Like many others in the past week, I’m writing to pay my respects to the late, great Beverly Cleary. Before becoming one of the foremost authors of children’s fiction, Cleary was a children’s librarian. Because my dream career is to be a children’s librarian and author, to me, she is both a personal hero and my spirit animal.
I’ve previously written a three part series about Cleary’s time-honored Ramona stories. Today, I’d like to highlight her first published chapter book, Henry Huggins. Published in 1950, Henry Huggins shares a slice-of-life view into the daily life of a young boy growing up at that time. During Cleary’s time as a librarian, she found that the boys often had difficulty finding books to check out. They would ask where the books about boys like them could be found. It was these boys who inspired Cleary’s character of Henry.
Henry Huggins is the first book that helped me realize that when it comes to storytelling, I don’t have to torture myself as much as I do. With each chapter telling a standalone story from Henry’s life, it was a like a lightning bolt straight to my core! Children’s chapter books can exist as a series of short stories. How had I not thought of this before? Game changing!
To that end, in Henry Huggins we are treated to simple, everyday stories, with some hijinks thrown in to keep things interesting! In the first chapter, Henry is preparing to ride the bus home from the YMCA, where he takes swim lessons each week. But today is anything but ordinary because he meets a stray dog that takes an instant liking to him. Maybe it has something to do with the ice cream cone in Henry’s hand. Or maybe it’s because the dog is so thin that his ribs show. Whatever the case, it’s clear that the two feel a connection. Henry decides to call the dog Ribsy, because he’s so thin you can count each rib.
Henry uses a payphone to call his mother to ask if he can bring the dog home. She agrees, as long as he can manage to get the dog home on the bus. After a couple of mishaps while trying to board, Henry manages to sneak Ribsy onto the bus in a large cardboard box. But when the box begins to move, it attracts a lot of attention from the other passengers. Eventually, Ribsy breaks free of the constraints of the box and creates utter chaos, knocking people off their feet and the packages out of their hands.
The bus driver begins to kick them off the bus but at that moment, a police car zooms up alongside the bus, siren blaring and lights flashing. When it took so long for him to return, Henry’s mother has called the police for their assistance in finding and delivering him home. He and Ribsy are brought home in full police fanfare. His mother asks him what he’s done ‘this time’ but Henry assures her that he was only bringing his dog home on the bus, like she’d told him to!
In a single chapter, Cleary has set the stage for Henry’s character throughout the remainder of the book. He’s a good boy who often finds himself in somewhat challenging situations but he never seems to create them on his own. Rather, they almost appear to be happening to him in most cases, like in the second chapter when he finds himself the unwitting owner of jars and jars of guppies!
The whole situation starts innocently enough, with two guppies from the Lucky Dog Pet Shop. But Mrs. Huggins quickly spots several baby fish swimming in the bowl. And things only grow more out of control from there. Henry uses his mother’s canning jars to house all of the guppies until she needs them back to preserve fruits and vegetables. Eventually, it’s evident that Henry needs to return the guppies to the pet shop. The owner, Mr. Pennycuff, is happy to take them off his hands and offers him $7 in shop credit as payment. Henry realizes that he really just wants another fish. He uses his credit to buy a tank and heater. His dad buys a catfish for him, to reward him for his hard work with the guppies. So wholesome!
In chapter 3, Henry really finds himself in a tough situation, though again, through no real fault of his own. A neighborhood boy named Scooter comes over one day and asks Henry if he’d like to throw his new football around with him. Henry admires the ball; he wishes he could have one, too! But no sooner do they start playing when Henry tosses the ball to Scooter… and it flies straight into the open back window of a car that comes out of nowhere! The driver doesn’t even stop, just turns the corner and speeds away. Henry is stunned but Scooter is furious! He demands that Henry replace the ball right away, but how?
Coincidentally, Henry sees his neighbor, Mr. Grumbie, digging for nightcrawlers that evening. Mr. Grumbie explains that he uses them as bait for fishing. When Mr. Grumbie needs to leave for an errand, he asks Henry to dig for the worms on his behalf. He offers to pay him one penny for each worm! He does such a great job that when he returns, Mr. Grumbie offers him the same deal but this time he wants enough worms for a weekend fishing trip for himself and his friends!
Henry jumps at the opportunity to make the money to replace Scooter’s football and in the end, manages to catch 1,331 worms… or $13.31! This is just what he needs to buy the replacement ball. He goes to bed that night wishing he could use the money for his own ball. The following morning, there’s a knock at the door. It’s the driver of the runaway car! He had been driving his wife to the hospital so he couldn’t stop at the time. With the return of Scooter’s ball, Henry is able to spend his hard earned cash on a ball of his own. Score!
Rounding out the book, we’re treated to a story in which all of the children on Henry’s street participate in a dog show with their canine pals. After rolling in dirt before he’s able to dry from his bath, Ribsy is in no shape to win any beauty contests. Henry devises a plan to use his mother’s talcum powder to help Ribsy’s white patches look even whiter. But he doesn’t realize that the powder is pink until it’s too late! But Ribsy’s pink spotted appearance actually works to his favor when he ultimately wins the title of ‘Most Unusual’.
The final chapter sees Henry and Ribsy’s newfound dog show fame causing unintended consequences. A boy shows up on the street one day when all of the kids are outside playing. He claims to be Ribsy’s original owner and says that his name is Dizzy. He says that Dizzy ran away from home when the boy went to scout camp and that he wants him back! The kids agree that the only logical way to determine the dog’s ownership is to see who he comes to when called. After a few tense minutes, Henry is ultimately victorious when Ribsy comes to him! The other boy graciously accepts defeat but asks if he can still visit sometimes. Of course, Henry agrees to such a reasonable request.
What really stood out to me as I read Henry Huggins is how much freedom, independence and autonomy Henry had. He made his own money, saved for what he wanted, cared for his pets and resolved his own disagreements with other children without much interference from adults. He created his own fun and adventure. This was a quick read that gave my son a glimpse into the life of a boy from the not-so-distant past. Cleary obviously had a lot of love and respect for her characters and it is this care and concern for Henry that makes Henry Huggins such a charming book.