Thursday, February 8, 2018

Fumbling Through Fantasy: Clementine by Betsy Byars (1962)

Clementine is a stuffed dragon who sits on an unnamed little boy's shelf, right between his other favorite toys, Ball and Balloon. Though Clementine looks like nothing more than a "fat green sock with eyes on the toe," he more than makes up for his homely appearance with a larger-than-life personality. In this dialogue-heavy chapter book, Clementine makes demands of his owner for things like a cave, pigs, and a "little plaid beauty" to wear, and encounters such problems as a robbery, a failed attempt to ice skate, a letter in the mail which might contain a rattlesnake, and the building of a flying machine. Through it all, the boy sticks with Clementine, loving him despite his many difficult personality traits.

In 2018, I am planning to read all the books Betsy Byars has written that I have not already previously read. Clementine is her very first children's book, published in 1962. This book is apparently not very well known, considering I had to add it to Goodreads myself to be able to mark that I had read it, but luckily it is available online courtesy of the Hathi Trust. Though this book is more fanciful than most of Byars's other works, I was pleasantly surprised by how funny and clever the whole story is. Clementine is a character of the same ilk as Ellen's lion or Amanda's alligator, and the fast-paced conversations between him and his owner made me laugh out loud. Betsy Byars has said that she feels she does not write description well so she doesn't include a lot of it, and that dialogue comes easily for her. This book definitely proves this point, as the dialogue is delightful and there is very little narration aside from simple explanations of physical actions.

Also charming are the illustrations by Charles Wilton. Many of his pictures are done in a very simple color palette consisting of black with shades of green and brown, and others are even more basic pen-and-ink drawings, but Clementine's facial expressions in each illustration get right to the heart of his big personality and his high-running emotions. I think my favorite illustration of the whole book is of the moment when Clementine, eager to visit a farm and meet some pigs, draws little pig pictures in his own breath on the car window.

Because the story is so narrowly focused on the relationship between a boy and his stuffed toy, there is very little in it that feels outdated even 50+ years after its publication. I actually think if this book were re-released today, it would find a fond audience among beginning chapter book readers, and especially among early readers like my four-year-old. I plan to read the book aloud to my two oldest daughters (the second-oldest is two) in the near future, as I think they will find it funny, and the dialogue just begs to be read aloud.

No comments:

Post a Comment