Fat Books & Thin Women

My Love Letter to Beverly Cleary

Maybe this isn’t the most nuanced statement, but whatever. Beverly Cleary is awesome, and she gets better the more I read her.

I grew up on Cleary. (Aside: some cats are fighting below my window, and they sound almost like people. When I first heard them I thought my host sister, Ava, was alerting me to her return from school.) Ramona, Beezus, Henry Huggins, Ribsy, Ellen Tebbits, and to a lesser extent Ralph S. Mouse, formed the backbone of my library when I was growing up. But unlike Roald Dahl, I didn’t reread Cleary’s books once I got old enough to read “grown-up books,” or whatever my eight-year-old self would label “old people books.”

And probably I would never have reread Cleary, and her books would have remained vague childhood memories of some mouse who rode a bicycle, or something, except that I made the fantastic decision (for my reading life, in any case) to put together an English-language library at my school. My moments of (frequent) doubt regarding this project are always assuaged when a new box of books arrives holding Charlie & the Chocolate Factory, or The Witches, or The Janitor’s Boy (by Andrew Clements, a first-time read, awesome), or Henry & Ribsy or The Mouse and the Motorcycle.

What strikes me now, what I don’t think I ever noticed when I was reading Cleary as an uncoordinated, chubby, leggings and wolf-imprinted t-shirt wearing eight-year-old, is how funny she is, and how spot-on her descriptions are. I should have written about this after reading The Mouse and the Motorcycle. In my endless dedication to actually getting books to my school in a timely fashion, I didn’t.

Lucky for me, then, and you (ha, ha) that I found a copy of Ribsy in the library yesterday. This is one of the Greatest Things to have happened to me in Macedonia, because Ribsy isn’t even one of the books I recruited for the library; one of my co-workers brought in a solid 100+ books over the school vacation. (Also including Roald Dahl’s Danny the Champion of the World. Yessssssss!)

Ribsy is written from the point of view of Henry Huggins’s dog, Ribsy. As I started to realize when reading about the adventures of Ralph S. Mouse, Cleary excels at writing about animals. She gives them enough human emotions and thoughts that you identify with them, but not so many that they ever stop seeming like animals; when she writes something like “Ribsy was what you might call a well-adjusted dog” (7) it’s funny because it’s such a human statement to make, but one that is entirely appropriate and correct given what we’ve learned of Ribsy’s friendly nature (keeping the mailman company, following Henry to school, greeting the milkman). Ribsy, who finds himself lost after hitting the power window button in the Huggins’s new station wagon and jumping out to chase a dog, travels through a world that is largely composed of smells (coffee, hot dogs, peanut butter sandwiches, that special boy smell possessed by Henry) and his attempts to find Henry by following those familiar sights (schools, mailman) that he associates with his boy and family.

Ribsy finds himself in the possession, briefly, of any number of people as he tries to find his way back to Henry. As the “mascot” of a second-grade class, Ribsy one day tries to chase a squirrel (brought in for show & tell) around the room. “Nothing that interesting had happened since Billy Amato had brought a live clam to school” (104). Cleary knows just when to leave something unexplained; the comic possibilities of a live clam in a second-grade class grows because it is mentioned so casually.

Near book’s end Ribsy ends up in an elevator, or, in his mind, “a small square room without windows” (168).

There was a whirring noise, and suddenly Ribsy had a feeling he had never felt before. He felt as if he was going up while his stomach stayed down. He did not like the feeling one bit. He did not like this strange little room. He wanted out right now. (168)

I am pretty sure that this is what a dog would feel on being left in a “frightening room that made him lose his stomach” (170). All of Cleary’s descriptions, like when Ribsy is trying to run away from the violet-scented bubble bath he’s been bathed with, are pitch-perfect.

Much of the reason I am so in love with Cleary, and Ribsy in particular (he’s always been one of my favorite characters of hers) is that he reminds me of my old dog, Sunny. Maybe she didn’t share his enthusiasm for boys, or playing football, or playing catch, but Cleary gets the essential nature of a mutt perfectly. Rereading Ribsy makes me feel a little closer to my own dog; in a perfect world, where dogs could tell us what they thought, I’m pretty sure they’d sound a lot like Ribsy.


Also, judging by this photo, it seems that Sunny was, like Ribsy, a “southpaw,” or “left-pawed.”



It sounds like I really missed out as a kid – having never read any Cleary. I’ll be sure to introduce her to my niece. Also, the photo of your old dog is adorable.

Comment by Brenna

I love this post! I first came across Beverly Cleary’s books while browsing at a secondhand bookstore in grade school. The first Beverly Cleary book I read was Dear Mr. Henshaw, and I absolutely fell in love with it. For the first time, I felt like I was reading about myself. The main character was a boy, but his parents had just gotten divorced and he wanted to be a writer–a lot like my ten-year-old self. I haven’t read Ribsy yet, but I’m sure I’m going to love it.

Btw, sorry I got carried away. It’s just that Beverly Cleary was a huge part of my childhood. :)

Comment by Darlyn

I didn’t read tons of Beverley Cleary as a child, unfortunately, but I did love the ones I read. Looking forward to introducing her characters to my son. This post gets me excited to do so! I think he’d love RIBSY.

Comment by rebeccareid

[…] – The Frogs (01/31/11) J.D. Salinger – Franny and Zooey (01/28/11) Bike Snob (01/27/11) Beverly Cleary – Ribsy (01/26/11) Greg Mortenson & David Oliver Relin – Three Cups of Tea (01/22/11) Stieg […]

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