Authors: Beverly Cleary
I was the age of readers of my books I always skipped the introduction because I was so eager to get at the story. Then, if I enjoyed what I had read, I returned to what I should have read in the first place. If I did not enjoy the book, I ignored the introduction because I was not interested in what the author had to say. Now I find myself writing an introduction to
, the book that was my first attempt at writing (I don't count school assignments) fifty years ago. Please feel free to skip, but if you do I hope you will return to it.
What can I tell you about this book? First of all, back in 1949 when I wrote it, I was surprised to have written it at all. Although I had dreamed of writing since childhood, I had no clear idea of what I should say. I assumed I would write about a girl. After all, I had been a girl, hadn't I? Authors should write about what they know.
Finally when I was in my early thirties the day came when the desire to write had gnawed at me long enough. I had been working in a bookstore during the Christmas rush where I was faced with trying to sell a book about a puppy that said, “Bow-wow. I like the green grass.” No dog I had known could talk like that. I knew I could write a better book.
I sat at an old kitchen table in an otherwise empty bedroomâand sat and satâwithout a single thing to say about a girl. I watched the twittering birds in a eucalyptus tree. I let the cat out. I let the cat in. I doodled miserably with a few sentences about a girl and decided if I didn't enjoy what I was writing no one could enjoy reading it. I seemed to have spent my own childhood reading library books or embroidering tea towels. Should I forget about writing? Not yet. I sat until I found myself thinking about a group of boys I had worked with when I was a children's librarian in Yakima, Washington. These lively nonreaders were sent to the library once a week from nearby St. Joseph's School for help in selecting books that their teacher felt might be more interesting to them than their textbooks. They came marching sedately two by two until they came to the basement steps to the boys' and girls' room. Then they broke ranks and jumped. I was expected to find books that would capture their interest, and they were expected to read and tell me about those books the next week.
This turned out to be more difficult than I had expected. There was very little on the library shelves those boys wanted to read. Finally one of them burst out, and the other agreed, “Where are the books for kids like us?” Where indeed. There weren't any. I did the best I could with dog stories, which they found acceptable if the dog did not die at the end, or bear stories.
Ten years had passed since I had known those boys. I sat at the typewriter I had bought at the time because someday I was going to be a writer. I mused about those boys and all the boys I had ever known, boys from families with modest incomes who lived in neighborhoods of old houses, lawns, and tree-lined streets, boys who did not have scary adventures but who made their own excitement.
Inspiration came. Forget about girls. I would write a book about a boy, a boy named Henry Huggins, a name that seemed to be waiting in my mind. Henry would have a dog, an ordinary city mutt because dog stories so often seemed to be about noble country dogs. The story I wrote came out of a dilemma described to me by a harried mother whose children tried to take a dog home on the streetcar. I soon discovered the pleasure of rearranging reality to suit myself. Two children became one, the streetcar became a bus, and so on. I also discovered I did not know how to write a story, but I did know how to tell one. In my imagination I told the story to my former Yakima story audience and wrote it down as I told it. After all, I thought, what is writing for young readers but storytelling?
With a light heart I sent off my little story to a publisher known to be interested in easy reading books. As soon as it was in the mail I found I was still thinking about Henry, and my mind was a scrap bag of ideas from which I was pulling out a jumble of ideas from memories, incidents others had told me, newspaper articles, snatches of overheard conversations, the world around me, all of which were nudging my imagination.
The manuscript was promptly returned withâthis was a surpriseâan encouraging letter telling me I should write a number of stories, send them to magazines, and then weave them into a book-length plot. Well! Apparently I was better than I thought I was, but I had no interest in magazines. Instead I sat down and wrote five more stories about Henry, one chapter a week. This time I wrote in longhand and still do because I dislike typing. Then, surprised to have written about a boy and with some misgivings about the last chapter, I laboriously typed the manuscript and mailed it to Morrow Junior Books because the editor, Elisabeth Hamilton, had a reputation in the bookstore of being “the smartest editor in the business.”
This time I watched the mail so anxiously that the mailman asked what I was waiting for and became equally interested. After six weeks of shaking his head he finally bypassed the mailbox and came to the door waving an envelope. A letter! My manuscript was not rejected. Someone had written a letter.
Elisabeth Hamilton wrote saying they were very much interested in my manuscript but would I consider making changes, particularly in the last chapter. Of course I would. The changes turned out to be minor, even in the chapter which was quickly straightened out with the help of Elisabeth's tactful suggestions. When I returned the manuscript Elisabeth wrote a letter of acceptance telling me
would be one of the exciting publications of the fall season. With that letter, my first acceptance of many, I became, in the words children were to use for the next fifty years, a real live author.
enry Huggins was in the third grade. His hair looked like a scrubbing brush and most of his grown-up front teeth were in. He lived with his mother and father in a square white house on Klickitat Street. Except for having his tonsils out when he was six and breaking his arm falling out of a cherry tree when he was seven, nothing much happened to Henry.
I wish something exciting would happen, Henry often thought.
