Beverly Cleary, who died last month, would have been 105 today. If they’re celebrating DEAR (Drop Everything and Read) day at your local school, she’s why. The patron saint of reading for reading’s sake: What children’s author wouldn’t take that? I am delighted by the fuss—not to mention the christening of Beverly Cleary School in her beloved Portland, Oregon, and of the Beverly Cleary residence hall at her alma mater, UC Berkeley. But even the longest and most glowing obituaries didn’t dwell on what matters most: how her books work, what they make their readers feel, what possibilities they opened up for later writers.
Consider a tiny moment in Beezus and Ramona (1955), first of the deservedly famous Ramona series. Ramona upends everyone’s Saturday morning by luring a passel of random kids to her house for a party. It’s a nightmare for anyone who feels at all responsible (read: Ramona’s big sister, Beezus). However, the last word goes to Ramona.
Mother dropped wearily into a chair. “Ramona, if you wanted a party, why didn’t you ask me to have one?”
“Because when I ask you don’t let me do things,” explained Ramona, sniffing.
Beezus couldn’t help feeling there was some truth in Ramona’s remark.
The candor of Beezus’s reluctant admission helps explain why Cleary’s books could cover ground considered shocking in her day for children’s literature: household misery, depression, intense family quarrels, the outright misery of a laid-off dad who wants to yet cannot quite quit smoking. Shocking still, even today, is the careful attention Cleary pays to what actual humans do when exasperated.
She is, in short, a writer with much more to offer than motorcycle-riding rodents (no offense, Ralph S. Mouse). She is a crucial bend in the highway of American humor that goes back to Thurber, to Twain and beyond. I cannot imagine Judy Blume, Arnold Lobel, or Mo Willems without her.
Cleary was certainly fiercely funny; like Twain she had an ear for the phrase that reveals the fallacy beneath. But her true gift—as the party passage above makes clear—lay in noticing that children, like adults, are consistently—and hilariously—unalike. Those resonant and enduring differences in character, outlook, and nature are not there to be ironed out: they’re the stuff and substance of human life—and of Cleary’s fiction.
In My Own Two Feet (1995)—the second of Cleary’s memoirs; both are worth reading—Cleary drops a revealing clue about how she envisions her own work. In one of her few college literature classes, a Professor Lehman held her attention by praising
“the minutiae of life,” those details that give reality to fiction. It is a long leap from Peregrine Pickle, Tristram Shandy, The Mysteries of Udolpho, and all the other novels we studied that year to the books I was to write about Henry, Ramona, and Leigh Botts, but I know, if others may not, that the influence of Professor Lehman is there.
I buy that. Most of what’s great about Cleary arises when “the minutiae of life” meets “books about kids like us.” Like Twain, Cleary makes moving comedy out of the sense that reality is a lot more messy than any rhetorical strategy can express.
So, where to begin? There are Henry Huggins lovers, and people who swear by Dear Mr. Henshaw, or Ellen Tebbits. But my Beverly Cleary starts with chimeric, exuberant Ramona and her sensible, cautious older sister, Beezus. Every child should be lucky enough to have all eight Ramona books in a messy pile somewhere, especially the surprisingly dark Ramona and Her Father (1977) and Ramona Forever (1984).
Beezus and Ramona’s third sentence sets the tone for the whole series: “Beezus felt that the biggest trouble with four-year-old Ramona was that she was just plain exasperating.” The chapter-sized episodes that follow are vintage Cleary: stasis, disrupted by trouble, resolved by bedtime.
Cleary’s true gift lay in noticing that children, like adults, are consistently—and hilariously—unalike.
Take apples. In the first of her memoirs, A Girl from Yamhill (1988), Cleary reports her own early memory of sitting “among the windfalls under an apple tree that bore cream-colored apples with pink cheeks, sniffing the sun-warmed fruit, taking one bite, throwing the rest of the apple away, and biting into another.” Why? Obviously, “The first bite of an apple tastes best.”
In Beezus and Ramona, that real-life incident is assigned to the fictional troublemaker Ramona. And when she’s caught—having already devoured half the family’s precious basement store of apples—Ramona’s response is revealing:
“I want to share the apples,” she said sweetly.
“Oh, no, you don’t,” said Beezus. “And don’t try to work that sharing business on me!” That was one of the difficult things about Ramona. When she had done something wrong, she often tried to get out of it by offering to share something. She heard a lot about sharing at nursery school.
