Loss of a Legend: Beverly Cleary
By Maureen Hall, NJLA Board Member
We all knew that even she had to pass away eventually. After all, she was 104 years old, a rarity. It just never crossed my mind that such a creative and fascinating mind would leave the earth. I write, of course, of Beverly Cleary, children’s book author extraordinary! Fortunately for us, her books still populate the shelves of libraries all over the world, in more than 25 languages. Her sparkle, however, and the way she wrote to and for her young audience will be missed by many.
The many, of course, includes me. As a precocious reader, I had a partner in crime in my school librarian, who would hold back books from the general population of the school to hand them surreptitiously to me during library period. “I saved this for you. You’ll love it!” And I always did, even though I now cringe at our little crimes that kept books out of the hands of other readers! I enjoyed all of Cleary’s stories, but found a home and a representative once Ramona was given her own book.
As Cleary says of herself, I was also a very well-behaved little girl. One did not have much choice in the strict household in which I was raised. My endless questions and “what ifs,” were, naturally, not terribly well tolerated in that busy house. Once my first little sister was born, my mother was quite happy to send me to morning nursery school, to regain some peace in her home. School was mutually beneficial, for it was there that I discovered . . . books! Glorious, colorful, and full of a code that was, with hours of dedication, decipherable. Once I could read on my own, I soon began to understand that not all children had a dog named Spot and a cat named Puff. Teachers and librarians (bless their souls!) read aloud to me (they may have thought that they were reading to everyone, but I knew better.) They introduced me to all sorts of characters: a family of girls growing up poor, but happy, in New York City at the turn of the century, a poor little rich girl who longed for her father’s return, and, happily, Ramona the Pest!
"NOTHING IN THE WHOLE WORLD FELT AS GOOD AS BEING ABLE TO MAKE SOMETHING FROM A SUDDEN IDEA." ―Beverly Cleary
Ramona was a pest in the same way that I saw myself. She made foolish mistakes, got herself into dreadful situations, dreamed of things that were foreign to her, and had a wonderful aunt who doted on her. How could I fail to make the connection between the heroine of Cleary’s books and my own life? This author did not keep things in her stories clean and simple. Things went wrong – horribly wrong, and children had to fix their errors, often in hilarious ways. Cleary was a funny, but tender writer. Ramona’s relationships within her family were loving, if a little off-kilter. Her friendships with neighbors were fraught with disaster, which she was almost always able to solve (with varying degrees of help). But Ramona’s most interesting friendship, or relationship was with herself. She woke up every morning determined to be good and not cause trouble, but her different way of looking at the world and her position in it were bound to be at odds with almost everything she faced.
Cleary knew at an early age that she wanted to write. She struggled when reading as a child, later saying that children’s books were not written with children in mind. Her own books came from little vignettes she told to her library students and, later, to her own children. She wrote for children about other kids who were a great deal like them. She made me want to write children’s books, something I still regret not having attempted. She was an important mentor to so many, although they might not have even met her.
Beverly grew up in a town near Portland, Oregon, that actually had a road named Klickitat Street, in a neighborhood populated with many children. She found most of the children’s books available to her boring and predictable, which encouraged her to later write her own. As we page through her collection it is evident that Cleary had a respect for her readers as well as a desire to engage them. She wrote with emotional realism, which allowed children to find themselves and their feelings in her books.
Appraising the literary honors she received is daunting; there is little she did not achieve. She won, among other awards, the National Book Award, and the Newbery Medal, and was presented with a National Medal of the Arts. She was declared a Living Legend of the Library of Congress, and her books have sold over 91 million copies. Among her work one can find two memoirs of her own life and a couple of young adult books, as well as stories chronicling the life of a mouse who owned a motorcycle. One can also locate Dear Mr. Henshaw, a novel about a young boy struggling with the divorce of his parents that I personally recommended to individual readers many times for its ability to touch the heart of even the most recalcitrant fifth or sixth grader.
It’s wonderful to be touched by a writer’s work. It’s even better to be influenced by that work so early in life that one turns into a lifelong reader. Beverly Cleary and Ramona did that for me as a child, and again as a parent reading her work to my own daughter. We readers mourn her passing, but are thrilled that she was here at all.