“Ribsy,” Beverly Cleary’s story about a “plain ordinary” dog, was published in 1964.
My mother read the book aloud to my older brother and me in 1973. I was 9 years old. Our copy of “Ribsy” was from the Cooper Memorial Public Library in Clermont, Fla. The book was wrapped in clear, crinkly plastic and the cover featured a pen-and-ink illustration of a very shaggy dog engaged in a very vigorous scratching session.
Looking at the picture, you were pretty certain that there were fleas involved.
And there were.
One flea in particular lodges itself under Ribsy’s collar and torments the dog to the extent that Henry Huggins, Ribsy’s young owner, thoughtfully removes the collar so that Ribsy can get at the itch.
The collar-removal happens in the Hugginses’ new station wagon, which reeks disagreeably (to Ribsy, at least) of new car smell. When the Huggins family parks the car and goes into a shopping center, they leave Ribsy behind in the station wagon.
Ribsy tolerates his “imprisonment” until an unfortunate encounter with a Pomeranian named Fluffy. The “silly little dog” taunts Ribsy. And in the midst of the barking, scrabbling frenzy that follows, Ribsy manages to hit the button that controls the automatic window. He doesn’t waste any time. He leaps directly out the open window and onto the pavement. “It all happened so fast that he was still surprised when his feet hit the ground, but he lost no time in dashing off in the direction in which the little dog and his owner had gone.”
And so it happens that our hero is cast, nameless, collarless, to the winds of fate.
Those winds blow him around quite a bit.
Because this is, after all, an odyssey.
It is a dog odyssey, a lighthearted odyssey — an odyssey involving violet-scented bubble bath, a corncob pipe, a pair of spectacles, a squirrel named Frisky and a winning tackle — but an odyssey nonetheless.
Ribsy’s story is ageless, timeless, because it is the tale of a soul working to find its way home.
The reader, however, is not at all certain that Ribsy will make it home, or that things will come out right in the end.
Or at least, I wasn’t certain.
I was actually very worried about Ribsy.
But then, I worried about everything.
I was that kind of kid.
We read the book in the Florida room — a room that was mostly windows, a room that looked out over a lake and was surrounded by trees. We sat on the Florida room couch. My mother was in the middle. My brother sat on one side of her and I sat on the other. Our dog, Nanette, slept at our feet as our mother read aloud.
The Florida room couch had flowered cushions. It was made of wrought iron and was in three sections, and if you moved around too much, the sections would separate, and a crack would open up and you would suddenly find yourself not on a couch, but on a chair, separated, and by yourself. Alone.
I tried to hold myself still.
But it was hard because the book was so funny and because we were all laughing so much.
At one point in his journey, Ribsy is adopted by an old lady named Mrs. Frawley. Mrs. Frawley calls Ribsy “Rags” and teaches him several tricks — saying his prayers, and also sitting up on his hind legs with a hat on his head, a corncob pipe in his mouth and a pair of glasses perched on his nose.
She then, unfortunately, makes him perform those tricks at a gathering of her friends.
It was at this point in the story — the moment in which Ribsy balks at saying his prayers in front of a bunch of cooing elderly ladies — that my mother, always prone to laughter, laughed so hard she cried.
It was the first time I had seen such a thing. I hadn’t known that you could engage in both activities at the same time.
I was transported by the story, but even more, I was moved by seeing my mother so undone, so human, so herself. I laughed at her laughing, and she looked down at me and laughed at my laughing. And my brother laughed at both of us laughing, and Nanette raised her head off the floor to stare at all of us laughing together. It was a wondrous thing. It was almost like we were getting to know one another, better, more deeply, through the story.
Many, many years later I wrote a story about a shaggy, collarless dog who wreaks havoc in the produce department of a Winn-Dixie grocery store. The dog is adopted by 10-year-old India Opal Buloni. She names him Winn-Dixie.
Several years after the publication of “Because of Winn-Dixie,” a librarian asked me if I had ever heard of Beverly Cleary’s “Ribsy.”
“Of course!” I said. “I love ‘Ribsy.’ My mother read ‘Ribsy’ out loud to my brother and me.”
“Is there a connection between ‘Ribsy’ and ‘Winn-Dixie?’ ” the librarian asked me.
“Um,” I said. “Well, yes. I guess so. They’re both books about dogs. They’re both about dogs who are lost.”
“And what else?” said the librarian in a patient, gentle voice. “What else are both books about?”
“Fleas?” I joked.
“Home,” she said. “They are both books about finding your way home.”
She said that word, and I was transported back to the Florida room. I was deposited directly onto that wonky, flowered couch. I saw Nanette sleeping at my feet. My brother was on one side of my mother, and I was leaning up against her on the other side. We were all laughing.
Reading together can happen in a living room or a dining room or in a back yard, in a classroom or in a car or in a Florida room on a wrought-iron couch. Within the confines of a story shared aloud, we get to see one another in new ways. Our hearts are open to the story and open to one another — and because of this, some kind of subterranean magic occurs. Reading aloud binds us together in unanticipated ways.
It brings us home.
When I first set out on my journey as National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature, it was this notion that I had in mind. I wanted to let people know that we can all — young and old — connect more deeply through stories.
But oddly, what happened is that as I worked to deliver the message, the message was delivered to me. By that I mean that I have traveled all over the country. I have visited people gathered together in classrooms, libraries, lunchrooms, bookstores, community centers, auditoriums, gymnasiums and theaters.
And everywhere that I have gone, people have welcomed me. They have opened themselves to me. Over and over again, I have looked up from the page I am reading and seen faces gathered together, listening.
It makes me remember my mother, reading to me.
It makes me remember the Florida room, the wrought-iron couch.
It makes me feel as though I have come home.
Kate DiCamillo was named the National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature of the Library of Congress and the Children’s Book Council for 2014-2015. DiCamillo won Newbery Medals for her novels “Flora & Ulysses: The Illuminated Adventures” and “The Tale of Despereaux.” Her first published novel, “Because of Winn-Dixie,” won a Newbery Honor.