“If you don’t see the book you want on the shelves, write it.” — Beverly Cleary

“I think children want to read about normal, everyday kids. That’s what I wanted to read about when I was growing up. I wanted to read about the sort of boys and girls that I knew in my neighborhood and in my school. And in my childhood, many years ago, children’s books seemed to be about English children, or pioneer children. And that wasn’t what I wanted to read. And I think children like to find themselves in books.” — Beverly Cleary

Beverly Cleary, beloved children’s author, died in 2021 at the venerable age of 104.

Like so many other children, then and now, Beverly Cleary’s books were huge to me growing up. I read all the “Ramona” books, and also all the “Henry” books. My favorite was Ramona Forever (I still remember that moment with the mirror – haven’t read the book since I was a child). It’s so touching to me to see my nieces and nephews also falling in love with her books.

The obit on NPR is really good and this part struck me:

In her autobiography, A Girl From Yamhill, she wrote about clamping around on tin can stilts and yelling “pieface!” at the neighbor. She was an only child, who grew up in Portland during the Depression and still remembered when her father lost his job.

“I was embarrassed,” she recalled. “I didn’t know how to talk to my father. I know he felt so terrible at that time that I just — I guess I felt equally terrible. And I think adults sometimes don’t think about how children are feeling about the adult problems.”

Cleary used her crystal-clear recall to capture the tribulations of young children exquisitely in her books.

What a fascinating and complicated memory, a child understanding the pain of her father, and absorbing the pain, but not knowing how to say “I know you’re hurting, Dad” because you are a child.

Cleary’s books are filled with insightful moments like that. In fact, when you read them as an older person, outside the realm of childhood, the adults start to take on more shape. You begin to see that THEY are having complicated full lives too.

One of the interesting things is the cross-generational aspect of this, at least in my family, but considering the tributes I’ve seen it’s true for others. She started publishing books for children in 1950. Long before I even arrived on the planet. But the Ramona and “Beezus” series were a staple of my childhood, and then down the line: I’d outgrow reading them and then my younger brother and sister would start them up and then they’d outgrow them and my youngest sister would start… Almost like a rite of passage. And now THEIR children love these books!

And now it’s so funny when my nieces start explaining Ramona to me, as though the books were published yesterday … I want to say “Believe me, kiddo, I know all about Ramona.” But of course I don’t because everyone has to discover those books for themselves.

Beverly Cleary started out as a librarian (so many writers begin this way and as a librarian’s daughter I am HERE for it), and she noticed a trend: little boys kept asking her where they could find books about boys – regular boys like themselves. There weren’t many out there (see the quote above), and so she decided to write one. She wrote Henry Huggins, which was published in 1950 and was an instant hit. People are still discovering this series and the Ramona series. It doesn’t matter that it takes place “back then”, because for a child it’s all the same stuff. Parents … friends … worries … problems … school … all seen through the perspectives of children trying to understand – or rebel against – the often incomprehensible behavior of adults. An eternal subject.

Cleary’s books have never gone out of print.

My niece is named Beatrice. Her little brother calls her “Beezus”. Beverly Cleary’s is a living legacy.

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12 Responses to “If you don’t see the book you want on the shelves, write it.” — Beverly Cleary

  1. Biff Dorsey says:

    Visitors to Portland can check out statues of Ramona and Henry in the Beverly Cleary Sculpture Garden.

  2. Lizzie E. says:

    Ahh, Beverly Cleary! I loved her fiction books, but I was lucky enough to seek out and read her memoirs – A Girl from Yamhill and My Own Two Feet – in middle school after one was excerpted in our English textbook. The adjustment from her fiction was a revelation to a younger me – not only are they beautifully written and rich in sensory and emotional detail, but she is stingingly, shockingly, and at times hilariously honest: about growing up in the Depression, her indifference to scholastic achievement (which is sometimes laugh out loud funny), her winding road to becoming a writer, and in particular her extremely difficult relationship with her mother. She is unsparing, even bitter, and yet compassionate in describing the push-pull of that tangled relationship–you want to reach back in time and pluck her out of her mother’s clutches although it all worked out eventually!

    But even in her fiction she is able to evoke emotion without indulging in goopy sentimentality. In one of the later Ramona books, the scene where everyone comes home at the end of the day only to discover that the crockpot was never plugged in really stood out to me when I reread it a few years ago. Everyone is upset and hungry, the parents start sniping at each other, and Beezus and Ramona wind up terrified that their parents are going to divorce. Even just typing it out I feel their dread in the pit of my stomach. She is a master at limited third person/unreliable narration, somehow able to re-enter into a child’s experience while also retaining some adult detachment and hinting beyond a child’s viewpoint–as you mentioned, the adults are not ciphers!

