From Contemporary to Historical

Henry Huggins (1950/1965) by jl.incrowd.Last week, I decided to revisit Klickitat Street for the first time in years.  Quite early in Henry and Ribsy’s adventures, I ran across this passage in which Henry calls his mom to ask if he can bring home a dog.

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.  (Henry Huggins, p. 3)

Now, I’ve used a pay phone before, but in this age of cell phones, how many kids are familiar with phone booths?  Or have ever heard of talking to an operator?  Or a phone book rather than google? 

Later, there’s a scene where Henry attempts to use a typewriter to fake a note from his mom to his teacher–all to get him out of the school play.  Now, kids are certainly familiar with typing, but are they going to understand the difficulties Henry had in typing a short note?

Somehow it didn’t look the way he thought it would.  The capitals were not in the right place.  He knew much wasn’t spelled with a j or yours with a z.  His fingers had just put themselves on the wrong keys.  Henry tore his letter into little pieces and threw them into the fireplace.  He ran another piece of paper into the typewriter and started again. . . Henry studied it.  Those capitals again.  He pushed the thing too soon or not soon enough.  And whoever heard of a word like ezcude?  Or doat?  His fingers just didn’t hit the right keys.  (Henry Huggins, p. 52-53)

Henry Huggins was Beverly Cleary’s first book, published in 1950.  She wrote it for the little boys in the library that wanted a book featuring “a boy like me.”  Sixty years later, Henry is still in print and still much loved.  Unlike most of the authors I talk about here, Beverly Cleary is still going strong (well, as strong as anyone can be at 94!).  I just love her author’s website, which includes an interactive map of Klickitat Street.

Henry was a contemporary novel back in 1950–none of the technology or little details of daily life were unusual to the first readers.  But now?  Has it become historical?

In my mind, there are two types of kidlit history–those books that are based on the author’s past and those books that have become historical by surviving.  What really separates the two is that the writer looking back has a general idea about things that might confuse their readers.  Hence, the wealth of details and explanations in the Little House books or even Betsy-Tacy.  But Cleary is assuming that her readers know all about typewriters–they know that correcting mistakes was virtually impossible.  They had a really good idea why Henry struggled so with that note–while kids today, so comfortable with the ease of computer editing, won’t.

I love these kinds of books, because the bits of history are so natural–the author isn’t consciously saying “kids in the future will need to know about phone booths, so I’ll be sure to include that.”

All the bits of technology aside, I fell in love with Henry all over again on this reread.  It has been a very, very long time since I’ve read any Cleary.  The last thing by her that I’ve read was her two memoirs, A Girl From Yamhill and My Own Two Feet, and that was more than a few years ago.  But on my midwestern road trip, I kept running into Cleary books for next to nothing–it was like the universe was telling me that it was time for me to revisit Klickitat Street.  So I see lots of Cleary in my immediate future.

2 responses to “From Contemporary to Historical”

  1. When I read Henry Huggins to my daughter, I noticed the same old-fashioned details you mentioned. Oddly enough, though, the thing that seemed most old-fashioned to me is the way adults (Henry’s mother and his teachers) are constantly correcting him on fine points of grammar. I don’t hear that very much (at least not directed at kids; other adults and I enjoy correcting each other on the fine points of grammar).


  2. I just recommended this to a student yesterday and will have to see what he thinks of the “old fashioned” stuff in it.


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