Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Review - Henry Huggins by Beverly Cleary

Short review: Henry is an ordinary boy who lives on an ordinary street who finds an ordinary stray dog and has adorable ordinary adventures.

A boy and a dog
Living on Klickitat Street
In six fun chapters

Full review: Henry Huggins was Beverly Cleary's first book, written after she spent years as a librarian struggling to find books to recommend to young boys. The book recounts the adventures of Henry Huggins, an eight year old boy living in an unnamed town in the Pacific Northwest as he, among other things, finds a dog, has an unexpected fish explosion, catches worms to pay off a debt, and tries to clean up his messy pet for a dog show. This book doesn't chronicle big events that change the world or recount pivotal moments in people's lives. It is simply stories about an ordinary boy with an ordinary dog living on an ordinary suburban street doing ordinary things. It is also wonderful.

The format of the book is fairly straightforward. There are six chapters. In each chapter, Henry finds himself confronted with a problem that might plausibly face an eight-year-old boy living on Klickitat Street and he solves it in a reasonably plausible yet humorous manner using little boy logic. Sometimes he gets a little help from his friends, and other times he gets a little help from his parents. Each chapter is more or less self-contained - this book isn't really a novel, but is rather a series of sequential short stories that use many of the characters and the same setting but are only loosely connected otherwise.

The six chapters are: Henry and Ribs, where Henry finds a stray dog and has to figure out how to get him home from his trip downtown on the municipal bus. The complication is that the municipal bus doesn't allow dogs and Henry has to get home before dinner. In chapter two, Gallons of Guppies, Henry buys a pair of guppies that soon turn into a half dozen guppies, and eventually hundreds, ultimately occupying pretty much all of the jars Henry's mother intended to use for canning fruits and vegetables. Pretty soon produce comes into season and Henry has to figure out what to do with hundreds of guppies now that his mother needs her jars back. In chapter three, Henry and the Night Crawlers, Henry loses his neighbor's football and has to figure out how to get the money to get him a new one, and sets about industriously capturing worms for another neighbor who wants to go on a fishing trip.

One interesting element to the book is that Ribsy becomes more important to the stories the further one gets into it. He's the focus of the first chapter, but in the second and third chapters he's not really all that important to the story. In the fourth chapter, The Green Christmas, Ribsy is responsible for the accident that gets Henry out of an unwanted role in Henry's school's annual Christmas pageant. The fifth and sixth chapters - The Pale Pink Dog and Finders Keepers - are pretty much all about Ribsy. In The Pale Pink Dog, Henry enters Ribsy in a dog show and after Ribsy gets dirty in the middle of the show, Henry resorts to some rather humorous means of trying to cover up the mud. In Finders Keepers an older boy shows up, having seen Ribsy in a picture from the dog show of the previous chapter, and says that Ribsy is actually named Dizzy and that before Henry found him in the drugstore in the first chapter, he had belonged to the boy and he had come to get him back. Essentially, as the book progresses, Ribsy becomes a more integral part of each chapter, which serves as a subtle means of showing how the dog becomes progressively more ingrained in Henry's life.

The other notable element of this book is that it now serves as a somewhat unintentional snapshot of the world of 1950 America, which made it more interesting for me, but may serve to make it somewhat less than engaging for younger readers. The most obvious marker is the technology in the book - early in the book Henry must make a telephone call to his mother using a pay phone and he has to stand on a telephone so he can speak into the wall-mounted transmitter, a situation that would probably be almost entirely alien to any child born in the last decade. The other plot element that makes the stories show their age is the comparatively extreme freedom that Henry is given by his parents. In the opening chapter, the eight-year-old Henry has taken the municipal bus downtown after school so he could swim at the YMCA and has stopped off to buy himself an ice cream cone before he takes the bus back home. Henry makes this expedition on his own, and the reader is informed that this is a weekly practice for him. While tweens using a bus to get around is probably still commonplace, children as young as Henry is supposed to be almost certainly do not any more. Throughout the book, Henry's parents practice what can more or less be described as benign neglect when it comes to supervising Henry, allowing him the freedom to get himself into trouble on a regular basis, and then expecting him to solve whatever problem he has created for himself pretty much on his own. It is almost impossible to imagine that any suburban middle-class American child of today being given as much free reign, as much responsibility, and as much leeway to work his way out of difficulties as Henry is given in this book.

Despite its somewhat dated nature, or possibly because of this, Henry Huggins remains a delightful book. Originally intended as a book about an ordinary boy doing ordinary boy things and written for ordinary boys to read, age has made it into a snapshot of the Americana of a bygone era as idealized by time and distance. Regardless of its unintentional time capsule status, this book remains a perfect way to introduce children to Beverly Cleary's world of books, and is an almost must read for a complete childhood.

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