Henry Huggins as Historical Fiction?

Henry Huggins, Beverly Cleary, Vietnam war, Ribsy, historical fiction, YMCA, bus riding, finding a dog, when is a novel historical fiction?It’s a sobering moment when you realize Henry Huggins, in some camps, is considered historical fiction.

How can a book I read and loved as a child be considered . . . . historical?

Beverly Cleary‘s first published the book in 1950.

Nearly 70 years ago.

In publishing circles, historical fiction is defined as “prior to the Vietnam war.”

The Vietnam war is generally believed to have started in November, 1955. Henry meets the criteria.

How can that possibly be?

Have you read it lately?

Reading Henry Huggins aloud to my children twenty years ago, I was horrified at what happened in the first two pages–and that’s because of how times has changed.

The first line tells us Henry Huggins was in third grade “and most of his grown-up front teeth were in.”

He was eight years old.

Every Wednesday after school Henry rode downtown on the bus to go swimming at the YMCA.

By himself!

On Wednesdays, “After he swam for an hour, he got on the bus again and rode home just in time for dinner.”

It’s dark at dinner time in March!

With three nickels and one dime in his pocket, he bought a chocolate ice cream cone. The dime covered his bus fare home.

Henry Huggins, Beverly Cleary, Vietnam war, Ribsy, historical fiction, YMCA, bus riding, finding a dog, when is a novel historical fiction?

Cover of Ribsy

What if an emergency came up? 

Enter Ribsy

Except, as Henry Huggins fans know, something did come up: a hungry scratching dog, whom, to his surprise, he named Ribsy.

He called home to ask his mother about the dog with the only money he had left, that dime.

I don’t know what kind of woman Mrs. Huggins was in 1950. While her son convinced her he would never “ask for another thing as long as I live,” she allowed for him to bring the dog home, but didn’t have a car to pick him up.

“You’ll have to bring him home on the bus,” Mrs. Huggins said.

She didn’t ask him if that would be a problem?

Even my mother, a college student the year Henry Huggins released, never suggested such a ridiculous idea to me.

But then, even my notoriously independence-encouraging teacher mother wouldn’t have sent me alone downtown on a bus to go swimming either.

She’d have suggested I go with a friend.

(Henry did see a friend, Skeeter, on the bus–but he was no help).

Today’s reaction

If you applied 21st century logic, to this book, it never would have been written.

The book continues on in charming ways that I loved as a kid but which horrified me as a parent.

It puzzled my children, too.

“He rode the city bus to go swimming? Why didn’t his mother take him?”

It would only be worse now.

In California, eight year olds still have to ride in car seats.

Imagine today’s question: “How could he have ridden the bus without a carseat or his mother?”

In 2016 United States, children aren’t allowed to play at their neighborhood playground without an adult in attendance. Taking a bus by themselves? Preposterous.

Henry Huggins, Beverly Cleary, Vietnam war, Ribsy, historical fiction, YMCA, bus riding, finding a dog, when is a novel historical fiction?

Mrs. Huggins finally acts

(For the record, in a subsequent chapter, Mrs. Huggins decides her son should not be hunting earthworms in the park at midnight by himself and joins him.)

Over the bus driver’s head shaking–“no animal can ride on a bus unless it’s inside a box– Henry finds a box and convinces Ribsy to sit in it.

People on the bus, once they realized Henry had a dog in his box,  commented and complained–but no one asked him where his parents were!

For the record, by the end of the chapter Mrs. Huggins finally started to worry about her son.

Henry was struggling with the dog–prior to being thrown off the bus–when sirens force the driver to pull over.

Mrs. Huggins had called the police.

Two policemen  escorted Henry and Ribsy home.

My kids laughed. They liked that idea. “Maybe Henry should have called the police himself?”

They probably would have arrested his mother.

Some wise sage once noted that if you want to learn about political events in the past, you should read history books.

But if you want to learn how the people lived their daily lives, you should read historical fiction.

Henry Huggins and lessons learned

Henry Huggins tells the tale of an earnest and resourceful boy given independence to learn about his neighborhood, who logically takes one step after another into . . . gallons of guppies, a pink dog, night crawlers and the morality of “finders keepers, losers weepers.”

Have you been surprised by the historical description of any of your childhood books? Like, say, the old Nancy Drews?


How can the book Henry Huggins be historical fiction? Click to Tweet

Historical fiction or childhood favorite? Henry Huggins. Click to Tweet

A 1950 childhood classic now historical fiction? Click to Tweet





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  1. I had forgotten Bev Cleary’s masterwork.

    About normal childhood, this is so be meant…how far have we fallen as society?

    Please pardon awkward words. Still I am dealing with effect of head injury two days past. It is hard for to form phrasing. Comes, goes. Frustrating.

  2. Oh Michelle, the good old days really were–in so many ways. Teeter-totters, swings, slides, and merry-go-rounds in the playgrounds are gone now, victims of extreme timidity and suit-happy lawyers. What a shame.
    I like the way you juxtaposed the world of Henry Huggins with the nanny-state rules and expectations of our PC society today. If we could apply half that caution to muck out the garbage being foisted upon our kids in the public schools …


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