Sunday, January 26, 2014


Emily's Runaway Imagination, Beverly Cleary, William Morrow and Company, 1961, 221 pp


I was in a bad mood when I started reading this book, about a girl who is always being told that she lets her imagination run away with her. It instantly made me feel happy.

Emily is nine going on ten. She is the only child of a farming family outside Pitchfork, a very small town in Oregon. Her mother came from somewhere east, possibly Chicago, where she had been a teacher. Her father is descended from pioneers who came to Oregon generations ago. They all work hard and Emily's mom gets involved in starting the town's first library.

Though a specific date is never mentioned, times are hard and Emily's grandfather gets one of the town's first automobiles, so it must be the 1920s. Beverly Cleary later wrote a two volume autobiography. I haven't read those yet but from what I have gathered, I would say Emily's Runaway Imagination is somewhat autobiographical. In any case, the book is another example of her smooth and entertaining writing style with children as fully realized characters.

My favorite chapter was the one where Emily decides to bleach their horse, an old plow horse whose white coat, mane, and tail are mud stained and yellowed. Emily's cousin, who has lately read Black Beauty three times in a row and thinks it the most wonderful book ever, is coming for a visit from Portland, where she lives with her well off parents.

When Emily tells her mom she wants to bleach the horse, Mom just tells her to follow carefully the directions on the bottle. She works hard, all day in the hot summer weather, and gets a good result but worries that the animal is still clearly a plow horse. But the cousin is enchanted and even learns to ride it without a saddle.

One of the important rules on the farm is never waste food. The first step is always clean your plate because "think of the starving Armenians." I was still told that growing up in the 1950s! It cracked me up because I've never seen that phrase in a book before.

Since the book is set in the past, compared to most of Cleary's books which were contemporary for the times, I felt I was reading a combination of Lois Lenski and Beverly Cleary. I wonder if Lenski was an influence of Cleary's. If I were still teaching or tutoring, I would use the books of both these authors to bring history alive for my students.

(Emily's Runaway Imagination is available in paperback by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

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