Saturday, March 27, 2021

A Titan of Children's Literature

There are certain individuals I periodically google just to reassure myself that they are alive, and I recently lost one...  children's literature titan Beverly Cleary died yesterday at the age of 104.  Beverly Cleary's particular genius was writing slice-of-life books about regular middle-class children living normal middle-class lives, typically in the northeast Portland neighborhood of Grant Park, specifically Klickitat Street.  Every superhero has an origin story, and Beverly Cleary's superhero origin took place when, as a children's librarian, a boy asked her, "Where are the books about the kids like us?"  

Beverly Cleary's response was writing the book Henry Huggins, the story about a boy in the third grade who meets a stray dog, thin enough to earn the name 'Ribsy', and brings him home.  Henry and Ribsy make an appealing pair, with Henry being a responsible, enterprising boy (when he loses another boy's football, he supplements his paper route by hunting for worms in the park to sell as bait to fishermen.  In the book's final chapter, Ribsy's original owner finds the dog, and a positively Brechtian denoument ensues.

Henry Huggins also introduced Beverly Cleary's greatest creation,  Ramona Quimby.  Introduced as the younger sister of Henry's friend Beatrice (nicknamed Beezus by the pronunciation-challenged four year-old Ramona), Ramona eventually took the mantle of main character in the series.  In Henry and Beezus, Henry yearns to buy a new bicycle, collecting empty bottles to earn a penny apiece until the smart Beezus tells Henry how to take advantage of an unexpected windfall.  Ramona is the perfect foil for the smart, conscientious Beezus- imaginative and rambunctious.

In Beezus and Ramona, Beezus gets top billing (though, tellingly, a 2010 film adaptation is titled Ramona and Beezus, proving that naughty girls get the attention).  A serious, thoughtful girl, Beezus has to contend with her 'pest' of a little sister while learning how to embrace her own imagination.  In the end, she realizes that, while she doesn't always like her 'exasperating' sister, she does love her.

Eventually, there were eight 'Ramona' books, as well as appearing in the six 'Henry Huggins' books, with Ramona the Pest being a particular favorite of mine.  Ramona is a gloriously naughty figure, the sort of girl who pulls on a classmate's 'boing boing curls', wipes fingerpaint off her hands with the neighbors' cat, takes a single bite out of every apple in the root cellar because the first bite is the tastiest (forcing her mother to make applesauce out of the remains), and getting in the way of her older sister and her friends- in Henry and the Paper Route, she takes the newspapers off customers' lawns and throws them on other lawns because she wants to play paperboy.

While generally writing about middle-class characters with stable family lives and ignoring the headlines of the day, Beverly Cleary wasn't afraid to tackle topical issues- in Ramona and Her Father, Mr Quimby loses his job, so Mrs Quimby has to work full-time to make ends meet, and Ramona does her best to help out the family, even paring down her Christmas list drastically.  A compulsive reader of fan mail, when asked to write a book about a family effected by divorce, she wrote Dear Mr Henshaw.

Also set in Portland were the books Ellen Tebbits and Otis Spofford, a series about a good girl plagued by the antics of a mischievous boy- when the naughty Otis finally exceeds the bonds of good-hearted shenanigans by cutting off a lock of Ellen's hair just as it was getting long enough for her to grow pigtails, the good girl gets her revenge on him in a satisfying manner.

While most of Beverly Cleary's books were realistic vignettes of convincingly real children growing up in Portland, she did write a series of fantasy novels about a talking mouse who rides a toy motorcycle.  This was a departure for her, she had previously satirized such fantasies by mocking Ramona's love for a book about Scoopy, a steam shovel which has adventures.  She also wrote the standalone novel Socks, about a cat dealing with the birth of its humans' baby, eventually coming to see it as not a rival, but a person to cherish- this book inspired the name of the Clintons' cat.

Back in 1993, in the course of a cross-country road trip, I stopped in the storied (HA!) Powell's Books in Portland and chatted at some length with one of the clerks about Beverly Cleary and her books that so prominently featured the city.  I joked that I wished that I had more time to stay in town so I could go picking huckleberries on Mt Hood.  A few years after that, while dating a girl from Krakow who was in the US on a student visa, studying English, I figured that Beverly Cleary's books were the perfect reading material for someone who wanted a grasp of English grammar, written consistently and plainly in an entertaining manner.  I bought her a bunch of Cleary's books and she was immediately taken with Ramona, who she immediately pronounced a wyrodna.

Beverly Cleary lived a long, productive life and was much-beloved by millions of fans.  I'm bummed out, but hitting 104 is as good a run as anyone can expect.  She also enjoyed good health for over a century, and kept her sharp wit, as for instance, joking on her 100th birthday, "I didn't do it on purpose." 

1 comment:

Big Bad Bald Bastard said...

Just want to state unequivocally that Ramona Quimby is one of the greatest comedic characters of all time. Anybody who says that women aren’t funny should have to walk home wearing ice skates, because Beverly Cleary was a genius. Just reading people’s reminiscences about reading her books has got me laughing, even while bummed.