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Monday, April 12, 2010


Happy birthday Beverly Cleary!

Chatting about Beverly Cleary on a discussion forum today, I went to look up my favourite author of childhood to see if she was still alive. Well, wouldn't you know it? She is. And today is her ninety-fourth birthday.

If any author ever deserved a long life, it's Beverly Cleary.

Children's authors have been more on my mind of late, as I'm beginning to think in terms of bedtime reading for my expected son. (Yes, according to the sonographer, I'm going to have a little boy!) Bedtime stories were, both for me and his father, one of the golden notes that rang through our childhoods: moments of intimacy and comfort, and also moments of emotional education - where books about people like or unlike us gave us the opportunity to walk in other shoes, to learn and feel out what it meant to be a person in the world. My son may find he prefers other reading matter, of course, and if that's the case it'll be good practice in the lifelong discipline of bending-your-head-around-the-idea-that-your-kid-isn't-obliged-to-be-exactly-like-you, but it's certainly my intention to at least give Cleary a go. My mother read Cleary to me, and it was one of the nicest things she ever did for me.

For those of you unfortunate enough to experience childhood without the works of this marvellous author, a brief explanation. Cleary began her career as a children's librarian with literary aspirations, quite agreeing with children's complaints that they could never find the books they wanted: as she comments in her introduction to Henry Huggins, her first novel (written in 1949):

There was very little on the library shelves those boys wanted to read. Finally one of them burst out, and the other agreed, 'Where are the books for kids like us?' Where indeed. There weren't any.

Moved by the justice of this outburst, Cleary abandoned her first thoughts of writing a book about girls and sat down to write the story of Henry, the enterprising hero of her early work. Living in a fairly ordinary family on Klickitat Street, Henry's life is much like the lives of the children she grew up with - persuading his parents to let him keep a stray dog, raising money to buy himself a bicycle, trying to enjoy playing with friends despite the disruptions of younger siblings - and is written with an energy and compassion for the little incidents that loom so large in childhood that makes the book instantly likeable.

It's the disruptive younger sibling, though, that marks where I came in: Ramona Quimby, the wilful, turbulent younger sister of Henry's sensible friend Beezus. (Ramona's mispronunciation of Beatrice.) Oh, Ramona. One of the earliest, and one of the greatest, literary loves of my life.

What can I say about Ramona? On the surface, it's a simple story. Cleary populated Klickitat Street with children and wrote from the viewpoints of several, Ramona first getting protagonist status as a five-year-old entering kindergarten in Ramona the Pest and continuing through numerous further outings. Cleary's view through Ramona's eyes is immediate and raw, full of the natural egotism of childhood, presented with no sentimentality but with profound sympathy. How can you not love a girl who begins this way:

'I'm not pestering,' protested Ramona, who never meant to pester. She was not a slow-poke grown-up. She was a girl who could not wait. Life was so interesting she had to find out what happened next.

... And then, faced with the humiliating possibility of being taken to school by an older girl who likes to play at mothering her:

Nobody but a genuine grown-up was going to take her to school. If she had to, she would make a great big noisy fuss, and when Ramona made a great big noisy fuss, she usually got her own way. Great big noisy fusses were often necessary when a girl was the youngest member of her family and the youngest person on her street.

Ramona is a girl of passions, volatile, vivid and overwhelming. From an adult perspective, her moments are small: the excitement of an extra-large pumpkin for Halloween (and the fury when the family cat eats some of its face); the worry that a teacher does not like her (and teachers are supposed to like children); the deep pleasure of getting a new pair of pyjamas (and, in her reluctance to remove them in the morning, her rash decision to put her school clothes on over them while pretending to be a fireman dressing in haste, and the dizzingly hot and embarrassing day that follows) ... But there's nothing diminutive about the sincerity, the intensity, the drama with which Ramona lives her life. Ramona may be a little girl, but she isn't a small one: her personality crackles through the stories with all the blazing energy of childhood. And young though she is, Ramona's worries aren't all about trivia: the fear that her father's smoking will lead to lung cancer, the anxiety when he loses his job and the Quimbys become hard-pressed for money, the tensions and conflicts within her close but imperfect family, are all vitally present on every page.

