I think many of us can remember the first chapter books we read on our own, and three authors stick out for me: Judy Blume (Blubber), Norton Juster (The Phantom Tollbooth), and Beverly Cleary. All three of them wrote in a way that made me feel like they were talking to me personally: They got me, and I had to amass their entire bibliography as quickly as possible and read their books again and again and again.
Today, Beverly Cleary turns 100, and the entire publishing world is basically throwing a big party. So is pretty much every American who was a child after 1950, when Cleary started publishing books like the Ramona series and the Henry Huggins series. Your elementary school library probably had at least a few of her books on the shelves, usually in a tattered state from being read so many times.
The first Beverly Cleary book I ever read was Socks, which my father brought home from the used book store in the hopes of appeasing my younger but already cat-obsessed self. I devoured it in a single sitting on our side porch, and unfortunately for my father, it only fed my demands for a cat of our very own.
I've always wondered if Chelsea Clinton's cat was named for the Beverly Cleary character.
For all that I was obsessed with her work, which I read to shreds and fiercely refused to loan out because I didn't want anyone to steal my books (this admittedly is a policy I retain into adulthood, because 99 percent of loaned books never return), I didn't really know very much about her life story, which turns out to be totally fascinating.
Although she's known and beloved as a children's author, with a huge array of extremely prestigious awards to her name, Cleary actually almost failed first grade (twice!) and really struggled with reading as a child after being put in with the "blackbirds," the children who couldn't read very well.
Fortunately for all of us, she had a stubborn teacher who refused to let her fail, and by the time she graduated high school, she'd decided she wanted to become a librarian. With a brief stop to elope with her husband because her parents didn't approve of him, she sailed through library school and started introducing young readers to the beloved books of her own childhood. But she started to notice a problem: There was a dearth of the kind of titles she wanted to be able to share with the kids who came into the library.
So she sat down to write her own. Henry Huggins came out in 1950, and the rest is history. One of the most remarkable things about her career is the fact that her books still feel current and accessible, even though they were written decades ago. The settings may have changed slightly, and some of the plot devices don't quite work thanks to changing technology and attitudes, but the characters ring true. And that's possibly the most important thing.
I'm far from the only kid who grew up feeling isolated and weird and alone in the American landscape. It's why I was drawn to Norton Juster, because I liked the idea that there might be another world somewhere else filled with people and places that made sense, where I got along and fit in. It's why I loved Judy Blume, because she wrote books about real things that I was dealing with, but she didn't talk down to me or make me feel like I was getting a lecture.
And it's why I loved Beverly Cleary. Her characters were sharp and sassy and thoughtful, and some were bullies and some were kind, and some were struggling with life adjustments and others were making veiled comments about Henry Mulligan and his stupid steam shovel. I didn't have sisters, but Beezus and Ramona still spoke to me, because the characters were so true — I felt both the frustration and guilt of both characters, the sense of not being in step and the sense of being frustrated with people who didn't do what I wanted them to do.
Ramona the Brave made going to school seem more manageable, and I made my father read The Mouse and the Motorcycle to me when I wasn't feeling well. I didn't feel like Beverly Cleary was telling me how to behave or providing me with strict object lessons about being a good child. She just told stories, and I liked reading them. Ralph S. Mouse convinced me that someday I would be able to talk to animals, because if ever there was a loner who needed a mouse to talk to, I was that loner.
I haven't read her books in a very long time, but I suspect that I'd enjoy them as much now, albeit in a different way.
When she's asked about how she came up with her stories, and the motivations behind her books, Cleary basically says that they documented her own childhood and experiences. That may be part of the reason why they felt so authentic, even though Cleary notes that things have changed a lot for children since she was actively writing — for one thing, she told the Washington Post, children are less free, living in an environment of structured activities and a world where people call the police if children play around the neighborhood.
The market in children's literature has exploded in recent years (thanks, J.K. Rowling), and librarians have vast numbers of titles to choose from now, instead of just a handful. As a result of the call for more diverse books in publishing, more and more of those books explore a variety of lives and identities, so everyone can see themselves in fiction. But a huge number of children's authors to this day credit Beverly Cleary with their love for reading and writing, and their passion for writing for children.
100 seems like such an impossible age — but if anyone can get there, Beverly Cleary seems like the most likely person to do it. And I love that her celebrations more or less consist of eating a piece of carrot cake, because, confession, a well-made carrot cake is actually my favorite kind of cake of all.
So cheers to you, Beverly, and I hope you get a slice of perfectly moist cake with just the right amount of juicy, flavorful carrot shreds, none of those annoying raisins, and the ideal frosting-to-cake ratio.
Photo: mike krzeszak/Creative Commons