Beverly Cleary’s Henry Huggins series nicely captures the creative Henry through his upper elementary years, especially focusing on his innovation, his creativity as a kid, and the antics of his adopted stray dog, Ribsy. Although the series is dated, having been written beginning in the 1950s, Henry’s adventures show universal frustrations and difficulties that any elementary school kid can relate to, such as awful haircuts, lose teeth, getting along with new friends, and trying to find interesting things to do every day.
The Books in the Henry Huggins Series
Henry Huggins (published 1950). Beverly Cleary’s debut middle grade novel, Henry Huggins, shines with a unique voice from a creative and fun third grader. As the book opens, Henry feels bored and ready for some new adventure, since nothing interesting ever happens to him! Right away, his series of adventures begins, all thanks to the stray dog that starts to follow him around. But first Henry needs to find a way to get Ribsy to his home because he’s not allowed on the bus. Then, it is Ribsy’s need for food that takes Henry to the pet store, where he buys guppies. Before he knows it, the babies and babies of the guppies have overtaken his bedroom!
From one thing after another, Henry’s adventures continue, thanks to Ribsy: he loses his friend’s football when Ribsy distracts him and needs to earn money to pay for it, which he does by gathering worms for a fisherman neighbor. Ribsy knocks over a paint pot on a scaffold, drenching Henry in green paint and getting him out of the embarrassing role in the Christmas play. Henry enters Ribsy into a dog contest, but accidentally washes him in his mother’s pink-toned wash, giving Henry a “most unique” prize. And, in the end, Ribsy’s love for his new owner means that Henry will have the chance to keep having adventures with dear old Ribsy for a long time to come. I love the succinct nature of each chapter as a stand-alone story, as well as the fact that the chapter connect in subtle ways to create a fun novel. Rated 5/5
Henry and Beezus (published 1952). While Beezus and her out-of-control sister Ramona do appear in the other Henry stories, in this second book in the series, Beezus and Ramona play a prominent role in Henry’s adventures. The main focus of the book is Henry’s desire to buy his own bicycle to be like the other boys in the neighborhood. Through a series of adventures, Beezus helps him do so, but not without Ramona messing up their plans!
From selling bubblegum, delivering newspapers and finally helping Henry bid on a bike, Beezus is Henry’s sidekick. In some respects, it’s Ramona herself and not Beezus who helps Henry figure out how to “untrain” Ribsy, and it is her fault he stops at the store and ends up with a “ticket” for parking Ribsy on the parking meter. In the end, though, it’s Beezus’s friendship that helps Henry find a way to getting the bike of his dreams. Beezus and Ramona are the sisterly team, and it’s their presence that amplifies Henry’s troubles, as well as solving the problems.
Because it is Beezus that is Henry’s main friend in this book, Henry’s derogatory nine-year-old comments about girls appear frequently. It’s a book of its era, so these comments are not a big distraction. Modern kids will understand the setting is a historical one (the 1950s), even as they wonder at why Henry is so negative towards his friend Beezus, who is “just a dumb girl.” Rated 5/5
Henry and Ribsy (published 1954). While Beezus and Ramona were the main sidekicks in the second book, in Henry and Ribsy is Ribsy who might derail Henry’s plans to go fishing with his father by getting into trouble. With that soul goal, Henry must navigate starting fourth grade with Ribsy stealing a policeman’s lunch and getting Ribsy to leave the garbage can alone, not to mention getting a horrible haircut that Ribsy’s presence ends up drawing attention to.
