HOW RIBSY CHANGED MY LIFE (OR IT ALL DEPENDS ON YOUR POINT OF VIEW) BY VICTORIA J. COE
What is it about kids and animal books?
When I learned to read, like many kids I devoured animal books. And not books where the kid is the main character and the animal is the sidekick. In my favorite books, the animals were the stars.
CHARLOTTE’S WEB, THE TRUMPET OF THE SWAN, THE CRICKET IN TIMES SQUARE, and RALPH S. MOUSE were just some of my favorites. Those animals achieve extraordinary feats, like playing musical instruments, or learning to read and write, or riding toy motorcycles. They struggle with huge obstacles, usually because they are underdogs in a human world. And in their own way, each of those heroes ultimately triumphs.
But what I remember as most dazzling, the most magical quality of those books, was my experience of seeing life from a perspective completely different from my own. Being inside the skin of a pig, the mind of a spider, or the feathers of a swan – even ones with fantastical lives – opened up my world. It opened up my mind. It opened up my imagination.
And then came RIBSY.
I didn’t just love that book. It blew me away.
I already knew Ribsy from Beverly Cleary’s other books about Henry Huggins, Beezus, and Ramona (BTW, I loved books told from kids’ POVs, too). Ribsy was everybody’s dog – a plain, ordinary dog with no special talents. Basically, Ribsy was a lovable sidekick.
But when I cracked that book open, I was mesmerized. I thought I knew Ribsy. He had a great life. I thought he was perfectly content. Turns out he had problems. Lots of problems. And high on that list was fleas.
Sure, in real life I had seen my share of farm animals and spiders and swans and crickets and even mice, but I lived with a dog. I loved a dog. Fleas were to be avoided at all costs!
I spent every day running around with my dog and chasing him out of the neighbors’ yard and stowing anything I didn’t want him to chew high up out of his reach. I was no expert, but I knew dogness.
I knew my dog lived in the moment. I knew he didn’t always listen. I knew he did bad things sometimes.
But I never really got life from his perspective. Until RIBSY.
Ribsy’s view is the view of a dog. A real dog, who lives in the real world with humans. He interacts with them, loves them, depends on them. He knows them.
Ribsy knew the Hugginses were getting ready to go someplace, because he could hear Mrs. Huggins tapping around in high heels, a sure sign that she was about to leave the house. He had also sensed an air of hurry that morning. Henry had dumped half a can of Wolfie’s Dog Food on Ribsy’s dish without stopping to scratch him behind the ears. Nosy the cat had been fed and hurriedly shoved outdoors. The Hugginses had not lingered at the breakfast table. All this meant the family was going someplace, and this time Ribsy did not intend to be left behind (RIBSY by Beverly Cleary, pp. 8-9).
Reading RIBSY, a realistic and believable story that could be the story of any dog anywhere, was for me more magical than reading a fantasy. Being transported inside Ribsy’s fur opened up my mind to seeing my own world, my own everyday situations, in a new way.
That book changed my life.
Not like poof! I now understood or wanted to study all about dogs. But in the way that it turned my interest in point of view into a total fascination.
Even though I was probably ten at the time, I started to become aware that there are two sides to every story (at least!). That two people – or a person and an animal – can go through exactly the same thing and come away with completely different conclusions. And most importantly, that how you perceive something is your reality.
Ribsy’s reality was not my reality. But that didn’t make it right or wrong. Or any less valid. What a concept. And wow, was it ever interesting to see life from a dog’s point of view!
RISBY affected me as a reader. From that point on, I’ve had a special appreciation for diverse points of view, whether it’s an unusual view like in FREAKY FRIDAY or a story told from multiple views like THE VIEW FROM SATURDAY. I marvel at BUNNICULA which takes the animal point of view to a new level (with hilarious results) and the ACCORDING TO HUMPHREY books that offer a fresh look at a school (and home) from the view of a classroom hamster.
RIBSY affected the rest of my life, too. It opened up my curiosity about people, especially those with views that are different from mine. Where are they coming from? Why do they think the way they think? Why do they value what they value?
Over the years, I’ve thought a lot about RISBY, the impact it had on me, and how it fueled my interest in diverse viewpoints. But it was only recently that I realized that story and all of my awakenings that came with it were the beginnings of my desire to become a writer.
That isn’t to say that RIBSY – or any other story – influenced me to write children’s books from a dog’s point of view. Quite the contrary! Many times I told myself I could never pull it off.
But my overall fascination with perspective and character and voice certainly took root with RIBSY. I guess it’s true that sometimes the greatest magic can come from the most ordinary places. Or stories.
A self-described “student of story,” Victoria J. Coe teaches writing in Cambridge, MA. She is the author of the forthcoming middle grade novel FENWAY AND HATTIE (Putnam/Penguin, Feb. 9, 2016), told from a dog’s point of view. Visit her online at www.victoriajcoe.com.