Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Book of the Week: THE MOUSE AND THE MOTORCYCLE by Beverly Cleary

How about some nice classic middle grade this week, Esteemed Reader? I’m all for these up and coming whippersnappers we've had here to face the 7 Questions and I enjoy reading their books every week. But sometimes, you've got to go back to your roots and read a work that has endured longer than many of the authors I’ve interviewed and the literary agents (had to work in another link) have been alive. That’s not to say some of these newfangled books won’t go on to become classics, but if middle grade fiction were the rapper world, then Beverly Cleary would be Dr. Dre:) Respect the mouse. Respect his motorcycle.

We have discussed previously what makes a novel a classic and as I recall, my response was “I don’t know.” What gripping, illuminating stuff this blog is made of:) But I do know a classic when I see one. The Mouse and the Motorcycle was published in 1965, was still a top librarian recommend when I read it as a child in 1987, and is still picked up by eager readers now in 2012. I loved this book and its sequels and kids still love them. Plenty of books have been published since 1965 and have since gone out of print, yet this story of Ralph S. Mouse remains as popular with readers as ever.

Something about this book made it stand out from the pack. Part of that something has to be Beverly Cleary, who also gave us Henry Huggins and Ramona Quimby (another post, Esteemed Reader) who, like Ralph S. Mouse, are gods in the pantheon of middle grade fiction. But that’s not all, because Cleary also wrote Ellen Tebbits, Muggie Maggie, and Sister of the Bride, which have failed to keep the same staying power.

I don’t know how Clearly pulled off the magic imbued in The Mouse and the Motorcycle. If I did, I would reproduce it, and then the Book of the Week section of this blog would be filled with my books. But I can speculate and paw at her methods the way the confused monkey men pawed at the monolith at the beginning of 2001.

So that we may discuss the techniques employed by Cleary, let’s dispense with my review: this book is awesome! It’s one of the best books ever written, middle grade or otherwise, and if you haven’t read it, stop reading this review and go get a copy. If you want to write successful middle grade--and as you’re here, I’ll assume the thought has at least crossed your mind--you owe it to your craft to read this book.

I love this story and either you do too, or you will once you read it. It’s impossible for me to imagine anyone disliking this novel, unless certain religious zealots somehow find the idea of a vulgar mouse riding a secular motorcycle an abomination in the eyes of God:) So let’s role up our sleeves and pop this book’s hood to see what’s driving the engine.

As is usually the case, a good place to start is with the book’s first sentence:

Keith, the boy in the rumpled shorts and shirt, did not know he was being watched as he entered Room 215 of the Mountain View Inn.

Now there’s a good old fashioned hook if I ever read one!  Plenty of horror novels have begun with similar sentiments and the sentence, taken by itself, is a bit off putting. What sort of story is this anyway? Who is watching Keith and why and should we be concerned? 

Note, Cleary doesn’t actually confirm who is watching Keith until chapter 2 (even though there’s a spoil-sport illustration of a mouse peering out of his hole) and by then then the reader’s interest has been thoroughly peeked. And that, of course, is the point. By the time the reader has satisfaction to the question of who is watching Keith, Clearly has raised other story questions and made a few promises to the reader and the pages will continue to turn.

The next thing to notice is Cleary’s ability to get completely inside the heads of her characters and to take us with her. Her characters do not seem to exist to serve the plot. Rather, the plot arises from the motivations and actions of her characters. More on this in a moment, but first I want to share a passage with you. Many writers have presented us with a believable child’s perspective (I continue to seek them out for interviews), but how many writers outside of Hilary Wagner can give us a believable mouse’s perspective:

At first he was disappointed at the size of the boy who was to occupy the room. A little child, preferably two or even three little children, would have been better. Little messy children were always considerate about leaving crumbs on the carpet. Oh well, at least these people did not have a dog. If there were was one thing Ralph disliked, it was a snoopy dog.
Next Ralph felt hopeful. Medium-sized boys could almost always be counted on to leave a sticky candy bar wrapper on the floor or a bag of peanuts on the bedside table, where Ralph could reach them by climbing up the telephone cord. With a boy this size, the food, though not apt to be plentiful, was almost sure to be of good quality.
The third emotion felt by Ralph was joy when the boy laid the apple core by the telephone. This was followed by despair when the mother dropped the core into the metal wastebasket. Ralph knew that anything at the bottom of a metal wastebasket was lost to a mouse forever.

Sure, there’s a bit of telling: Ralph felt hopeful (blasphemy, my critique partners would cry), but who cares? Clearly does plenty of showing elsewhere and the important thing is how much consideration she has given to Ralph.

Was she a method writer? I imagine a young Beverly Clearly standing up quickly when someone came into a room, an embarrassed look and crumbles of cheese on her face, yet still trying to assure the interloper that she was most certainly not crouched on all fours attempting to see the world from the perspective of a mouse.

Ralph S. Mouse lives at the Mountain View Inn, and what he wants is to eat the boy’s crumbs (perfectly believable motivation for a mouse) until he sees Keith playing with a toy motorcycle. Ralph wants to ride that motorcycle and was there ever a child anywhere who didn't hope that a cute talking mouse would come to them and want to play with their toys? 

