cleverest if he is going to clear Garf of suspicion of stealing a girl’s wristwatch, escape from Catso, and get back home with his motorcycle.

A charming little adventure featuring a boy and a mouse at similar stages of adolescence, and some other interesting animals and people, Runaway Ralph makes a quick but satisfying read.

Ralph S. Mouse
by Beverly Cleary
Recommended Age: 8+

The third book in the series that began with The Mouse and the Motorcycle and continued with Runaway Ralph takes off when Ralph befriends the son of the hotel’s new housekeeper. Ryan agrees to take Ralph to school with him, but things turn out as neither of them planned.

Soon, Ryan’s whole class is doing mouse-related projects, while their mascot surreptitiously runs loose in the school at night. Of course, this leads to trouble at the school and a rocky stretch in Ralph’s and Ryan’s friendship. Meanwhile, Ryan and a classmate named Brad are struggling to understand each other while they work together on their mouse-studies project. And when a knock-down fight between the boys destroys Ralph’s beloved motorcycle, it looks like any chance of friendship between the three of them is finished. With a school-wide mousehunt in the works, Ralph’s chances aren’t too good...

As always, the characters in the story accept the magic of their situation with good-humored casualness. The story is quick, crisply told, and full of wit. Here’s a sample:
No sooner had Ryan sat down at the table than he and the rest of Room 5 stood up again to recite some words about a flag and something about liberty and justice for all. Whatever it was, Ralph hoped mice were included.
Clearly, this is an author who loves the kind of little boy (not to mention the kind of mouse) who dreams of driving motorcycles...and other things. But I think boys and girls alike will enjoy it for its charm and whimsy, while the serious bits about mouse and boy growing-pains sneak by.

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