Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Beverly Cleary's books enchanted us long before Harry Potter learned to play quidditch -- and even before J.R. Rowling was born

Today is National DEAR Day: Drop Everything and Read! DEAR Day is a special day of celebration to remind families to make reading together on a daily basis a priority. But even if your family lives far away, DEAR Day is an excuse for all of us to go back and revisit some of the books we loved when we were younger. DEAR Day is also the birthday of Beverly Cleary -- and many of the books I loved best in elementary school were written by Cleary, who turns 90 today.

I could really identify with the subject of Cleary's first book: Henry Huggins, the boy who decides to adopt a stray mutt and then finds out he can't bring him home on the bus. My first puppy, a mix of terrier and chihuahua, came from the litter of a dog belonging to a boy who lived on Baldwin Street and went to Marquette Elementary School with me. It was winter and too cold to carry the tiny puppy home, or even walk a block or so to the bus stop. I made an urgent call to my grandfather, who arrived at my classmate's house in his 1947 Chevrolet and drove me and the tiny puppy home to Morrison Street (less than 5 blocks away). My grandfather's health was failing and he wasn't supposed to drive or carry anything heavier than a loaf of bread, so I caught H-E-double toothpicks for calling him; but soon everyone was too absorbed in taking care of the tiny puppy to be angry with me.

Unlike Henry, I never filled my bedroom (and every glass jar in the house) with hundreds of fecund guppies, although when I was in high school I had two huge lab rats named Jim and Al. But that's a different story for another day.

Cleary has written many books, thank goodness. After I outgrew Henry and Beezus and Ramona, there were other Cleary characters who captured my attention. As I began to look forward to attending junior high school at Madison Central, and started thinking about boys as something other than nuisances, there was Jane Purdy, the heroine of "Fifteen." Even though Jane sprang from Cleary's imagination back in 1956, she still has something to say to me today:

If I don't step on any cracks in the sidewalk all the way there, Jane thought, I'll be sure to meet a boy. But avoiding cracks was silly, of course, and the sort of thing she had done when she was in the third grade. She was being just as silly as some of the other fifteen-year-old girls she knew, who counted red convertibles and believed they would go steady with the first boy they saw after the hundredth red convertible. Counting convertibles and not stepping on cracks were no way to meet a boy.

As I recall, by the time I was in junior high it wasn't red convertibles but Buicks and Cadillacs (and something to do with the "holes" on the side of certain models) that counted. You remember, don't you? "Jinx! You owe me a coke!" Or was it "Jinks! You owe me a coke?"

Even if you can't find time today to drop everything and read, consider visiting your local library soon to revisit one of your favorite books from way back when. Just try to chose one where the dog doesn't die at the end of the story.

1 comment:

D Strand said...

I can't re-read a book from elementary school (Lapham/Madison Lutheran) 'cause I never read any. I was too busy chasing girls counting red convertibles and avoiding cracks.
Coincidence! My first and only dog, Skippy, was a fox terrier and chihuahua mix just like yours, Nadine. I wanted a German Shepherd, like Rin Tin Tin, but had to settle! We got Skippy in Black Earth when I was 8 and kept him until I was 19 years old. He was like one of the family!