Henry Huggins

henry hugginsIn the introduction to the fiftieth anniversary edition of Henry Huggins, Beverly Cleary describes sitting down to write what would be her first book. She remembered the boys who used to come into her library and ask, “Where are the books about kids like us?” That was the 1940s, and apparently not many had realistic and imperfect kids, but paragons of the Horatio Alger stamp or fearless adventurers like the Hardy Boys. Cleary decided to write a book about kids like them — city kids without much money — and Henry Huggins was born.

Henry is less developed than Ramona, at least in book one, and Cleary is a less developed writer: Henry doesn’t have the same fine-tuned wit as Ramona, his experiences don’t have the same poignancy, and the book is so much a novel as a collection of stories. Still, there is still a fine, minimalist style and buoyancy that any children’s book author can learn from. While reading I kept in mind that it was a revolutionary turn for a children’s book to have such benign realism, and admire how Cleary is able to give such stories urgency despite the lack of high stakes (to use the fiction-writer’s lingo).

Oh, how I miss books like these, and how I miss childhood like that experienced by the kids of Klickitat. Henry has a lot of autonomy for a city kid who is about nine in the first book, handles his own meager finances, and makes his own fun. His parents give advice and assistance but don’t manage his projects for him. In one chapter they even let him go out at night, unsupervised, to catch worms — this in an urban setting (Portland, Oregon). It’s striking to read about kids who are so independent, and parents who are so trusting. I enjoyed a childhood somewhat like Henry’s, and in fact was inspired by this book to attempt my own nightcrawler hunting business (I caught a lot, but well shy of Henry’s 1300).

I am also struck by the differences in the economics of kidhood. There’s nary a chapter where Henry is not counting pennies. He saves up for small things like footballs or guppies, and while his parents support these endeavors, they don’t buy him stuff willy nilly. The families in both the Henry and Ramona series are thrifty. Nobody would describe them as poor, but they save up for small pleasures and live on tight budgets. They economize and improvise: When Henry has fish, he keeps them in a gallon pickle jar and moves fish with a net made from his mother’s nylons. Even the pets are less spoiled. When he later has pet store credit, he doesn’t know how to use it — his dog has a collar, a leash, and a dish, and that’s everything he needs. Compare that to the pet beds, snacks, and pile of chew-toys of American doghood in the 21st Century.

So the “book about kids like us” may seem exotic to readers in the 20-teens. Based on reviews and gatekeeper feedback on my own books (which typically have Hugginsesque kids off doing stuff on their own), the idea has really taken hold that kids don’t do anything unsupervised (no sandlot ball, and no kids building robots on their own, I’m told). It also seems like even less well-off kids have a load of toys and routinely get for-no-reason presents that Henry would have had to save up for. Well, OK, those assumptions are informed by race and class, but it’s hard to deny that I had more freedom and less stuff than kids of the same middle-class white backgrounds do now. I think Cleary herself mentions that in her New York Times interview from a few years ago.

Wouldn’t kids trade the stuff for the liberty? I know I would have. In fact, as a child I rarely fantasized about things or organized activities. I fantasized about minor adventures like Henry’s, and friends like Henry’s. Even if the modern, pampered, plugged in, and helicoptered kid finds Henry less “relatable” (to use a contentious word) than kids of my era, I hope they’ll be enticed to hunt nightcrawlers or adopt a grubby stray dog on the spot.

A Postcript

Yesterday I listened to an interview with Beverly Cleary on NPR that appeared when the movie Ramona and Beezus came out a couple of years ago. I haven’t seen the movie, but it looks like they were pretty faithful to the source material, but there was an exchange with the director and the author I thought illuminated part of what I was trying to articulate.

Cleary asks the director what she thinks the theme of the books are, and the director replies that the stories are about a girl with a runaway imagination who has trouble getting into the little box the world has made for her. Cleary squints at her and says, they’re about a girl growing up.

Ramona is imaginative, but it’s not really what the books are about. And obviously the director has read them, but she’s speaking to the movie she wants to make, and the movie she thinks kids wants to see, and so picks up on an aspect of the Ramona series and plays it up as the main theme.