But nothing very interesting ever happened to Henry, at least not until one Wednesday afternoon in March. Every Wednesday after school Henry rode downtown on the bus to go swimming at the Y.M.C.A. After he swam for an hour, he got on the bus again and rode home just in time for dinner. It was fun but not really exciting.
When Henry left the Y.M.C.A. on this particular Wednesday, he stopped to watch a man tear down a circus poster. Then, with three nickels and one dime in his pocket, he went to the corner drugstore to buy a chocolate ice cream cone. He thought he would eat the ice cream cone, get on the bus, drop his dime in the slot, and ride home.
That is not what happened.
He bought the ice cream cone and paid for it with one of his nickels. On his way out of the drugstore he stopped to look at funny books. It was a free look, because he had only two nickels left.
He stood there licking his chocolate ice cream cone and reading one of the funny books when he heard a thump, thump, thump. Henry turned, and there behind him was a dog. The dog was scratching himself. He wasn't any special kind of dog. He was too small to be a big dog but, on the other hand, he was much too big to be a little dog. He wasn't a white dog, because parts of him were brown and other parts were black and in between there were yellowish patches. His ears stood up and his tail was long and thin.
The dog was hungry. When Henry licked, he licked. When Henry swallowed, he swallowed.
“Hello, you old dog,” Henry said. “You can't have my ice cream cone.”
Swish, swish, swish went the tail. “Just one bite,” the dog's brown eyes seemed to say.
“Go away,” ordered Henry. He wasn't very firm about it. He patted the dog's head.
The tail wagged harder. Henry took one last lick. “Oh, all right,” he said. “If you're that hungry, you might as well have it.”
The ice cream cone disappeared in one gulp.
“Now go away,” Henry told the dog. “I have to catch a bus for home.”
He started for the door. The dog started, too.
“Go away, you skinny old dog.” Henry didn't say it very loudly. “Go on home.”
The dog sat down at Henry's feet. Henry looked at the dog and the dog looked at Henry.
“I don't think you've got a home. You're awful thin. Your ribs show right through your skin.”
Thump, thump, thump replied the tail.
“And you haven't got a collar,” said Henry.
He began to think. If only he could keep the dog! He had always wanted a dog of his very own and now he had found a dog that wanted him. He couldn't go home and leave a hungry dog on the street corner. If only he knew what his mother and father would say! He fingered the two nickels in his pocket. That was it! He would use one of the nickels to phone his mother.
“Come on, Ribsy. Come on, Ribs, old boy. I'm going to call you Ribsy because you're so thin.”
The dog trotted after the boy to the telephone booth in the corner of the drugstore. Henry shoved him into the booth and shut the door. He had never used a pay telephone before. He had to put the telephone book on the floor and stand on tiptoe on it to reach the mouthpiece. He gave the operator his number and dropped his nickel into the coin box.
“Why, Henry!” His mother sounded surprised. “Where are you?”
“At the drugstore near the Y.”
Ribs began to scratch. Thump, thump, thump. Inside the telephone booth the thumps sounded loud and hollow.
“For goodness' sake, Henry, what's that noise?” his mother demanded. Ribs began to whimper and then to howl. “Henry,” Mrs. Huggins shouted, “are you all right?”
“Yes, I'm all right,” Henry shouted back. He never could understand why his mother always thought something had happened to him when nothing ever did. “That's just Ribsy.”
“Ribsy?” His mother was exasperated. “Henry, will you please tell me what is going on?”
“I'm trying to,” said Henry. Ribsy howled louder. People were gathering around the phone booth to see what was going on. “Mother, I've found a dog. I sure wish I could keep him. He's a good dog and I'd feed him and wash him and everything. Please, Mom.”
“I don't know, dear,” his mother said. “You'll have to ask your father.”
“Mom!” Henry wailed. “That's what you always say!” Henry was tired of standing on tiptoe and the phone booth was getting warm. “Mom, please say yes and I'll never ask for another thing as long as I live!”
“Well, all right, Henry. I guess there isn't any reason why you shouldn't have a dog. But you'll have to bring him home on the bus. Your father has the car today and I can't come after you. Can you manage?”
“And Henry, please don't be late. It looks as if it might rain.”
“All right, Mom.” Thump, thump, thump.
“Henry, what's that thumping noise?”
“It's my dog, Ribsy. He's scratching a flea.”
“Oh, Henry,” Mrs. Huggins moaned. “Couldn't you have found a dog without fleas?”
Henry thought that was a good time to hang up. “Come on, Ribs,” he said. “We're going home on the bus.”
When the big green bus stopped in front of the drugstore, Henry picked up his dog. Ribsy was heavier than he expected. He had a hard time getting him into the bus and was wondering how he would get a dime out of his pocket when the driver said, “Say, sonny, you can't take that dog on the bus.”
“Why not?” asked Henry.
“It's a company rule, sonny. No dogs on buses.”
“Golly, Mister, how'm I going to get him home? I just have to get him home.”
“Sorry, sonny. I didn't make the rule. No animal can ride on a bus unless it's inside a box.”