As so often with Cleary, part of the wit lies in noting the way that adult words make it into the consciousness of children—and out again. “Don’t try to work that sharing business on me” is pure Ring Lardner: fourth grader as small-time thug. But there’s more: “She heard a lot about sharing at nursery school” tells you about Ramona, and something about how well Beezus knows Ramona. Yet it also casts a refreshingly cold eye on the rhetoric of Ramona’s piously right-thinking school.
Cleary has her finger on a pulse that most of us grown-ups are too thick-skinned to feel. A Girl from Yamhill charts the misery and borderline abuse of a Depression-era childhood lived in thrall to her bigoted, hypercritical mother. My Own Two Feet relates the bliss of escaping to a public university where she could break away from family and finally mingle with other students both like and unlike her (“Tall, short, shy, ‘fast,’ brilliant, struggling, colorless, beautiful, neat, sloppy, confident, brokenhearted. Most were wearing homemade clothes. One girl had tailored a coat from a blanket.”)
Both memoirs are at their best, though, when charting the emotional life of kids. Working as a children’s librarian in a “one-library town,” she finds bored boys asking, “Where are the books about kids like us?” Even at 23, long before she wrote her first book, Beverly Cleary knew how to answer that:
There was only one book I could find about kids like them, kids who parked their earmuffs on the circulation desk in winter and their baseball mitts in summer. That book was Honk, the Moose, by Phil Stong.
Who can resist a recommendation like that? I just ordered a former library copy from a used bookstore in Frederick, Maryland.
Aristotle’s Poetics argues that every representation, every piece of art, can only come out of the actual world. Early on in Beezus and Ramona, a cheerily right-thinking art teacher (who probably talks a lot about sharing too …) tries to spur Beezus into drawing a made-up animal. Let your fancy run free, she tells her.
[Beezus] tried to think of an imaginary animal, but all the animals she could think of—cats and dogs, cows and horses, lions and giraffes—were discouragingly real.
I think Aristotle would have liked Beezus. And Beverly Cleary.
I am not saying Cleary goes where no other children’s writer does. Even my beloved duo of wild-eyed Ramona and prosaic Beezus fits a common pattern in children’s books. The story space is split between one saturnine realist, who is simply trying to play by life’s dimly understood grown-up rules, and one “exasperating” free spirit, who breaks these rules with abandon and, it seems to the realist, with impunity. Think of Arnold Lobel’s irrepressible Frog and curmudgeonly Toad, or Bert and Ernie, or Elephant and happy-go-lucky Piggie.
Ramona and Beezus, though, make me look further back in the history of fiction, further, even, than Pamela. It was four hundred years ago that Cervantes first dreamed up the conceit behind Beezus and Ramona: every hard-headed realist needs an absurd dreamer to put a little zip back into life. His realist was Sancho Panza, Don Quixote the accompanying dreamer. In Kafka’s amazing parable, “The Truth about Sancho Panza,” we learn that it was Sancho who made Don Quixote up, so he’d have an excuse to go on adventures. Sancho Panzas of the world (hello, Beezus), admit that you’d be bored stiff without your loopy Quixote.
There is something profound about the idea that we partly face reality by dreaming up the version of ourselves who can face it exuberantly, ridiculously. Realistic as we are, we often find ourselves wishing that we too could—like Ramona—conjure up a party out of a set of strangers on a featureless Saturday.
It may sound as if I am praising Cleary for doing two different things: for unleashing the fiery inventiveness of a Ramona, on the one hand, and for celebrating the ordinariness that she found in Honk, the Moose, on the other. Actually, they go together. Cleary’s genius lies in being a realist who can’t help wishing reality’s rules would melt away—even though she knows they won’t.
I think that those of us who no longer have a mat to drop onto, no longer have a teacher to read to us, or DEAR time to do it in, still ought to celebrate every April 12, by seeking out the kind of book that mixes ordinary reality with absurd beauty. That mix is there in Stella Gibbons’s Cold Comfort Farm and Joseph Heller’s Catch 22, in Anna Burns’s Milkman and Ottessa Moshfegh’s My Year of Rest and Relaxation. Cleary, though, she’s got it in spades.
This article was commissioned by Nicholas Dames.