beverly cleary, rest in peace, and thank you

Beverly Cleary, who died last week at the astounding age of 104, was a pivotal figure in the world of children's literature. Her books are treasures; her influence can scarcely be measured.

Cleary was one of the first authors to feature young characters who were realistically imperfect. If she was not the first, then certainly she was the first popular, widely-read writer who, as The Atlantic put it, "saw children as they are". 

Before Henry Huggins and Ramona, before Otis and Ellen and Ralph S. Mouse, children's literature was preachy and moralistic. The sanitized characters bore little resemblance to actual children. Books typically stood above children, and spoke at them. Cleary's books stood beside children and reflected them. 

Cleary's books were among the first that respected children -- their intelligence, their experiences. This would become the norm, of course, but it started somewhere, and that somewhere is Beverly Cleary. 

From a tribute (not the obit) in The New York Times:

The much-adored author of 42 books for children, who was declared a "Living Legend" by the Library of Congress in 2000, died on Thursday at the age of 104.

To borrow a response from Cleary's most famous character, Ramona Quimby: "Guts! Guts! Guts!" What else is there to say?

Cleary's novels — "The Mouse and the Motorcycle," "Henry and Ribsy" and "Ralph S. Mouse," just to name a few — are now in the hands of a third generation of readers. Her books are a cornerstone of modern children's literature, front and center in the bedtime canon, and among the first that many young children enjoy on their own. She was the recipient of every accolade available to authors of books for young readers — from the Newbery Medal to the National Book Award — and will remain alive in the imagination of every child who met Ramona and Beezus Quimby, Henry Huggins, Otis Spofford, Ellen Tebbits or any one of her dear, flawed, funny characters, and thought: "That's me."

I also loved this context for Cleary's most popular character, Ramona. 

One could argue that Ramona was the forerunner of what is now known as "girl power." Before Junie B. Jones and Ivy and Bean arrived on bookshelves, before words like "fierce" and "boss" migrated from zoos and office parks onto girls' T-shirts, she was strutting around with her hands on her hips, signing her name with a flourish — whiskers, pointy ears and a tail on the Q. No heart over the "i" for this girl.

"She was not a slowpoke grown-up," Cleary wrote in "Ramona and Her Mother". "She was a girl who could not wait. Life was so interesting she had to find out what happened next."

Right now I happen to be reading a biography of Louise Fitzhugh, who created the prototype of girl power for my generation, and many to follow. Harriet the Spy was published in 1964, Beezus and Ramona in 1955. I think Fitzhugh must have been influenced by Cleary... but I'll find out. 

Many women cite Nancy Drew as a character that inspired them, and certainly series like the Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys mysteries gave children agency. But those characters are fantasies. Fantasies are useful and important, but they don't bring children recognition, a feeling of belonging, a comfort that they are not alone, that readers find from realistic depictions of lives and feelings.

From a 21st Century perspective, Cleary's books exhibit a seeming total absence of diversity. Every character is white, as was the custom of the day. But girlsGirls are front and centre. Girls have agency. Girls are the boss. At the time, this was diversity.

Henry Huggins was the first book I ever read. Naturally I read it many, many times. As you may know, the story involves a boy who finds a lost dog, so skinny that its ribs are showing, hence the name Henry gives the pup. 

Here's the part that is an indelible memory. The original owner shows up and insists the dog is his. He and Henry argue. They agree to let the dog decide, each person calling the dog, hoping the dog will choose him. The interloper uses the dog's original name, which of course Henry never knew. Unfair! Then Henry realizes he, too, can use the dog's old name... and Ribsy runs to him. Hurrah!

My family didn't have a dog yet, and I dreamed of finding a Ribsy and taking him home. Little did I know!

This 2011 interview with Cleary in The Atlantic is wonderful: "Beverly Cleary: 'I Just Wrote About Childhood as I Had Known It'".

The official Beverly Cleary website gives a great perspective on the characters she created.

Beverly Cleary, thank you, thank you, thank you!


M@ said...

I was just talking to S today about a scene from a Beverly Cleary book that is indelibly etched in my mind. Beverly clearly may have been the first author who I knew of as a person rather than just as unknown words on a book cover.

I read all of the books I could find by Cleary. Not once did I question reading books with female protagonists. It never occurred to me to question it. I'm glad I wasn't brought up to reject books based on gender.

Btw, Harriet was another early literary love for me. I really need to find a copy of that book and read that again...

johngoldfine said...

For girl power and for a book that can not be topped, there is 'Understood Betsy' by Dorothy Canfield Fisher, published in 1915 or so. Its premise may seem similar to the earlier and much more popular 'Anne of Green Gables'--but in spirit and in intent, it is a thousand times superior.

Amy said...