What I can most say, as a personal testimony, is this: it is to Beverly Cleary, and the Ramona books in particular, that I think I can most trace my love of literary fiction. Childrens' books are frequently full of magic and high adventure, and while I would never knock such delightful fare, it's a rare and precious thing to find novels that deal instead with the small frictions of ordinary people - the stuff of life as I, in my childhood, was experiencing it - and make of it as thrilling and gripping a ride as any epic. More than that, even, to treat it as the stuff of genuine drama and concern, rather than as boring stuff that happens to negligible people who don't go a-questing. Because the thing is, children do go a-questing, all the time. They just have to quest for things within their reach. And it's the balance of normality and extremity, the deeply felt moments of ordinary life, that makes the books shine.

What it came down to was this: Cleary draws Ramona with a steady-eyed respect, far from blind to her faults, but giving her, more than any other writer I found in my childhood, both the genuine childishness and limitations of her age, and simultaneously the real dignity of a full human being. It was the first time I found books that treated real life as the tumultuous, fascinating place that I found it.

Through Ramona, Beverly Cleary told me I was not alone in the world: that my experiences were legitimate - and at the same time, not unique to me. I remember moments of actual shock as my mother read out certain passages, thinking, 'Other people have had that thought? I'm not the only one who ever felt that way?!' Ramona's periods of fear and worry, her outrage when misunderstood, her flights of imagination (and her deep embarrassment at the thought of having them exposed), her anxious expectation of being loved, her hunger to grow up and be taken seriously, all spoke to me - another imaginative, passionate, full-of-faults little girl, separated from the fictional Ramona by thousands of miles and more than a child's lifetime of years - to tell me that I was a human being, connected by common experience to the rest of humanity.

Would I have grown up to love adult books that treated people's internal lives as legitimate subjects for a story without Ramona? Probably; if I hadn't had a yearning for such books, Ramona might not have struck me so strongly as she did. But in a world full of fun books about children taking on magical adventures that real children never could - not only because of the magic, but because they often required attributing quasi-adult qualities to the supposedly child characters in order to get them through - it was something truly special to have what were, in effect, mainstream books for children: books that set aside every priority except the feelings and lives of real people, and treated those lives and feelings with such a natural grace and depth that they became what they are in reality: filled with meaning.

So happy birthday, Beverly Cleary, and bless you. I wish you many more birthdays in health and happiness. Thank you.

I loved the Ramona books when I was growing up! Happy birthday, Beverly Cleary!
PS - Check this out! http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0493949/ Will it be wonderful or terrible?
Beezus and Ramona! I haven't read that in decades.

*runs off to track down Beverly Cleary's books again*
What a charming tribute. All hail Ramona!
Kit, thank you for this wonderful post, which prompted me to finally delurk (I lurk a lot on Slacktivist, too). I loved the hell out of the Henry Huggins books as a kid, but my fundamentalist mother wouldn't let me check the Ramona books out of the library; she thought that I shouldn't be allowed to read about another little girl as willful as I was. Now I feel like I really missed something. Maybe I should claim my right to read them now, as an adult.

And thanks for Benighted and In Great Waters! You bring such a remarkable amount of emotional intelligence to your books, which shows in your Slacktivist posts as well. :-)
Gosh, thanks! And welcome. :-)

And yes, I'd definitely recommend the Ramona books now that your mother can't stop you. I think my mother took the opposite line - that reading about another little girl as turbulent as me was ... I think her word was 'educational'. For which I remain grateful.

So if you want to check them out, the order is:

Beezus and Ramona (from the older sister's perspective)
Ramona the Pest
Ramona the Brave
Ramona and her Father
Ramona and her Mother
Ramona Quimby, Age 8
Ramona Forever
Ramona's World

Hope you enjoy them!
Thanks! Sounds like a great summer-reading diversion!
I liked Ramona but I absolutely adored Dear Mr. Henshaw and its sequel Strider. That one really spoke to me, of being a kid of divorce, of being an introvert and it being okay.
I loved the Ramona books as a kid because here was a family where the members obviously loved each other and yet fought and weren't perfect and the mother had a job and the father lost his job and Ramona had thoughts like (not an exact quotation) "normally she would rat out Beezus so her mother would love her best, but in this case...")and they were desperate about money and I cannot tell you how reassuring all this was to my ten year old self. Wow.
Happy Birthday Beverly Cleary! I from Portland, Oregon, where many of her books are placed near places where I grew up. Henry Huggins was basically my dad as a boy.

When in grade school, sometimes we would go into the library when a local news station interviewed her. I think there is a statue of Ramona somewhere in Portland. It's an honor to be from the same city as her.
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