What books or authors stand out from childhood? Did any unlock the magic and joys of reading for you? Did any inspire, shape or guide the person you are today or hope to be?
Beverly Cleary, the author of such classics as “Ramona Quimby, Age 8,” “Henry Huggins” and “The Mouse and the Motorcycle,” recently died at 104. Did you ever read any of her books? Do you have a favorite book, series or character that she created?
In third grade, I wanted to be a mouse.
Not a timid mouse. Not a quiet mouse. And certainly not Mickey Mouse.
No, I wanted to be Ralph, the mouse with the motorcycle.
In the many appreciations of Beverly Cleary that have been posted since her death at age 104 last Thursday, there has been plenty of rightful attention paid to Ramona, her most famous character. Though I have nothing but respect for Ramona, my heart has always belonged to Ralph. Ms. Cleary always said she wrote “The Mouse and the Motorcycle” for her son. In doing this, she didn’t welcome just one boy into the world of her books; she welcomed generations of boys like me.
Third grade was a crucial time for me as a reader. I felt I was coming to a fork in the library aisles, where one path led to the Hardy Boys doing hardy boy things while Nancy Drew did mysteriously girl-coded things down the other. Even though Princess Leia was my favorite character to be when I played “Star Wars”with my friends (unusual, but not that unusual) and Marion Ravenwood was my favorite when we played “Raiders of the Lost Ark” (highly unusual, to the point of oddness), I still felt I needed to head for the mountainous boy-book terrain. I was supposed to read for action, not depth. Feelings were not a mystery the Hardy Boys ever needed to solve.
Then I found Ralph.
We meet him in Room 215 of the Mountain View Inn, where a boy named Keith has just arrived. (Keith’s parents are in an adjoining room.) As soon as Keith settles in, he pokes around the room, coming very close to discovering the knothole behind which Ralph and his mouse family live. Then Keith does exactly what I would have done, had I been the one checking into Room 215: He takes out his toy cars, plays with them, and then lines them up in a neat row before he goes to sleep.
Like most boys my age (and some, but not nearly enough, girls), I had an abundant collection of Matchbox and Hot Wheels cars. Unlike most kids my age, I gave each of my cars a name and a personality, and it was usually the sedans that got the most play. While some of my cars raced, most of my time with them was spent on storytelling that I’d now call relationship oriented. In my hands, they came to life.
Because of this, I knew exactly how Ralph felt, the first time he watched Keith play:
Ralph was eager, excited, curious, and impatient all at once. The emotion was so strong it made him forget his empty stomach. It was caused by those little cars, especially that motorcycle and the pb-pb-b-b-b sound the boy made. That sound seemed to satisfy something within Ralph, as if he had been waiting all his life to hear it.
Beverly Cleary knew what she was doing. She was writing directly to the reader, showing that she knew us and what our lives and feelings were like. She helped me realize I didn’t need to change myself into a detective or a knight or a Revolutionary War soldier in order to have an adventure or to be a boy. The adventure would come to me as part of the life I knew. Claiming a book about a talking mouse as a work of realism might seem a stretch, but Ms. Cleary’s magic was that she placed her flights of fancy so firmly in the lives of her very human characters that reading her stories always feels like soaring through real life. This was an inspiration to me as a reader and, later, as an author; it’s not a coincidence that I can trace back my writing career to the stories I wrote in third grade.