The Clarice Bean trilogy by Lauren Child, published from 1999-2006. The series includes, in order, Utterly Me Clarice Bean, Clarice Bean Spells Trouble, and Clarice Bean Don’t Look Now. There are three more books related to the series, but they are picture books and I did not read them.
Best I can decipher, Child started her uber-English writing career with the invention of the Clarice Bean character, but a year later had caught the world’s attention with the first Charlie and Lola book. Now, all this was around 1999-2000 and the woman stays utterly busy, and has published twenty-three books since then, some of them picture books and some of them novels, has illustrated more than ten more (including editions of Pipi Longstocking and Anne of Green Gables), and produces the PBS cartoon about Charlie and Lola. She’s won an impressive amount of impressive awards for her writing and illustrating. Her art is wonderful and beautiful and exceptionordinary.
My daughter was born in 2004, and we quickly came across Charlie and Lola and became fans. Reading them out to her in my British imitation of Lola is a memory I will always cherish. “I have this little sister Lola. She is small and very funny.” So when Windsor got to the right age (reading chapter books, early elementary school) for Clarice Bean, we gave her the box set for Christmas. (Then she got to the age for Ruby Redfort right as that series really took off, and she happens to be reading through it right now.) I just now read through Clarice Bean by my own self, so I could give it a review.
Clarice Bean reminds me very, very much of a slightly older Junie B. Jones (her American counterpart?) and, going back, Ramona Quimby. It’s not just the characters that are all similar (precocious, not-well-put-together-but-incredibly-imaginative and lovable girl meets the hard knocks of normal, middle class childhood), but having the story told through the voice of the child, including not just the thoughts and perceptions, but the language as well. The books are short and sweet, which is about right for a young reader. Utterly Me gets you hooked on the character and her world, Spells Trouble makes you laugh right out loud, and Don’t Look Now gets much more introspective before it gives you a characteristic One-Scene-Denouement. (I made up that phrase, because I have never been able to find a word for the type of story ending where all the strings are tied in a very small space and one scene. It’s the type of ending I enjoy most, actually. Just one big ka-pow!, everyone accounted for.)
The plots are slightly different in each book. For Utterly Me, Clarice is avidly reading about her favorite character, the young detective Ruby Redfort, while trying to figure out her book report. But when the book report prize goes missing, Clarice must become a young detective herself. For Spells Trouble, Clarice tackles both the school play and the school spelling bee (and, as always, Ruby Redfort), all while balancing her siblings, her parents, her friends, and the colorful characters that make up her neighborhood and school. In Don’t Look Now, Clarice’s world gets a bit clouded by her own worries and some very disturbing circumstances (like the loss of a friend, a dysfunctional house, and insomnia). But between her own indomitable spirit and her loving family and friends, she may just be able to find her way out of the maze of growing up.
I like Clarice Bean and I would recommend it for elementary-age kids, both girls and boys. Just like Junie B. and Ramona, Child has given Clarice enough masculinity to appeal to both genders. Her concerns and struggles will ring very familiar to most young readers (like class bullies, fear of parental divorce, obsession with a fictional character, etc.), but her voice keeps right on the fine line between too serious and too darn funny. Basically-universal morals included, like “Don’t lose sleep over worry” and “There is life after a friend moves away.” Windsor also likes these books, enough to have read them twice and to choose them for her Barnes & Nobel Reading Club summer reading spree.
So recommends all round. In fact, just check out Lauren Child if you like good literature and/or good illustrations and have a child or an interest in child culture. I also strongly recommend the Charlie and Lola series from PBS. (Note, many of the Charlie and Lola books are based on the TV show’s script, not written by Child.)
I will be reviewing the first four books (all that exist) of the Ruby Redfort series in the next several months, once Windsor coughs them up.