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Book Review: Ellen Tebbits by Beverly Cleary

Suddenly Ellen was angry. She was angry because she had not guessed that it was Otis instead of Austine who untied her sash. She was angry because she had slapped Austine. She was angry because Austine had not explained what had really happened but, most of all she was angry because she and Austine had not made up. The quarrel had lasted so long that Ellen supposed now they would never make up.

Ellen tebbitsThe other day when I was covering a desk for the children’s department, I walked past a book shelf in the junior fiction section. Then I turned around and went back, because I had just spotted something I hadn’t thought of (consciously, at least) in decades:

Ellen Tebbits by Beverly Cleary

This funny little book tells the story of Ellen, who becomes friends with Austine after they discover they each share a secret: their mothers make them wear winter underwear.

I glanced at the cover and the feeling of the book flooded back to me: something about a girl hiding in a broom closet so the other ballet-class friends didn’t see her embarrassing underwear. And something about brownies. And friendship. And a beet???

I took it home and reread it. And laughed so hard.

I loved Ellen Tebbits as a kid. I still love her and can totally relate to her struggle with underwear. (Thank God we’ve both moved past that little fun bit.) I had forgotten bits of her story, but my body still remembers how reading it made me feel. As a shy, anxious kid (we didn’t call it “anxious” back then though; I was “nervous” a lot), I had a hard time maintaining friendships, and Ellen’s friendship with Austine helped me at least know that all friendships had times when the other person ignored you and talked about you behind your back. And that everyone goes to school knowing it will be a lonely day when no one really talks to you.

(I wish I could hug third-grade Amy and somehow let her know it would all be OK.)

Reading a book written in 1951 in 2022 (and that means it was already almost thirty years old when I read it as a kid!) was an interesting experience, and I couldn’t feel the same way I did as a kid. Mainly this time I noticed the mothers, and how different they are from each other. And how integrated sexism was in the story (all of the kids who get a speaking part in the play are boys, and Otis Spofford is definitely graced with the benevolence of “boys will be boys”).

But I also found a little lost piece of myself in its pages, so close I could almost hug her.


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