The summer wouldn't have been complete if we hadn't had any Henry Huggins or Ramona Quimby in it. So we read one of each.
My dad used to keep a box of scrap lumber in the garage, and I can still remember the day that my brothers and I came up with the great idea to build a playhouse. We scavenged for wood pieces and started haphazardly nailing them together while talking out our plans: it would have windows! and a door! a real wood floor! a second story even! Who needs plans when you have a perfect vision of it in your mind's eye? I think our enthusiasm petered out by the end of the afternoon. It soon became apparent that not only did we not have enough wood but our skills were extremely limited. We abandoned the project in favor of a game of Monopoly.
Luckily, Henry's stamina and resourcefulness and ability far exceeded my own. After Henry inherits a bathtub crate from Mr. Grumbie, he decides to build a clubhouse. He hits the jackpot when Mr. Bingham decides to tear down his garage. He tells Henry he can have whatever he wants, including the windows. Henry recruits Murph and Robert to help. Murph draws up the plans, and before long, their clubhouse begins to take shape.
But Henry has more to think about than just his clubhouse. With his newly acquired paper route, he has a lot of responsibility. He doesn't want to disappoint his dad, and he knows he has a lot to prove to Mr. Capper since he's the youngest paper boy in the neighborhood. But it's hard. Part of the job description of a paper boy is to sell new subscriptions to the paper. Henry has the perfect opportunity when someone new moves onto his route, but it takes him several tries before he's successful.
Meanwhile, he's dealing with a completely different challenge in the form of five-year-old Ramona. She's quite taken with his clubhouse, but he and Murph and Robert have definitively decided that all girls (regardless of age or friend status) will be strictly excluded from entering. Of course, Ramona has plans of her own and ends up saving the day (but not until after she locks him inside his own clubhouse . . . ).
It's kind of funny, but I think my kids actually like Ramona's stories better in the Henry books than in her own books. It's partly because she's a little bit younger in them, but I think it's also because in her own books, her problems are a little too much her own. You know what she's thinking and how she's feeling, and her emotions get all tied up in everything.
In the Henry books, it's all from Henry's perspective, and Ramona is usually (at least part of) his problem. She's irrational and stubborn, and watching Henry deal with the pesky little neighbor girl is quite entertaining. (But for all his irritation, Henry almost always chooses the higher road when it comes right down to it, and that's one of the things I hope my boys take away from these books--Ramona might be shadowing him all around the neighborhood, and it might be driving him crazy, but the night that she's cold and exhausted, he's going to pause what he's doing and help her get home--what a kid.)
Once again, I was so impressed with the set up and execution of this book. When we were in the middle of it, it felt like just an ordinary story with very little going on, but in the final chapter (and this seems to be very typical of Beverly Cleary), little details suddenly had a big impact on the outcome of the story. Things that you thought were just random and pointless came back into play, and it was pretty brilliant.
We read these two books back to back, and Ramona takes a little leap in age and maturity between the two. The content moves in that direction as well.
At the beginning of the book, Ramona's father comes home from work, and almost immediately, Beezus and Ramona can tell that something is terribly wrong. Their mother breaks the news gently but bluntly: Mr. Quimby has lost his job.
In all of the books leading up to this one, you get the distinct impression that although the Quimby's have enough, they're always stretching just a little bit to make ends meet. So you can imagine the impact this news has on their financial situation.
But, it turns out, a lack of available funds is only one of the consequences that comes from a job loss. Another one, and, as it turns out, it's the one that Ramona feels even more acutely, is that Ramona's father's morale plummets. His sense of humor slowly fades and his irritability slowly increases, especially after Beezus and Ramona convince him to give up smoking (both to save money and also his health).
So this story definitely has a more serious undertone than the previous ones, but the truth is, Ramona is still just seven years old, and even though she's worried about her dad, she's more worried about not having the perfect sheep costume for the nativity play. I think many authors would have fallen into the trap of taking this serious subject too seriously, but not Beverly Cleary. A seven-year-old is almost always going to be more interested in her own needs than those of her family. It sounds selfish, but it's actually pretty realistic.
And that's not to say that Ramona never worries about her father. She does, and at one point, after their cat knocks their jack-o-lantern off the table and ruins it, she even thinks, "Didn't grown-ups think that children worried about anything but jack-o-lanterns? Didn't they know that children worried about grown-ups?" So it's always present but just not always her first and foremost concern.
However, the reader gets a better glimpse of how tense the situation is based on how Beezus is reacting to it: she is sassy and rude and defiant, and that's also realistic. It's natural that a thirteen-year-old is going to have a better grasp of what's going on than a seven-year-old.
I think it was good for my boys to hear because up to this point in their young lives, I don't think they've ever really considered the ramifications of what would happen if their own dad lost his job. I don't want it to be something that they fret over, but I think it made them appreciate what they have just a little more.
And lest you think, this book is all seriousness with none of Ramona's usual mishaps, think again. The disaster with the crown of burrs is enough to assure anyone that she is still, always and forever, the same Ramona.