Tiny spoiler: Henry does get to go fishing, but once again it is Ribsy who makes things difficult. I love the picture of Henry and his Salmon that he “caught” on the cover but it does give that little spoiler already. And WOW just how he caught it, as well as all the adventures with Ribsy through the book are full of humor sure to engage the young reader. Although it is obvious that this book, too, has been written in a different age, the historical differences in Henry’s life once again do not distract too much from the humor and overarching plot structure of Henry and Ribsy’s story. If only kids today could have such freedom as they learn and explore at age 9. Rated 5/5
Henry the Paper Route (published 1957). In the next fall book featuring Henry Huggins, Henry works toward the dream responsibility of having his own paper route. He’s only ten, but he’s sure he can win over Mr. Capper with this mature sense of responsibility. He gets himself into scrapes, though, and Ramona is around to make things more complicated! He ends up with a crate full of kittens, runs a paper drive, and substitutes as paperboy for his friend Scooter. When he turns eleven, he is only disappointed again when his new friend Murph steals away the route he wanted. But Ramona gets him the job, afterall, as Murph quits due to Ramona’s annoying mix-ups on the route. Henry’s quick thinking helps him trick Ramona into letting him be successful.
Henry and the Paper Route brings the reader back to an era when young boys were eager to take over responsibility. Once again, the free-range life of the young kids will delight the reader. We no longer live in a paper route era, and it’s a shame we let kids, like Henry, have a chance to find something “meaningful” to do with their free time. Henry’s resourcefulness in besting Ramona is fun to see, and Murph’s robot creation might encourage other kids to try new things and be a “genius” such as Henry thinks him to be. I downgrade a little bit for the racist Halloween costume Henry dons. 4.5/5
Henry and the Clubhouse (published 1962). Now that he has a paper route, Henry shifts his attention to a new meaningful goal: building a clubhouse with his friends Robert and Murph. Now that he is eleven, Henry’s sense of responsibility has expanded, and he’s finding he wants a manly boy adventure with his friends. With free lumber and Murph’s “genius” in designing a great boys’ hangout, it makes sense that they have a “no girls allowed!” rule, but Henry feels bad that it hurts his friend Beezus’ feelings. But, when Ramona gets in the way, Henry finds he still needs his old friends too.
Henry’s challenges seem to focus on Ramona, again, in this book, but once again, he outsmarts her. Ramona is repeatedly called a pest, which is a perfect setup for the upcoming books in the Ramona-centered series in which she not just comest to terms with that epithet but learns to grow up a bit. She’s not very loveable from Henry’s perspective, but when she gets in the way, it’s certainly funny for the reader! It’s not as memorable as the previous books, but it certainly is still enjoyable. 4/5
Ribsy (published 1964). With a completely different perspective, Ribsy gives us the dog’s perspective when he gets lost without his collar. His dog-thoughts about the various families and individuals who find him are amusing and seem spot-on. I’m not a dog person, but it certainly matches everything I know about dogs and how I’ve observed them to be in various situations. Aw, poor Ribsy! This is a rough-and-tumble dog who really doesn’t like the rhinestone collar, being taught to “pray” (and subsequently laughed at and fused over), being given a flower-scented bubble bath, and being kicked out of school play-yards!
Henry’s perspective is given, but only briefly as the broken-hearted boy searching for his dog. This is a book where Ribsy is the main character and his wishes and antics are center-stage in his long journey home. What a relief that Henry is waiting for him to the very end!
Henry Huggins, the Series, Overall
Henry Huggins, as the oldest of Beverly Cleary’s novels, does feel dated with it’s language. The boys say “gee-whillikers!” and “Jeepers!,” especially in the earliest books. The children have nearly unlimited freedom to travel in town. Prices are outrageously low, and so earning a penny at a time makes a big difference to them. In general, though, these dated elements simply make it a period piece that kids will embrace just as much as a modern-day middle grade novel.
Wikipedia states that Cleary began her series because children were looking for children like them. She’s surely delivered! Further, as others have said, Henry Huggins does fill the role of a modern-day Tom Sawyer, getting into mischief but remaining a beloved character of his own sure to bring a smile to the reader.
The Henry Huggins Audiobook
The audiobook, which I purchased on Audible, is narrated by Neil Patrick Harris, and he does a great job of changing voices and capturing the unique characters in the novel. Some of the annoying voices seem to properly match the perspectives and attitudes of the characters described, and my 8-year-old daughter and I enjoyed the continuity of the series from one book to the next.