On Thursday, March 25, Beverly Cleary died at the age of 104.
The prolific children’s author is known for many characters and many books, but in the motorcycle community, there’s one three-story series she’ll always be known for. I’m talking about the adventures of Ralph the mouse. Or, Ralph S. Mouse, as the last book in the series is titled.
Cleary died on Thursday, March 25. In the days since, memories of her work have been all over Facebook, the media, blogs, wherever words are printed. No wonder. Cleary wrote well over 40 children’s books, with an estimated 91 million copies printed around the world. It was very much a case of the right person being in the right place at the right time. Cleary, a children’s librarian, saw the need for books with interesting characters that schoolkids could relate to. The people in her books, grade-schoolers like Henry Huggins, Otis Spofford, Beezus, Ramona, they all had real-world problems and emotions and challenges. They weren’t just Jack and Jill, mindlessly wandering up a hill to gather a pail of water.
Add in the post-war baby boom, a general affluence that could afford books, and a culture that hadn’t yet had its mind totally ensnared by screens, and Cleary’s books were successful right from her writing debut in 1950.
However, it wasn’t just kids that Cleary was writing about. Among all the tales of suburban playground machinations, Cleary’s three-book series about Ralph, the mouse who discovers he can ride a toy motorcycle, spoke to a different set of values and emotions. The children in most of Cleary’s books were average. Some were pests, some were goody two-shoes, but overall, these were the kind of kids that every parent and every kid reading could recognize. Society was comfortable with these stereotypes.
With Ralph, Cleary was able to explore other ideas. Ralph took chances, chances that could cost him his life. He rode a motorcycle, for starters. Remember that the first book in this series, The Mouse and the Motorcycle, was published in 1965. This was the age of bikesploitation, of Hells Angels headlines. In presenting a motorcycle-riding character for kids, Cleary herself was taking a chance.
Because Ralph was a mouse, Cleary could give him adventures that she certainly couldn’t have put into a book for boomer kids. There’s a spirit of subversion and rebellion through this series, one that goes beyond scampish behaviour with her other characters. In the second book of the series, Runaway Ralph, the mouse runs away from home on his bike. Good luck selling that story to a clean-cut publisher in the ’60s, with a kid as the hero, instead of a mouse.
Over the years, hundreds of thousands of kids have read about Ralph’s adventures. Did the book inspire them to challenge their boundaries? To see the world? At the very least, did it start them thinking that motorcycles could be a fun way to travel or commute?
I don’t know, but I do remember these books were the first time I’d ever read about motorcycles in a positive light, when I was a grade schooler. And for that, I’d like to thank Beverly Cleary.
For more on Beverly Cleary, see her obituary in TIME magazine. If you want to read one of the books about Ralph the motorcycle-riding mouse, Amazon/bookstores/libraries are full of them. Don’t have kids of your own? You can always buy them for your nieces/nephews for Christmas, and sneak a read when you go to visit.