Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Beverly Cleary

Henry Books: Henry Huggins; Henry & Ribsy; Henry & Beezus; Henry & the Clubhouse; Henry & the Paper Route; Ribsy

Ramona Books: Beezus & Ramona; Ramona the Pest; Ramona & her Father; Ramona & her Mother; Ramona Quimby, Age 8; Ramona Forever; Ramona's World

Rating: *** (3 stars out of 3 possible, "A")
Highly Recommended

Audience: K-5th Grade

Writing in the 1950s, Beverly Cleary was one of the first post WW-II children's writers to understand modern kids and modern childhood. While you may find an occasional long chapter or slow event, her characters and plots are standing the test of time. Parents who want their families to slow down, find good role models and share real-life stories and laughs must not overlook these series!

Henry Huggins was the first book Cleary wrote, specifically thinking of the boys who would come to her Yakima, WA public library looking for stories to which they could relate. What third-grader doesn't wish for a dog, not to mention hundreds of guppies in mason jars all over their bedroom? Henry's adventures with Ribsy continue and in later books we find Henry delivering newspapers and building a clubhouse. Through it all he has to navigate growing up in his busy Portland neighborhood. Henry works hard and saves his money for all the important things of childhood (footballs, bikes, sleeping bags) and he learns to think his way out of exasperating situations with Scooter, Ramona and Ribsy. He shows that boys need the freedom to pursue their projects and goals, resulting maturity and responsibility.

The "Ramona" books grew out of the Henry books. Ramona starts out as a 4-year old in Ramona and Beezus, but is probably best known as a Kindergartner in Ramona the Pest. Far from being a disobedient troublemaker, Ramona is simply a creative and energetic 5-year old. I've had one friend ask if she wasn't perhaps a poor example for children, but in fact the opposite is true. Ramona is a real person who experiences real 5-year old feelings and real 5-year old troubles. She certainly does not get away with disobedience, but is disciplined with patience, natural consequences, and occasionally stern reprimands. If you've ever had to discipline a child while laughing inside at some pretty funny situations, you've had some experience with a Ramona. I've learned a lot of parenting skills reading these books and often wish I could be as wise and patient as Mrs. Quimby or Mrs. Huggins.

These are characters who eat oatmeal, do chores, learn about the family budget, deal with family squabbles and small disappointments, solve problems creatively, make their own fun and even pray and go to Sunday School. I can hardly think of better way to influence our families than to laugh along together through these stories. I like to start Ramona the Pest when my girls are heading off to Kindergarten. Henry Huggins can be started as early as first grade, because all boys like to imagine themselves a little older than they are! Also, there is some dated language ("swell," "keen," "jeepers"), so you want to hook your kids on these books before they start to think they're too old for them! Older siblings will relate well to Beezus' challenges with Ramona in Beezus and Ramona. Younger siblings of course will relate to Ramona, and parents will relate to it all! The vocabulary is appropriate and challenging as well. The 2010 movie Ramona and Beezus is a well-done send up of several books combined.

Beverly Cleary continued to write for kids with her Mouse and the Motorcycle three-book series, Ellen Tebbits, Emily's Runaway Imagination, Otis Spoffod, Socks, Strider and others. While no character is quite as memorable as Ramona or Henry, her book, Dear Mr. Henshaw, about a 6-grade boy won the Newbery Medal. Ramona and Her Father and Ramona Quimby, Age 8 were Newbery Honor books. If you would like to know more about Cleary herself and her writing ideas, she has two memoirs: A Girl from Yamhill and My Own Two Feet.

There are several newer series that offer updated characters similar to Ramona, such as Judy Moody and Junie B. Jones. Judy Moody's author Megan McDonald admits she was inspired by Beverly Cleary. Look for me to review those series at some point, but expect lower marks for language, vocabulary, plot and character development. Ramona and Henry were the first and likely will remain the best!

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