Cleary, in her first attempt at fantasy, includes a number of important themes for young people: responsibility versus recklessness, loyalty to friends and family, courage in the face of pressure to “stay safe,” and atonement for mistakes.
Ralph, like Keith, longs to be older and to be able to explore his surroundings freely. He is impatient to see the world and to have adventures. His restlessness causes him to behave irresponsibly early in the novel. Desperate to ride the motorcycle, he tumbles into a wastebasket. Convincing himself that he is doing a scientific study, he pits the motorcycle against a vacuum cleaner and loses. He “borrows” the motorcycle without Keith’s permission. It is only when Ralph realizes that freedom brings responsibility—in his dangerous mercy mission—that he is rewarded with true friendship. His newfound ability to consider consequences keeps him from leaving with Keith and doing the traveling that he has always wanted to do; the price of being kept in a cage is too high. Instead, he decides that he will stay in the hotel and explore the possibilities there.
Ralph’s friendship with Keith makes him realize the cost of being a grown-up, a common theme in Cleary’s work. Here, a reckless character behaves impulsively and makes mistakes, but, when he sees the consequences of his errors, he atones for his bad judgment by behaving with bravery, kindness, and maturity.
Cleary depicts the...
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The Mouse and the Motorcycle was Cleary’s first foray into fantasy literature after realistic (and very successful) books such as Henry and Ribsy (1954). Her earlier novels also focused on family issues and personal responsibility, but they used an all-human cast. Like the tale of Ralph and the motorcycle, her earlier work treats children and their concerns with affection and respect. Her books look at seemingly small events in a child’s life and show what an enormous impact they can have: Henry’s paper route, Ramona’s first day of kindergarten, and Ellen Tebbits’ dance recital are important happenings in the child’s world. Similarly, Ralph’s small adventures, taken together, change the way in which he looks at life.
The Mouse and the Motorcycle won several state and regional awards; it was one of Cleary’s many successes in the field of children’s literature and showed that her enormous sympathy and humor extended to the animal kingdom as well. The novel is one of only a handful of children’s books to win awards both for literary merit and for popularity. It was critically acclaimed and remains popular with children, being named in national surveys of children’s reading choices, placing in the top fifty. It is prominent on recommended lists published by children’s librarians, where it is often categorized as “modern fantasy.” Critics praised the vividness of Cleary’s characterizations and her ability to teach a lesson to children in a humorous and interesting way. She has a solid reputation as a writer who is able to determine what events and emotions are important to children and who has the ability to describe everyday events so that they seem extraordinary. The freshness of her approach—and the fact that she is never patronizing to children—has earned for her lasting popularity.
The Mouse and the Motorcycle was followed a few years later by a sequel, Runaway Ralph (1970). In this second installment of Ralph’s adventures, Cleary again treats complex topics such as youthful restlessness in a straightforward and humorous manner.