    Oh my gosh, I could go on and on–more scenes, characters, keep popping up in my brain! To conclude (because I’ve got to stop rambling some time!), I think that fact that she was so blazingly honest is what makes so much of her work undated, even radical compared to some children’s books released today.

    • sheila says:

      Lizzie – wow, I really must read her memoirs. Thank you so much for the recommendation. I had no idea.

      I remember that crock pot scene!! And the fear of divorce. I haven’t read the books in years, but so much remains vivid. The parents aren’t these idealized blurry figures – with the children front and center – they have their own lives and a whole WORLD is going on back there, which I could sense as a child – but even more so as an adult.

      // She is a master at limited third person/unreliable narration, somehow able to re-enter into a child’s experience while also retaining some adult detachment and hinting beyond a child’s viewpoint–as you mentioned, the adults are not ciphers! //

      It’s really amazing how she can pull that off.

      // I think that fact that she was so blazingly honest is what makes so much of her work undated, even radical compared to some children’s books released today. //

      I agree with you. Also, the lack of a “moral” or a “message” is pretty radical!! They are character-based books – which is pretty sophisticated if you think about it, compared to other books, as you mention. She starts with character. Everyone is interesting and everyone gets to be three-dimensional.

  3. Lizzie E. says:

    Yes, in her memoirs she makes very clear her disdain for moralistic books!! Not just from her own experience – during her time as a children’s librarian, she SAW how kids responded to a lot of the dull “message” books that were being published (they just got Mike Molloy and the Steam Shovel out for the umpteenth time.) The quote in the title of your post is actually very revealing: it could be an inspirational, “be the change you want to see” kind of sentiment coming from someone else, but so much of her initial impetus to write really came from spite and contempt–she sat down to write with an attitude of, “I know I can do better than THAT.”

    /Everyone is interesting and everyone gets to be three-dimensional./

    Yes! Ramona’s nemesis, the cute girl (with the curls?) who copied her when Ramona added her own flourish to a craft? Turns out that she’s insecure about not being creative. (I think they even become, if not friends, not-enemies after that point).

    And I think it’s her second-grade teacher who is much more traditional and by-the-book compared to her first grade teacher, and the whole book she’s kind of tussling with Ramona until near the end (clearly exhausted!) she finally allows Ramona to go her own way. God, I need to go back to the book for specifics, but it’s actually kind of amazing how well she captures the feeling from both sides–of being a unique kid going from a teacher who just GETS you to a teacher who keeps trying to box you in (and how confusing that is when it’s your second or third teacher ever!), and of being a teacher struggling to connect with a student who is just operating on a completely different wavelength. It’s kind of a magic trick, which is ironic because she was the opposite of a fantasy writer–so grounded in the everyday.

    And you see this in her memoirs also – how incredibly emotionally sensitive and perceptive she was to the little unspoken swirling resentments, jealousies, worries, etc. around her, even when, as a little girl, she didn’t necessarily have language to express it yet (like with her father in the excerpt you quoted–she writes about him with such love but also sadness, how he was stuck in this city job to provide for his family during the Depression when he was really a farmer/country boy at heart.)

    • sheila says:

      // she sat down to write with an attitude of, “I know I can do better than THAT.” //

      I really love this.

      I vaguely remember the part about the teacher – and the struggle. I definitely need to read these books again. I still have my old copies! My niece – also named Beatrice – “Beezus” – went through something similar and it was very difficult. You’re, like, 5 years old … you don’t know that your teachers aren’t always going to totally GET you. How do you even deal with it??

      // little unspoken swirling resentments, jealousies, worries, etc. around her, //

      It’s interesting to consider: the children in the Depression really had to be that alert, the parents would be so bowed down with worry – the kids would have to be resilient, smart, and also totally in tune with the worries of the adults (in a way that wouldn’t be the case in the 50s – in fact it was the opposite. The time of “prosperity” was such that the adults were conservative and preoccupied – the kids had a lot of free time – and who CARES about the adults …)

      There’s something about Depression-era generation – they are different. (I often wonder what the generation who are 5, 6, 7 years old right now will think of this particular unprecedented experience when they grow up. My nephew Ernie is 5 and so half of his life has been spent in the Covid era. You know? Children are children always but every generation has its challenges – but then there are unprecedented worldwide events that shape generations – like the Great Depression – or what’s happening now. I have thought that little kids today may very well grow up to be like the children of Depression-era parents. They feel the worry of their parents, but they are also super resilient. They are tough. At least that’s what I’ve observed. It’ll be interesting to see how it plays out.)