Now don’t get me wrong — it looks like a fine movie. Lord knows Disney doesn’t need any flak for making a realistic movie with a non-princess girl as its hero, a book made by a woman and adapted from a work by a woman. Hollywood needs those movies, and kids need those movies. (And really, my bigger question is the wisdom of making the entire series into one movie, because they end up with an eight-year-old doing things a five-year-old did in the books and it makes less sense.) I also get that they want to make movies a good cinematic experience so they’re going to throw in CGI sequences and make a much bigger deal of Ramona’s flights of fancy than they seem to be in the book, just as they did with Bridge over Terabithia (which is much truer to the book than the trailers pretend).

I just thought it illustrated what I was trying to say yesterday. The books show a normal kid with normal problems, but that doesn’t fly anymore so the director guesses it must be some extraordinary aspect of Ramona that makes the books special–a mark of magic on her forehead, so to speak. The story has to be about personal exceptionalism, right? Well, no, said Ms. Cleary. But she was sweet about it.

Homesick for Klickitat Street

When I was a kid there was no children’s writer bigger than Beverly Cleary. Everybody read her books, even the kids who didn’t read. And it was quite all right for boys to read the Ramona books because plenty of boys started with Henry Huggins and simply kept going as the series transitioned. Survey a class anywhere between second and sixth grade who their favorite writer was and half of them would say Beverly Cleary.

Yet, there was practically no merchandising. There were no toys or trapper keepers that I recall. I doubt there were midnight release parties. No movies were made from Cleary’s work until a few years ago, when Ramona and Beezus came out (reversing the names from the first book’s title, but loosely adapted from the entire series). There was a low-key Canadian TV series made of Ramona, but it was hardly a big attempt to cash in on a popular brand. Those were different days, pre-Harry-Potter and pre-Goosebumps, when children’s books were simply children’s books and not properties; readers were simply fans and didn’t comprise fandoms. Children’s books came out without much noise but had long lives. There was something dignified about writing children’s books but it was nobody’s get rich quick scheme.

I marvel that an author selling nearly a hundred million books would have left her reputation and her legacy largely in the body of her work, and that the publishers let her. Cleary says in her autobiography that she decided that she would never care about trends or money, so maybe there was pressure to do more and she declined, but the expectations of the public were also different. We let children’s books be children’s books back then.

Another thing I marvel at is that except for the whimsical Ralph S. Mouse series there is nothing high concept about Cleary’s work. They are simple books about realistic kids. The pitch, if there is one, was Cleary’s reputation for emotional honesty. Nobody needs to save the world, or even save Klickitat Street, but Cleary can make a crushed paper-bag owl feel like the end of the world. She’s funny, but she’s not off-the-wall talking burrito funny—her humor is character-centered and observational. There’s drama, but not melodrama—the cat dies, but not the mom.

Every year Beverly Cleary’s birthday is celebrated with growing reverence by the industry, partly due to her legacy and partly in wonder of her long life—she will be 99 on her next birthday—but there’s not much evidence the industry wants books like these anymore: books without a gimmick, that respect the minds of children, books that don’t do anything but get to the heart of the childhood experience. Books that are obviously for kids, and not geared to get buzzed up by bloggers and read by adults.

I meant this post be an appreciation for Cleary’s understanding of children, and how it serves me well as a father to re-read them, but the experience has made me sentimental. I keep tearing up, and I know it’s not just because of the way Cleary recalls the daily ups and downs of being a kid—which she does better than anyone, ever, I am sure—it is because I miss what children’s literature used to be. The hot market kid lit has become just isn’t the same world that welcomed me as a lonely ten year old in the child-sized shelves at the public library, and made me so happy I decided to spend the rest of my life there.

I’m homesick for Klickitat Street.

The Playgrind Part 2

I get to go to the playground every weekend so the kid can scream at me for not pushing him on the swing right (“Use both hands! Put your phone away!”). Playground time means trying to explain to other parents why my son just threw sand at their baby’s face or ordered their kid out of his favorite swing. Playground time means a barrage of why questions: why is that bug  dead, why is that boy on a bike, why it isn’t raining. Playground time means having public fights over things like whether or not Daddy’s shoes should be thrown in the pool. Playground time is tedious and exasperating.