“Well, thanks anyway,” said Henry doubtfully, and lifted Ribsy off the bus.
“Well, I guess we'll have to get a box. I'll get you onto the next bus somehow,” promised Henry.
He went back into the drugstore followed closely by Ribsy. “Have you got a big box I could have, please?” he asked the man at the toothpaste counter. “I need one big enough for my dog.”
The clerk leaned over the counter to look at Ribsy. “A cardboard box?” he asked.
“Yes, please,” said Henry, wishing the man would hurry. He didn't want to be late getting home.
The clerk pulled a box out from under the counter. “This hair tonic carton is the only one I have. I guess it's big enough, but why anyone would want to put a dog in a cardboard box I can't understand.”
The box was about two feet square and six inches deep. On one end was printed, “Don't Let Them Call You Baldy,” and on the other, “Try Our Large Economy Size.”
Henry thanked the clerk, carried the box out to the bus stop, and put it on the sidewalk. Ribsy padded after him. “Get in, fellow,” Henry commanded. Ribsy understood. He stepped into the box and sat down just as the bus came around the corner. Henry had to kneel to pick up the box. It was not a very strong box and he had to put his arms under it. He staggered as he lifted it, feeling like the strong man who lifted weights at the circus. Ribsy lovingly licked his face with his wet pink tongue.
“Hey, cut that out!” Henry ordered. “You better be good if you're going to ride on the bus with me.”
The bus stopped at the curb. When it was Henry's turn to get on, he had trouble finding the step because he couldn't see his feet. He had to try several times before he hit it. Then he discovered he had forgotten to take his dime out of his pocket. He was afraid to put the box down for fear Ribsy might escape.
He turned sideways to the driver and asked politely, “Will you please take the dime out of my pocket for me? My hands are full.”
The driver pushed his cap back on his head and exclaimed, “Full! I should say they
full! And just where do you think you're going with that animal?”
“Home,” said Henry in a small voice.
The passengers were staring and most of them were smiling. The box was getting heavier every minute.
“Not on this bus, you're not!” said the driver.
“But the man on the last bus said I could take the dog on the bus in a box,” protested Henry, who was afraid he couldn't hold the dog much longer. “He said it was a company rule.”
“He meant a big box tied shut. A box with holes punched in it for the dog to breathe through.”
Henry was horrified to hear Ribsy growl. “Shut up,” he ordered.
Ribsy began to scratch his left ear with his left hind foot. The box began to tear. Ribsy jumped out of the box and off the bus and Henry jumped after him. The bus pulled away with a puff of exhaust.
“Now see what you've done! You've spoiled everything.” The dog hung his head and tucked his tail between his legs. “If I can't get you home, how can I keep you?”
Henry sat down on the curb to think. It was so late and the clouds were so dark that he didn't want to waste time looking for a big box. His mother was probably beginning to worry about him.
People were stopping on the corner to wait for the next bus. Among them Henry noticed an elderly lady carrying a large paper shopping bag full of apples. The shopping bag gave him an idea. Jumping up, he snapped his fingers at Ribs and ran back into the drugstore.
“You back again?” asked the toothpaste clerk. “What do you want this time? String and paper to wrap your dog in?”
“No, sir,” said Henry. “I want one of those big nickel shopping bags.” He laid his last nickel on the counter.
“Well, I'll be darned,” said the clerk, and handed the bag across the counter.
Henry opened the bag and set it up on the floor. He picked up Ribsy and shoved him hind feet first into the bag. Then he pushed his front feet in. A lot of Ribsy was left over.
The clerk was leaning over the counter watching. “I guess I'll have to have some string and paper, too,” Henry said, “if I can have some free.”
“Well! Now I've seen everything.” The clerk shook his head as he handed a piece of string and a big sheet of paper across the counter.
Ribsy whimpered, but he held still while Henry wrapped the paper loosely around his head and shoulders and tied it with the string. The dog made a lumpy package, but by taking one handle of the bag in each hand Henry was able to carry it to the bus stop. He didn't think the bus driver would notice him. It was getting dark and a crowd of people, most of them with packages, was waiting on the corner. A few spatters of rain hit the pavement.
This time Henry remembered his dime. Both hands were full, so he held the dime in his teeth and stood behind the woman with the bag of apples. Ribsy wiggled and whined, even though Henry tried to pet him through the paper. When the bus stopped, he climbed on behind the lady, quickly set the bag down, dropped his dime in the slot, picked up the bag, and squirmed through the crowd to a seat beside a fat man near the back of the bus.
“Whew!” Henry sighed with relief. The driver was the same one he had met on the first bus! But Ribs was on the bus at last. Now if he could only keep him quiet for fifteen minutes they would be home and Ribsy would be his for keeps.
The next time the bus stopped Henry saw Scooter McCarthy, a fifth grader at school, get on and make his way through the crowd to the back of the bus.
Just my luck, thought Henry. I'll bet he wants to know what's in my bag.
“Hi,” said Scooter.
“Hi,” said Henry.
“Whatcha got in that bag?” asked Scooter.
“None of your beeswax,” answered Henry.