In which Annie (high school teacher, mother of two young girls and a younger boy) and her aunt Deborah (children's bookseller, mother of two young women in their 20s) discuss children's books and come up with annotated lists.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Rule-breakers and their siblings

Dear Aunt Debbie,

While I understand the desire to write about a book in a way that doesn't give away major plot elements, that is one very strange review.  We read the first Clementine book several months ago, and enjoyed it -- shades of Ramona or Junie B. Jones, with uncontrollable but generally well-meaning acting out, and a quirky heroine with a pleasant, also quirky family.  Knowing that this is the series Pennypacker is most famous for, I'd think a reviewer would want to drop a hint about unexpected darker content. 

Eleanor and I just finished Ramona the PestAs you've written before, Beverly Cleary does a terrific job of communicating kid-logic.  Ramona's thought processes and obsessions feel age-appropriate, though there's also a clear adult sensibility in the narration, providing details which allow you to see what's going on beyond Ramona's understanding.  Ramona is exactly Eleanor's age in the book -- five years old, and starting kindergarten.  So there's some room for identification with a character there, but at the same time, Eleanor is not anywhere near the kind of rule-breaker Ramona is.  As we read about Ramona's inability to keep herself from pulling her classmate Susan's curls, even when she wants to please her teacher, Miss Binney, Eleanor seemed a little confused: why can't Ramona control herself better?

As foil to Ramona, there is of course her older sister Beezus, who follows rules, is concerned about reputation, and finds Ramona's uncontrollable behavior incredibly hard to deal with.  There's something to identify with there, too, in the older sister.  But of course Beezus isn't as interesting a character as Ramona.  We get one book from her perspective (Beezus and Ramona), as opposed to Ramona's seven.

foil isn't a sibling (she has a younger brother, who she refers to with a changing variety of vegetable names: "Spinach," "Lima Bean"; at least in the first book, he's not much of a character), but her friend Margaret, who is neat, clean, organized, and rule-following. And, you know, less interesting than Clementine.

One of the few series I can think of in which the perspective stays with the better-behaved sibling is Judy Blume's Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing.  Peter Hatcher narrates this and the following three books, recounting his tribulations as older brother to the rambunctious, rule-breaking Fudge.  Of course, the series is referred to as the Fudge Books.  I've always liked Peter as a narrator -- exasperated, but ultimately fond, taking responsibility for his little brother even as he feels like he's being driven crazy.  He's a nice guy, and the books are very funny.  And perhaps my own older-sibling status as I was growing up made me gravitate toward him, rather than Ramona.

On a final note, sad news: I read last night that this week we lost both Donald J. Sobel, author of the Encyclopedia Brown mysteries, and Else Holmelund Minarik, author of the Little Bear books, which are some of our most beloved here.  Both had long lives, but it's a loss just the same.

Love, Annie


  1. As you know, all these books are some of our favorites. I like how you point out that the Fudge books are narrated by the better-behaved sibling, something I knew and yet did not focus on.

  2. We have both Ramona the Pest and Clementine on our to-read shelf. Thanks for mentioning Ramona's age -- I had forgotten and I now think it's best to read that one with my 6-year-old kiddo soon, lest she lose interest because she's not able to identify with the protagonist. Perhaps after we finish The Magician's Nephew, the book we started together yesterday.