Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Could Be Worse!: Clarice Bean, Don't Look Now by Lauren Child

I am thinking about Betty Moody leaving and how I never would have thought it was possible and that this is truly the worst thing that has ever happened to me....

But as I am thinking about this, it dawns on me that there is always a worse thing that can happen. Because now that the worse thing has happened, it means the second-to-worse thing can happen and that will be the new worst thing, and there is always a worry you have never thought to worry about.

There is always something worse that your worst, worst worry.

Clarice Bean's utterly best friend Betty has moved, all the way to San Francisco, right at the beginning of a new school year, and Clarice is face to face with the facts of life--a fact of life, that is--that the worst thing she could have imagined--losing her UBF--has happened, and even worst things seem to be coming at her from all directions. Struggling with the concept of infinity is bad enough, but realizing that bad stuff can't be controlled is really getting Clarice down.

Then part of the bathroom floor winds up on the kitchen table, and it seems as if moving to another house is the worst thing that could happen--until her parents decide to renovate the house, which means months of eating "toast-based meals" while watching family members overhead through the hole in the bathroom floor. Just as Clarice is learning how to deal with living with spiders in her new attic "room" ("just a space, really"), Clem Hansson, a new girl, with an exotic Scandinavian wardrobe, arrives in her class and draws all the attention of Clarice's old friends, particularly Karl, who seems totally taken with the glamorous Swede.

Without Betty Moody, Clarice feels isolated in the suddenly altered social scene and begins to withdraw from her former favorite activities. Her only refuge is in her well-worn copies of The Ruby Redfort Survival Guide and The Ruby Redfort Spy Guide, which she turns to for solace and advice during school recess, lonely afternoons, and holidays. Still, Clarice can't help but notice that Clem Hansson's arrival has changed everything about her class. Even the class bully Justin Broach seems drawn in by Clem's novelty and friendliness, while Clarice's grades and social standing seem to be on parallel paths to the bottom of the heap.

As she lies awake for hours each night, Clarice finds plenty of other things to worry about. Betty Moody seems to have made a new best friend and is on her way to becoming a California girl. Karl's showing off for Clem seems to be on course to get him expelled from school, and the home improvement project has Clarice's parents so short tempered with each other that she is convinced that they are on their way to a divorce. The final unforeseen worst thing comes when partnerless Clarice draws the meanest old man in the retirement center--famous for demanding daily herring snacks and throwing puddings at the staff--for her school visitation project. All this would perhaps be bearable if only Betty Moody were available, but it seems Betty is off for a ski vacation with her new friend and can't even email.

How Clarice Bean pulls herself up by her untied bootlaces, with the timely help of the words and wisdom of Ruby Redfort, TV heroine, makes this the most memorable book yet in this memorable series. Clarice Bean, like her spiritual sister, Harriet M. Welsh, has a most unique voice--self-absorbed, yes, but also painfully self-aware and honest--and Child's portrayal of the pre-teen worried mind is spot on. Like all of us, child or grown up, fear of the worst thing that can happen is always looming before us or lurking just behind. Like infinity, it's a a long thought that surrounds and threatens to overwhelm us. But as the new-and-wiser Clarice concludes,

I realized that although the world can feel like a very big place and people can seem very far away, it is also true that the world is a very small place.

And maybe that is the point of infinity--that it is there to remind you that things on this world aren't as big as you think they are--not compared to infinity, anyway. Because, you see, Betty Moody compared to infinity is practically next door.

And I am beginning to think maybe infinity is not such a big worry after all.

Or as Ruby Redfort puts it,

The trick is--don't lose sleep over it, kid.

Lauren Child's newest Clarice novel, Clarice Bean, Don't Look Now (Clarice Bean) is both serious and funny at the same time, in that way that the best humor has of blending pain and laughter so that each draws strength from the other. Fans of Clarice Bean will find this one both familiar and a bit different, but eminently satisfying.

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