One of my all-time favorite authors is celebrating her 100th birthday today!
I first encountered Beverly Cleary’s books as a second-grader when my teacher read them aloud in class. When I found out that the school library had even more books about Ramona and Beezus Quimby and Henry Huggins, I started checking them out and reading them myself. I also remember going to my Brownie Girl Scout troop’s Christmas party and getting a brand new copy of Ramona The Brave. I still don’t have any idea who knew I wanted that particular book, or how they found out!
As a child of the 1970s, I experienced the transition in Beverly Cleary’s writing firsthand. Her earlier books, which were written and published in the 1950s and 1960s, reflect a more innocent time period. Even then, I was aware that Henry and Beezus and Ellen Tebbits and Otis Spofford were allowed to roam freely throughout their neighborhood, even riding the bus downtown without adult supervision. None of the kids I grew up with was allowed to do anything like that. (We did enjoy a lot more freedom than most kids do today.)
Starting in the 1970s, Beverly Cleary’s work began to reflect a changing world, one I found more realistic. Ramona’s mother starts working outside the home. Ramona’s father loses his job. Plenty of funny things still happen– who can forget the time Ramona wore her pajamas to school?– but there is also tension in the Quimby household as Ramona and Beezus struggle to cope with their family’s economic instability. Later on, when I took a children’s literature course in college, I read Dear Mr. Henshaw, which centers around a lonely young boy coming to terms with his parents’ divorce.
By the time Ramona’s World came out in 1999, I was a full-fledged grown-up. But I still bought the book in hardcover because I needed to know what Ramona and the rest of her family were up to!
I started writing my own stories around the same time I started reading Beverly Cleary’s books. I definitely count her as a major influence. She taught me to look for the humor in everyday moments. But sometimes what makes the reader laugh is not funny to the actual character. Ramona was embarrassed about the pajamas-in-school incident. Henry Huggins was mortified when then 4-year-old Ramona told one of his potential paper route customers that “only you can prevent forest fires.” And poor Ellen Tebbits was so humiliated when the winter underwear underneath her ballet tutu started slipping.
Beverly Cleary also taught me that the main character in a story doesn’t have to be perfect. Unlike the kids in my schoolbooks or in many of the picture books I’d read in first grade, Beverly Cleary’s characters aren’t always “good” children. They don’t follow the “kid misbehaves and then learns his lesson” formula, either. Sometimes they act up because they are worried or upset about what’s going on at school or at home. Other times, they get in trouble because they can’t control themselves. Like many kindergartners, Ramona could not keep her hands to herself, especially when she was around Susan and her boing-boing curls. Otis Spofford picked on Ellen Tebbits because it gave him something to do.
As you can probably tell from this post, these books bring back many happy memories. I hope Beverly Cleary enjoys her special day. I would like to take this opportunity to tell her THANK YOU!!!