      It’s really amazing how the Beezus/Ramona books translated so easily to kids of later generations – I had no sense that they were “old” books (relatively). It felt like they were written yesterday, unlike, say, the Little House books, or Anne of Green Gables.

      • Lizzie says:

        Yes, they feel very timeless!! It’s interesting how grounded and realistic they are without being rooted to a time and place like Little House and Anne… it might be partially that it is closer in terms of technology and daily life (suburbs, cars, school, etc.), but I think it’s also in the simple and direct writing style. Lucy Maud Montgomery’s style feels Victorian to me even in her later books when telephones and cars are commonplace. And obviously the EMOTIONAL realities of sibling rivalries, misunderstanding grownups, stays the same.

        I actually reread a some of My Own Two Feet this afternoon, and the Depression–cost-saving measures, worries about finances–shows up about every other page. That economic reality translates to the Ramona books with her father losing his job, the mother giving them haircuts, the homemade costumes…But there’s also this can-do spirit–she has all these ingenious ideas and schemes. It reminds me a bit my grandparents, who threw away nothing and acquired so much practical know-how. Why throw away that bit of scrap fabric that might be useful later on? Why hire someone to fix/make something when you can do it yourself?

        I totally agree that it will be really interesting to see how things play out 10, 20 years down the line, when kids who grew up during COVID are out in the world. [Just anecdotally from my day job, it seems like very few high schoolers are going into education, so that’s one possible (depressing but understandable) shift that the pandemic can only have accelerated.]

        Anyways, I had picked up My Own Two Feet looking for a specific quote about writing. While she had intentions to become a writer since high school, she didn’t have time to actually write until her mid/late 20s, and then she kind of dragged her feet on starting a book. And then the final impetus came…

        “To help pay for some of our new furniture I became Christmas help in the bookstore once more. One morning, during a lull, I picked up an easy-reading book and read, “‘Bow-wow. I like the green grass,’ said the puppy.” How ridiculous, I thought. No puppy I had known talked like that. Suddenly I knew I could write a better book, and what was more, I intended to do it as soon as the Christmas rush was over.”

        I think my favorite part is “No puppy I had known talked like that”–her whole appeal (humor, precision, a strong point of view) is right there.

        I also found this irresistible little exchange with her husband Clarence (who you just fall in love with a bit) after they move to a new house:

        “We had discovered in the linen closet a ream of typing paper left by the former owner. I remarked to Clarence, “I guess I’ll have to write a book.” My ambition, refusing to die, was beginning to bloom again.
        “Why don’t you?” asked Clarence.
        “We never have any sharp pencils” was my flippant answer.
        The next day he brought home a pencil sharpener. “

        • sheila says:

          Lizzie – sorry for the delay. Especially since your comment absolutely rocks. You are the best, for seeking out these quotes and sharing them.

          I love Clarence!!

          I agree with you about Lucy Maud – the vocabulary, etc., and also you’re right – they’re riding around in horses and buggies and carrying candles around the house, etc. I felt the same way about Dickens – another childhood obsession. That world felt so far away from me – one of the reasons I loved it. Oliver twist was eye-opening for an 11 year old! Thought process: “people treated kids like that? WHAT.”

          Since I was the “Beezus” in my family – the oldest – often I “felt” more with her as a kid. I had three younger siblings. It was a responsibility and sometimes an annoyance and I look back and wish I had been nicer or more patient – ugh. But I was 9 years old, I was doing the best I could.

          // It reminds me a bit my grandparents, who threw away nothing and acquired so much practical know-how. //

          My grandparents were like this too. A little detail that always stuck with me: In my grandmother’s kitchen was a little statue of Mary above the sink (because of course). She had been there for years. At her feet was a small dime. We went to her house for holidays through my entire childhood and beyond – it was always the same dime. I asked about it when I was a kid – and my grandmother said, “No matter what happens, I’ll never be broke.” The anxiety about money – having nothing – particularly as the child of poor – and I mean POOR – immigrants … that dime held huge significance. and my grandmother was a WHIZ at money. I can’t remember when I was told the philosophy behind the time but I had to be around Ramona’s ago – and it made a HUGE impression.

          // it seems like very few high schoolers are going into education, //

          Ugh, really? This is very sad. Half the people I know are teachers – grade school, middle school, high school – and the struggles they go through are just insane and non-stop. In no possible rubric you come up with are they paid enough for the amount of aggravation (none of which have to do with the kids. They all love the teaching part of it! It’s everything ELSE.)

          // No puppy I had known talked like that //

          Gosh, that’s so good.

          I’m going to get My Own Two Feet – I can’t wait.

          • Lizzie says:

            Oh my gosh, no apology needed!! I’m just excited that you’re going to read it. (…If I may be so bold, “A Girl from Yamhill” comes first chronologically, starting with her earliest memories and ending right before she heads off to college, and the context about her family situation and early life definitely enriches My Own Two Feet. No Clarence yet, though.)