I loved these books, but actually remember reading them more to and with my daughters than reading them myself as a child. I do remember reading Henry Huggins, but that's about it. I am not sure how or why I missed them. I thought maybe they were published too late, but I just checked and many were published before I could even read. But I absolutely loved reading the Ramona books with my girls. She was just the little girl I wanted as a role model for my daughters---tough, gentle, loving, angry, brave, smart, and funny.

Amy said...

I just re-checked the dates. The Ramona series didn't really start until the late 1960s long after my childhood reading days. And although I do remember reading Henry Huggins, I probably didn't find a boy lead character intriguing so didn't follow up with later Henry Huggins books---although I certainly read many books with boy lead characters---there wasn't much choice back then. But aside from The Phantom Tollbooth, most of the children's books that I adored had girl leads---Charlotte's Web, Wrinkle in Time, Wizard of Oz, All of a Kind Family, Little Women, etc.I never even thought about that before. Odd!

laura k said...

M@, thank goodness for that. Boys being unwilling to read books with female protagonists wouldn't be such a thing if publishers didn't create gendered covers. It drives me nuts. So many reading opportunities are wasted because of unnecessarily gendered cover art.

John, your knowledge of lesser-known books always amazes me. I don't usually ask, but for this one, I'm very curious. How do you know of this book?

Amy, you may have read them and not remember. I think that's likely, since fewer children's books were published then, and they were very popular. How could we ever remember all the books we read as children -- or as adults, for that matter?

laura k said...

Also Amy, the majority of children's books in those days had female protagonists. That was the default.

When a study (now famous) showed that boys' reading proficiency was lower than girls, there was a big panic in the children's publishing industry (and in education and library-land), which led to more boy-focused books.

The study led to an insane number of papers, programs, initiatives, rejected books, and whatever else. The whole mess was blamed on feminism.

And guess what, the stories about the study had misinterpreted and distorted the results. When I was in library school, I found the actual study for a paper I was writing. The difference between girls' and boys' reading scores was very minor. But the study *did* show that a sizeable chunk of all kids needed more help reading. Meaning, girls, too, needed more reading support. But no one wrote about that.

Helping boys read more is still a huge thing. Which is good. But the same focus should be applied to every child of every gender.

Amy said...

Well, I guess that explains why I remember mostly books with female protagonists. I just thought I wasn't reading books with male protagonists. There were some, but aside from The Phantom Tollbooth and one other the title of which I cannot find anywhere (about a boy on a farm with his grandparents--AHA! Just found it---Shadrach!), they didn't stick with me. If they even existed back then. The Hardy Boys? Never read them. Tom Swift? Never. Of course, there was Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn (which I didn't really appreciate til I read it in college).

John, I recall Understood Betsy. I don't remember it clearly, but I remember the title and that I loved the book. Did you read books with female protagonists as a child? Did it bother you that there weren't more books with boy leads?

And then there was Pippi Longstocking.

My daughters read less than I did/do, and my grandsons will probably read even less than their mother did. Too many other shiny objects out there to draw them away from books. I don't think it's gender related. And I agree---I wish there was more to lure kids into reading and doing it for fun, not just for school.

laura k said...

I loved both Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, of course not realizing that HF was not a children's book at all. I've re-read it a few times since then, of course. (Plug: Finn, by Jon Clinch -- Huck's father's story. I loved it.)

Two books with male protagonists, at least in part, that I loved, but they have not stood up over time: My Side of The Mountain and From the Mixed-Up Files... I adored both books. When I re-read them as a children's librarian, I discovered that they were incredibly dated, full of references that children now wouldn't understand, with decidedly old-fashioned language. That was a surprise!

Also, with apologies if I seem nitpicky, more people are reading now than ever before in history. Reading online "counts"! Podcasts and audiobooks count, as do graphic novels. Many videogames and board games involve a lot of reading. Look at the popularity of Goodreads and other similar sites. More books are being published, and being sold to more people, than ever before.

There are definitely gaps, and people falling through the cracks without reading skills. That is definitely an issue. But it has been forever. I don't know if it's any worse than it was in past decades. It might be -- but I wouldn't assume it, because illiteracy is largely invisible.

Amy said...

I don't know those two books.

We were talking about different things. I wasn't talking about reading in general or about anyone other than those I have observed in my family, and I was referring to reading children's books for pleasure. I was never without a book or a comic book in my hands from the time I could read. I would read in the car, at the beach, on my bed, at camp, etc. My girls were never avid readers for pleasure like I was. With my grandsons it's harder for me to judge because I see them less often, but I know they'd rather play a video game than pick up a book (in any format) to read for plaesure.

johngoldfine said...

Laura: 'Understood Betsy' was a book my mother-in-law (b. 1911) read as a girl, read to her children, and my wife recommended it to me when I started teaching, Nearly everything I know about good teaching and child-rearing (and by extension, dealing with dogs) can be found in UB, and I've probably re-read it ten times in the last 50 odd years.

You know how relationships develop shorthand ways of talking about things: nearly every chapter in UB has given us a pearl of mutually understood reference & vocabulary.

