Being a Twin and Dealing with a Bully

Mitch and Amy – written by Beverly Cleary, illustrated by Tracy Dockray
HarperCollins, 2000, reprint of original edition, 1972

Beverly Cleary (1916-2021), was the mother of boy and girl twins. How much of that experience is reflected in her novel Mitch and Amy, about twins who are very different in spite of the strong bond they share, is hard to know.  However, the book radiates empathy for the experience of having one sibling of the same age.  Mitch and Amy Huff fight over many typical sources of conflict. Mitch bothers Amy and her friends, they playfully belittle each other in ways that can cross the line from funny to hurtful, and their strengths and weaknesses are complementary.  Mitch struggles with reading, while Amy finds learning arithmetic to be a torment. The intervening years between the novel’s first appearance and now have done little to date these problems. 

The twins also need to support one another through attacks by a classic bully. Alan Hibbler is cruel and aggressive. He destroys the skateboard which Mitch built for himself, and steals cupcakes meant for Amy’s Girl Scout troop.  A key part of Alan’s identity is that is father is a world-famous professor at the University. (The book takes place in the San Francisco Bay Area.) Most of the other kids in the book, including Mitch and Amy Huff, have less illustrious parents.  Only at the end are readers asked to connect the dots, when Mitch and Amy realize that constant comparisons to his intellectually gifted father, especially for a boy who finds reading difficult, may have influenced the development of his personality.

There are numerous references to the distractions of television.  Far from being irrelevant, they could easily be compared today to the much more pervasive effect of other media.  Cleary is never heavy-handed, and she is often funny, as in this wry description of mid-century TV programming:

          …he watched a nursery-school program, which was followed by an exercise program,
          a man interviewing some famous but boring people, and several old comedies.  Amy
          perched on the foot of his bed to watch the comedies, and just at a funny part, where
          a curly-haired woman was trying on a pair of skis in her living room and was knocking
          over all the lamps, Mr. Huff walked into the bedroom with the three library books…

There is a delightful subplot about one of Amy’s friends, Bernadette, whose family life is utterly unlike Mitch and Amy’s.  Bernadette has many brothers and lives in a gloriously messy and chaotic home.  Her mother is attending classes at the university, because she had not finished her degree before marrying and raising a large family. Her stated goal is to find an interesting job when she graduates.  As in the Ramona series, the author quietly supports the idea that mothers have a right to both contribute to the family income and find jobs as satisfying as those of their husbands. 

As for Alan the bully, Mitch and Amy try to avoid him, outwit him, and, in Mitch’s case, fight him. Finally, Bernadette is ready to deliver the ultimate humiliation to Alan of also engaging him in a physical fight.  When Mitch and Amy realize how pathetic Alan’s aggressiveness actually is, there is not facile transformation of this obnoxious child into their friend. Instead, the novel concludes with the twins recognizing that Alan’s glory days of bullying are probably behind him, and that they are glad to have one another.  Adults who read this book as children should return to it, and share it with kids.  There’s so much to appreciate and discuss in this one example of Beverly Cleary’s legacy.

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