            That story about your grandmother and the dime–wow. What a powerful talisman. And it’s amazing what an impression something like that can make on a small child’s memory. When my mom had to go through my grandparents’ house, she sorted through my grandpa’s woodshop and found SO MANY tools, including hundreds of used nails (sorted in jars) and three hammers. “What did he need three hammers for?!” she asked (rhetorically), then explained to us that my grandparents never threw anything away because they never knew when they would need it. Even though they were financially secure by that point, it was a hard habit to break.

            I was the oldest, too, but I never really related to Beezus, funnily enough! Maybe because I only had younger brothers, and they were much tamer than Ramona :) It’s really lovely that the first book is from Beezus’ point of view, I think, because Ramona’s blinkered perspective means that Beezus might not get the respect she deserves! It’s hard work being an older sibling.

            And yes, somewhat of a tangent, but I really worry that we’re at a breaking point in terms of teachers. It seems like the workload and expectations get more backbreaking as the rewards ebb away (not just monetary, but in terms of respect and dignity and time actually spent, you know, teaching and interacting with students). It’s heartbreaking, but I can’t imagine being a student for the past couple of years and looking at teaching as a desirable profession.

            (On a less bleak note, Beverly Cleary skewers bad teachers, stupid curriculum, and idiotic grading practices in a mean but hilarious way. In fact, I’m pretty sure that the excerpt in my textbook was about her middle school, and it was so entertaining that I hunted down the actual books from the library!)

          • sheila says:

            The never throwing anything away thing! Have you seen 20th Century Women? I absolutely love it. In it, Annette Bening plays a single mother – who had a baby at 40 – so she’s parenting a young kid in the 70s. She grew up in the Depression – and so her attitude about everything is different from the 70s-vibe around her. The kid explains to a friend, “She’s from the Depression”, like it’s another planet.

            It’s a wonderful tribute to the Depression-era generation – who often are forgotten in all the blabber about Boomers and Millennials (they always leave my generation Gen X out of the conversation, lol). So there’s the Greatest Generation – socalled – who fought WWII – but THEIR parents … who were THEY?

            The generational talk can quickly devolve into which generation is better – and I find that boring. But I am interested in how people are formed by their eras, their overall time – within there are all kinds of variations, but generalities sometimes help clarify what was going on. Like, where did the Jazz Age come from? What was it a reaction against? and etc.

            Saving all your different hammers because you always need to have them on hand JUST IN CASE is a perfect symbol of what it meant to grow up in such a horrible and scary decade. Everything leaves a mark!

            I know that things like the Iran hostage crisis and the hunger strikes in Ireland – along with inflation and worried penny-pinching parents – and having to leave enough time to wait in a long line for gas, blah blah – made an impact on me, although I’m not conscious of it. I’d say it made my generation tough and self-reliant, and also … a little bit of “yeah, being an adult looks like it sucks, so … I’m not gonna get all caught up in it” … You don’t even know you’re acting like you’re in a specific generation until you get some distance from it.

            I’m going to buy both of Cleary’s memoirs. Thank you!

  4. Lizzie says:

    I haven’t seen 20th Century Women, but it sounds fascinating! I ordered the DVD from the library.

    /The generational talk can quickly devolve into which generation is better – and I find that boring. But I am interested in how people are formed by their eras, their overall time – within there are all kinds of variations, but generalities sometimes help clarify what was going on./

    Yes, all of the nonsense about which generation is “best” or “worst” is so reductive and dull. It’s so much more interesting to look at what attributes each generation brings to the table instead of pitting them against each other. For instance, post-WWI my paternal great-grandfather emigrated from Germany to the Midwest. When the Great Depression hit, he sold his once-thriving construction company in a small city and moved his family (including my teenaged grandpa) to a farm because he wanted to make sure that they could grow their own food (having seen what happened in Germany)… which boggles my mind a bit. The man lived through WWI, Weimar Germany, and the Great Depression?!? Of course it shaped him! No wonder he was, by all accounts, a tough, intimidating man. I don’t know whether we would be pals if he were alive today, and I know he was not a cozy father to have, but I am proud to be related to him and admire how he responded to adversity.

    And on the flip side, some of the “soft” generations (I’m thinking Millenials/Gen Zers) may not have had to develop that same type of fortitude, but they may have other strengths in creativity, or adaptability, or willingness to be vulnerable, or what have you. (I’m thinking of the Adams quote about studying law so that his children may study music?) Like you say, it’s hard to pin down without the benefit of hindsight!

    I so hope you enjoy her memoirs!

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