Bookmarking Beverly Cleary’s 100th Birthday

Beverly Cleary ruled the world before J.K. Rowling wrote a single line. What do you do when you sell over 90 million copies of kid lit? Celebrate the latest birthday, of course.

The leader of all things children fiction is turning 100 on April 12. In a Today Show interview, she declared, alongside a high school classmate, “that 80 was the cut-off date.”

Cleary’s children books have been an American staple for over half a century. Who doesn’t remember Ramona and Beezus? Go to a Scholastic book fair and see how many books you can find. That’s a lot of childhood experiences to enjoy.

According to Vox, the Oregon-native created Henry Huggins in 1950 after a little boy patron asked for books meant for the intended audience. That’s a big deal because not everyone wants to read fairy tales. (Not that fairy tales are bad, by any means.) And Shel Silverstein’s “Where the Sidewalk Ends” wouldn’t be penned for nearly another quarter century.

She’s quite blunt when describing books from her childhood. “Books in those days, back in the 1920s, had been published in England, and the children had nannies and pony carts and they seemed like a bunch of sissies to me.” Probably not a lot of wilderness and playing in areas with large trees, especially for stories centered around London.

“I think children want to read about normal, everyday kids,” Cleary said in an interview with NPR in 1999.

How could a little girl from Oregon relate to books about a whole different class system right after the First World War? Seems like she and the library patron had a lot in common. Even with 30 years between individual yet shared experiences.

 

Cracking Cleary

How about the personal side, though? What inspires a reader to care so deeply?

My personal favorite will always be “Socks.” Set from the cat’s perspective, the narrative shows the complicated relationship between human and animals. When Socks’s owners have a baby, his whole world changes. No longer the ‘baby’, there’s a battle to fit in. Smart lesson for little kids in a package that transforms resentment into acceptance.

I remember reading the book from Atlanta to western Michigan. Never putting the book down, even when I should have long been asleep. That’s the beauty of Cleary’s work: everyone has some character to identify with and some desire will be fulfilled or a lesson taught with open emotion. Kids are smart and know when someone’s feeding a line or trying to sell a lesson. Cleary’s voice, her passion, rings through many generation of readers and writers.

Take Ramona Quimby. Ramona’s a character that everyone seems to know. She goes through stages like most little girls but it’s an adventure with consequences and celebrations. Beezus doesn’t quite understand her little sister’s reactions, finding the antics annoying, but the bond doesn’t change. Family life is strange and full of conflict. It’s how you grow up and what you learn that matters. Plus, Klickitat Street was never dull!

A lot of little girls grew up to adult fans looking to share their books with future generations. Check the Beverly Cleary tag on Twitter and see just how many girls identify with the not-so-perfect, not-so-mannered kid who may have pushed the Quimbys a bit too far on occasion, but loved their daughter.

For some people, that’s the best gift ever. For girls growing up in shattered, dysfunctional, or broken homes, Ramona represented free expression. Here was a little girl who understood the pains and didn’t pat them on the head.  A friend coming along to say hello. A character that led the pack for many girls. Definitely a happy accident. Hey, look. Another theme in the world of siblings.

 

‘remain my inspiration’

Not only does Clearly inspire burgeoning authors, but little girls looking to be heard. Words have meaning and show a form of representation. Quiet voices need to be heard, too. Newberry-medal winning author Kate DiCamillo said it best.

“I write books for kids. I wanna write like Beverly Cleary.”

Judy Blume told Today, “Beverly, you were my inspiration when I started to write all those years ago.” Imagine a world without “Are You There, God, It’s Me, Margaret?” or “Superfudge.” A lot of young readers would miss out on lit that makes a lot of defining life experience lists.

Blume went on to say, “You remain my inspiration today.”

Not to mention, Reese Witherspoon’s production company Pacific Standard places a copy of “Ramona Quimby, Age 8” in the office. You know Cleary’s earned a deep spot, considering Witherspoon’s a power broker in the making for book-to-film adaptations.

And it’s easy to see why millions upon millions of books have sold. Even The Guardian created a Top 100 quotes list. And Flavorwire’s 25 vintage book cover list is definitely worth seeing. Every cover tells a story of triumph through a decade’s art. I’m partial to the 1980s, no surprise there.

So which Beverly Cleary book defined a moment in your childhood? Taught you lessons? Henry? Ramona? “Mouse and the Motorcycle”? Have you hugged a Ralph lately?

Jessica Hannan

Owner of Wild Pantheon Press, Clever Girl, and Research Queen Productions. Fan of looking at the world and seeing a whole new outlook at every turn. And definitely nerdy for academics.

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