N recently made a delightful literary discovery by accident. She and her dad went to the library, and she picked Clarice Bean: Don’t Look Now because of the cover. Clarice, with her wispy hair and sideways glance and little squiggle of a nose, looks startlingly like another of English author Lauren Child’s creations, Lola, of the Charlie & Lola series (great picture books and also a very sweet TV show about a big brother caring for his wildly imaginative little sister). N didn’t realize this was a different book altogether.
Don’t Look Now is actually the third in a series of novels, after Utterly Me and Spells Trouble, and we loved it so much that we bought the set. To N’s delight, the books come in a little box. (She often loves the packaging as much as the stuff it contains.) There are few illustrations, but the ones that are there made me miss my old Spirograph.
Night after night, we’ve stayed up late reading these books. As Clarice might say, each one is an utterly and exceptionordinarily good read. The main character, Clarice Bean Tuesday, is a bright spark of a girl with a brimming imagination and a best friend named Betty Moody.
Both Betty and Clarice are obsessed with a series of books about a brilliant girl detective named Ruby Redfort. (N kept asking if the Ruby Redfort books were real, and I kept telling her no, they’re a story within a story, but apparently Child has indeed been commissioned to write a Ruby series.)
Betty is great in school and never gets in trouble, but Clarice’s mind wanders. And her teacher, Mrs. Wilberton, is mean — not a good combination.
More than any other children’s books I’ve read, these ones took me back to the complexities of the child’s perspective — how kids work so hard to put what they learn into context, and thereby grasp the meanings of everything from ordinary to terrifying occurrences. And how there are so many things that aren’t pindownable. For instance, Clarice wonders Why isn’t why spelled y? And why isn’t you spelled u? And she’s alarmed by the notion of infinity.
But it isn’t her worst worry.
Clarice is devastated to discover that “the worst worry in the world, the worry you never even thought to worry about,” is much worse than moving house, or the fact that you can see into the kitchen from a hole in the bathroom floor. In fact her worst worry is so bad, she can’t even bring herself to write it down in her list of worries, because seeing it in writing somehow makes it more real.
These books are funny, surprising, and also touching. Each one has a steady plot that kept us rushing through, but also so many threads running this way and that, that we never lost interest. In the final book, the best of the three, the scene in which Clarice learns Betty is moving away almost brought me to tears, and N, beside me, was riveted. Kudos to Lauren Child for creating a character who stands tall beside the likes of Pippi Longstocking and Anne of Green Gables.
“How does she draw flowers like that, Mom? I wish I could.”