Keith is lonely and so is Ralph. They each need a friend and they both love motorcycles. The fact that they are of different species does not present a problem, as explained in my favorite passage from the book:
Neither the mouse nor the boy was the least bit surprised that each could understand the other. Two creatures who shared a love for motorcycles naturally spoke the same language.

In my own writing, I almost always start with plot and then find characters who are up to the job of servicing it. I like to imagine Beverly Cleary began with a mental image of a mouse on a motorcycle and worked her way up from there:

How would a mouse get a motorcycle? Perhaps a boy loaned it to him. Perhaps they’re friends. But that’s not a story, that’s a situation. Hmmm… (eats some cheese)… I've got it! The boy gets sick and Puke the mouse (from an early draft) has to use the skills he learned riding the motorcycle to save the boy’s life.

I speculate, of course.  For all I know, Cleary spent weeks and weeks working on the characters and then added a plot, or perhaps she had a life-altering vision and upon waking, wrote all the prophet had told her. In any case, it got done. What do I know about how great literature was produced, I can’t even maintain a steady blogging schedule:)
One more point about plot and characterization, and we’ll call it an overly-long review. Mice are a natural fit for children’s stories, which is why there are so many books about them. Mice are small and a nuisance to adults, sort of like certain little Esteemed Readers. There are as many stories about mice as there are about actual children (probably not true, but it sounds true-ish). 

It is no wonder why Cleary chose a mouse to star in her children’s story, but it’s worth noting the kind of mouse she chose. She didn't go for happy go-lucky bachelor like Mickey, or a wise old fatherly mouse, or even a Fonzie parody. She chose a child as a mouse. 

There are two children in The Mouse and the Motorcycle and Ralph’s arc dovetails with Keith’s, or maybe it’s the other way around. And when choosing a character to empathize with, do you suppose children will be more interested in a sick kid lying in bed or an adventurous mouse who risks life and limb for a friend?

Here’s a nice after school special moment to illustrate my point:
You mean you aren’t mad at me anymore?” asked Ralph.
“I guess you might say I’m mad but not real mad,” Keith decided. “I’ve been lying here thinking. It wouldn’t be right for me to be real mad, because I get into messes myself. My mom and dad tell me I don’t stop to use my head.”
Ralph nodded. “I guess that’ my trouble, too. I don’t stop to use my head.”
“They say I’m in too much of a hurry,” said Keith. “They say I don’t want to take time to learn to do things properly.”
Ralph nodded again. He understood. If he had waited until he had learned to ride the motorcycle he would never have ridden off the bedside table into the wastebasket.
“I’ll never forget the first time I rode a bicycle with hand brakes,” reminisced Keith. “I took right off down a hill. I had always ridden bicycles with foot brakes, and when I got going too fast I tried to put on foot brakes only there weren’t any.”
“What happened?” Ralph was fascinated.
“By the time I remembered to use the hand brakes I hit a tree and took an awful spill.
Somehow, this story made Ralph feel better. He was not the only one who got into trouble.
“The hard part is,” continued Keith, “I am in a hurry. I don’t want to do kid things I want to do big things. Real things. I want to grow up.” You look pretty grown up to me,” said Ralph.
“Maybe to a mouse,” conceded Keith, “but I want to look grown up to grown-ups.”
“So do I,” said Ralph with feeling. “I want to grow up and go down to the ground floor.”
“Everybody tells me to be patient,” said Keith, “but I don’t want to be patient.”
“Me neither,” agreed Ralph.

And that’s going to do it. It’s so good to see you again, Esteemed Reader. Here are some of my favorite passages from The Mouse and the Motorcycle:
“To pilfer a pill,” said Ralph. “An aspirin tablet.” His answer was dramatic enough even for Uncle Lester. His entire family stared at him in disbelief. Not an aspirin! Not after his own father had been poisoned by one of the dread tablets.
“An aspirin!” Ralph’s mother gasped. “No, Ralph, not that! Anything but that!”

“Why, there’s  Ralph,” squeaked his Aunt Sissy, who thought she was better than the rest of the family because she lived in the bridal suite where, she led her relatives to believe, riches of rice fell to the carpet when the bride took off her hat and the groom shook out his coat.

“Ralph, stay here,” pleaded his mother. “You’re too young. Let you Uncle Lester go.”
“Well, now, let’s talk this over,” said Uncle Lester.

STANDARD DISCLAIMER: Book of the Week is simply the best book I happened to read in a given week. There are likely other books as good or better that I just didn’t happen to read that week. Also, all reviews here will be written to highlight a book’s positive qualities. It is my policy that if I don’t have something nice to say online, I won’t say anything at all (usually). I’ll leave you to discover the negative qualities of each week’s book on your own.


  1. Oh, how I loved that book! Wonderful reminder to get it out and share with my own kids!

  2. Glad nothing really bad happened to you! I was curious to see what you thought of Nerd Camp's success at the Cybils this year!

  3. Glad you'll be back even if it's only once in awhile. I hope you do more of your 7 questions to agents series.

  4. Beverly Cleary is a master!

    Glad you are back...even if it's just occasionally.


Thanks for stopping by, Esteemed Reader! And thanks for taking the time to comment. You are awesome.