Amy: I was always a Nancy Drew reader, could not get into the Hardy Boys at all. M@'s parents were less anxious about his choice of protagonists than mine were about mine. My mother was slightly reassured when she met 'Carolyn Keene' on a flight to Haiti in the mid-50s and discovered CK was, after all, a man!--of course, there was many a 'Carolyn Keene,' both male and female, but Ma was not hep to syndicates, writing factories, and pen-names. So, in the end I was left alone with Nancy, her roadster, and her chums.

laura k said...

Amy, sorry about that! I am so accustomed to people bemoaning No One Reads Anymore, I immediately jumped to that, when you hadn't actually said it.

From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankwieler was a hugely popular book when I was in grade school. It's about two kids who fun away and secretly live in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. My Side of the Mountain was about a boy who survives on his own in the wilderness. Hatchet by Gary Paulsen is a great improvement on it.

I read a lot of Nancy Drew, also the Bobbsey Twins, which I'm pretty sure was total drivel. I was obsessed with the Little House books, as I've mentioned many times in many contexts.

I also meant to cheer Amy's mention of The Phantom Tollboth, such a great book. I was on a quest for a while to find a copy of The Pushcart War, a great book of my kid life that disappeared from view. I should pick up the search again.

I believe Allan was a big Hardy Boys reader.

laura k said...

Very high praise for Understood Betsy! So great that a children's book has been so valuable to you. Amazing and wonderful.

johngoldfine said...

And I haven't even started on FH Burnett and 'The Little Princess'--another girl-power protagonist, another pickup from my mother-in-law via my wife.

But, as I said, nothing tops UB.

Amy said...

No need to apologize, Laura!

How could I have forgotten to mention the Little House books??

I read Nancy Drew also. My mother didn't approve (she was a literary snob!), but I enjoyed them. I found the Bobbsey Twins annoying--cloying and silly.

I loved Hatchet, and I probably would have 60 years ago, but it didn't exist. I loved reading it with Nate. The other two books must have been "after my time." I did read the Judy Blume books when Rebecca read them. I would have loved those when I was growing up.

I read The Phantom Tollbooth when it first came out. My mother read about it and since Norton Juster was an architect like my dad, it intrigued her. I've now read it a number of times as an adult and still love how clever it is and how it works on so many levels.

Rebecca just read Charlotte's Web to Remy (the six year old) and posted the last paragraph on her Instagram saying how they both cried when she read it. I know I've told you (probably multiple times) that it was the first book to make me cry and remains, along with The Phantom Tollbooth, my favorite childhood book. Maybe my two favorite books ever including adult books.

John, now I need to go re-read Understood Betsy.

laura k said...

We have talked about Charlotte's Web many times, but it's always worth mentioning. It is one of my favourite books of all time.

I'm going to re-read Harriet the Spy when I finish the biography of Louise Fitzhugh (which is fascinating, btw). I'll use that as an opportunity to also re-read Phantom Tollbooth. I loved it but barely remember it.

In Grade 6 I read and re-read The Outsiders, umpteen times. That was one of the books that made me want to write. Amazingly, my teen book club in Mississauga read The Outsiders, and loved it.

Other than S.E. Hinton, my favourite YA writer in those days was Paul Zindel. His work has not endured the way Judy Blume's has, but it was SO good. The Pigman and My Darling, My Hamburger were the two biggies for me.

laura k said...

I miss that teen book club -- they were the best. One season they wanted to read classics. They astutely observed that much of the YA we read were re-treads. We read The Outsiders, Fahrenheit 451, The Catcher in the Rye, To Kill a Mockingbird... and some others that I can't remember right now. It was so much fun.

Amy said...

You're making me wish I could be a child or teen again and get to read all those when I was in the target audience. I know I could still read them now, and I just might do that. Especially if I can get a grandchild to read along with me so I can see the books through younger eyes.

M@ said...

Wow, Paul Zindel! I read all his books in the 80s. Fantastic stuff. Judy Blume was a big name when I was a tween, but my mother had a real vendetta against her for some reason (probably because she talked about puberty or something). I avoided her for a while... then suddenly I read a lot of contraband literature around age 12-14, including Zindel and Blume. (Does anyone else remember Jerry Spinelli? He was another one.)

I wish I could go back not only to that age of discovering more and more literature, but also that age when I could read so effortlessly and voraciously...

laura k said...

Teens still read Jerry Spinelli! I didn't know him as a young person, but as a youth-services librarian.

But Paul Zindel... I loved his books. Later when I was trying to write YA fiction, I went to a talk/workshop he led. He was a pompous jerk. At least that day he was.

Strangely, I didn't read a lot of Judy Blume. I wanted to *be* her, of course, and I read her later when I was writing, but didn't get into her as a tween or teen.

Reading so effortlessly and voraciously, that was wonderful. But aren't we discovering more and more literature now?