But here’s why I say, “I get to go,” instead of, “I have to go.” I get to go because in between all the questions, the anxiety over his interactions with other kids, suffering through his bossiness and unreasonableness, there are moments of discovery.

Byron hasn’t learned there is anything that isn’t interesting. He can occupy himself with a copse of grass. He spent five minutes yesterday marvelling at a drowned beetle. He felt like the luckiest kid on earth because he found a penny, and when he found a second he left it there: with one, he had all the riches in the world, and the second penny should make another kid’s day.

I wish I could say it was as easy as being with a child to see the world through his eyes, to transcend my grown-up jaundice and worldly concerns, and to delight in a dragonfly, but it’s not that easy. But then, sometimes, it is. When you have tuned yourself to him, when you have allowed yourself to take an interest in his interests, you can suddenly be thrilled by the sight, in the sky, in the distance, of a man on a cherry picker fixing a wire. You can follow an ant for several minutes. You can watch a grasshopper with the same fascination as you watch an exotic zoo animal.

You can celebrate, with him, when he finally finds the right combination of shifting weight and leg pumps to make the swing swing on its own, to feel the same flush of pride, and be glad he stops a moment later and asks you to push him, with both hands.

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Boyhood

In 1992 or thereabouts I saw a movie called Slacker, an ambitious movie by a first-time director that involved easily over a hundred characters in what at least seemed to be a single take. It instantly became my favorite movie, not because of the premise, but because within that premise the movie was so funny and unconventional. The concept of the movie was to follow various conversations in and around the city of Austin over a 24 hour timeframe. The “one day” theme continued in the director’s next movie, Dazed and Confused, which I thought then (and think now) is one of the great teen movies (but it’s not a typical “teen movie,” which is what sets it apart) and Before Sunrise. I’ve followed Linklater with a lot of interest ever since. But although I saw and enjoyed every one of his movies, even Waking Life (which practically nobody saw and nobody liked), I felt like he hadn’t matched those first two films. I kind of wrote him off after School of Rock and The Bad News Bears remake, which were OK movies but it seemed like he wasn’t trying to do anything special anymore.

Well, now he’s turned out the movie of his career, and one which I’m sure will be talked about for many years. And I swear I’m not making this up, but I’ve always wanted someone to make a movie about someone growing up, and do it over a period of years, with the same actors aging naturally over time. So Linklater did exactly that, starting in 2002 and finishing now, in 2014. The movie is finallt here: Boyhood.

I would say, a lesser director wouldn’t have made such a movie this successful, but a lesser director wouldn’t have bothered. Only a patient director primarily interested in humans would do it, and Linklater is the right director for this movie by virtue of the fact that he wanted to do it.

I’ll try to avoid major spoilers but really, this isn’t the kind of movie that can be “spoiled.” It’s not a Bruce-Willis-is-a-Ghost type movie. It’s exactly what you think it is going in — a movie about a boyhood. But the following paragraphs are very mildly spoilerish so don’t read if you’re that kind of person.

I love the fact that the parents are people in this movie, and grow and change as much as their children. I’ve never loved Ethan Hawke as an actor, and expected I would be frustrated by what the previews promised would be a deadbeat, drifter dad. Instead I found myself rooting for that character, and marvelling that the actor who used to mumble his way through parts was doing it.  But Patricia Arquette is even better; a woman who is more than once compelled to make terrible decisions that are the less terrible of terrible decisions. I also loved Lorelei Linklater, the director’s daughter, squirming in awkward conversations with her “dad” (Ethan Hawke) (but maybe it was easy to squirm since her real dad was watching). Ellar Coltrane reminded me weirdly of Martin Freeman in the British The Office; able to communicate more with facial expressions to the camera than he does to the other actors, a style that’s peculiar but effective.

I think the movie works best because as these actors worked with each other for over a decade, they became close, and their chemistry is real–if Ethan Hawke and Ellar Coltrane had a palpable closeness in the final scenes, it’s because Hawke really did watch that boy grow up and cares about him. When Lorelei’s jabs at her “little brother” are delivered with the perfect combination of annoyance and affection, it’s because she’d known Ellar most of her life. The movie, despite its title, is less about a boy and more about family.

Ultimately Boyhood is testament to this approach to a movie: watching a boy really grow up and his family grow with him. It is the opposite of Forrest Gump, which shamelessly works in every big song and major event and reduces the human characters to types. In Boyhood, the people are real, flawed but heroic, and the story is theirs.

It’s probably not a perfect movie, but it’s braver, more challenging, and more interesting than just about everything else coming out this summer.

Some things I don’t want tell my son

Something I’m writing is from the point of view of a skeptical child… she has learned that adults say well-meaning but meaningless things, things that are meant to make themselves, not the child feel better. She gets this cynicism from me. But I wonder which of these I will inevitably tell my own son?

1. “Just be yourself”

This is kind of a crazy-making thing to tell a kid, isn’t it? Do kids know who they are, yet? Should they know who they are?

Byron, I hope you sort out who you are eventually, but you’re only going to find out who you are through fearless experimentation. Also, I am forty-six years old and I still don’t know who I am.

2. “Everything will be all right”

Kid, I don’t know that everything will be all right. I have a lot of concerns about the future — ours, yours, the world’s. Try to be brave and know you aren’t alone.

3. “You can do anything.”

The truth is that you can’t do anything. For example, with short parents you are probably not bound for the NBA. The good news is that you’re good at some things, and people tend to like doing the things they are good at. Also, the world is filled with interesting jobs that don’t make you rich and famous, but give you a happy and rewarding life. We’ll talk about your dreams and try to get you there and keep our minds open.

4. “A real friend wouldn’t make you __________.”

Ah, but friendship is so complicated, isn’t it? At some point a friend is going to ask you to do something, and it doesn’t make them a false friend or a terrible person. I hope you have the courage to say “no,” because it takes more courage to stand up to friends sometimes than it does to stand up to enemies. But when you do say no, you can say “I am still your friend.”

5. “These are the best years of your life”

My own childhood wasn’t that happy, and the last thing I needed to hear was that it would go downhill. Fortunately it didn’t. Every decade has been better than the one before it. In my 20s I got a career, in my 30s I got a house and met your mother, in my forties I fulfilled my dream of publishing and you came along. I hope you find that your life steadily improves as you get older and find your way in the world.

 

Amazon.com Reviews of The Sky

Only the middle part is blue

17 of 23 people found this review useful

I was excited about the sky because I heard it was blue and blue is my favorite color. I was disappointed to find that only the middle part was blue. It was more gray-white in the beginning and purple at the end. The blue parts were sometimes very blue, but sometimes had a lot of white mixed in which I didn’t really get. I think it was trying to be deep but the white things were too distracting to really get what was supposed to be deep. I like the inclusion of many birds but they could have been more colorful. I did like the part with the airplane. It came as a complete surprise and was very effective. Also I should mention that the sky is very vast so you have to like vast things. If you prefer more modest fare the sky is not for you. I would recommend the sky to people who like vast things that are mostly blue and might be deep if you don’t mind the distracting white parts. ***

Comment: not sure we even saw the same sky. Mine is black and twinkly with light.

Comment: huh? No, I guess we didn’t see the same thing, but mine is definitely sky.

Departure from ground

15 of 20 people found this review useful

I don’t know why I went outside and looked at the sky when I wasn’t a big fan of ground (I was led to believe it was similar), but I’m glad I gave sky a chance. Sky is completely different from Ground. Ground is so boring. Sky is amazing. Loved sky and plan on seeing it again. *****

Comment: I loved ground, so I guess I won’t like sky? LOL.

Comment: I think you’ll like sky. It’s just not an apt comparison. FTR I didn’t *hate* ground, I just thought it was really slow.

Comment: Maybe you just have to be in the mood for it.

Comment: Maybe.

Get celestial vault instead

This is a cheap rip off of a much better product, CELESTIAL VAULT. Don’t waste your time on sky. * (Wish I could give it ZERO stars).

Comment: let me guess. You work for celestial vault?

Comment: I have zero association with celestial vault.

Comment: I’ll take that as a yes.

Don’t believe the hype

I heard a lot of buzz about sky like it was the best thing ever and it was just OK. My kids *hated* it so definitely don’t bring kids to this. They will hate it. **

Arrived wet

11 of 18 people found this review useful

Mine was wet and I couldn’t use it. *