Friday, March 26, 2021

A Lifetime of Writing For Children, Who Became All Of Us: Beverly Cleary Wrote For Us

This is the kind of news a librarian and childhood reader does not want to hear. Beloved writer Beverly Cleary finally passed away this weekend (via Zoe Chace at NPR): 

Children's author Beverly Cleary died Thursday in Carmel, Calif., her publisher HarperCollins said. She was 104 years old. Cleary was the creator of some of the most authentic characters in children's literature — Henry Huggins, Ralph S. Mouse and the irascible Ramona Quimby.

Generations of readers tore around the playground, learned to write in cursive, rebelled against tuna fish sandwiches and acquired all the glorious scrapes and bruises of childhood right along with Ramona...

Her writing style — clear, direct, uncomplicated — mirrored the author's own trajectory. Cleary was still a young girl when she decided to become a children's book author. By the 1940s she'd become a children's librarian in Portland, Ore., and she remembered boys in particular would ask her: "Where are the books about kids like us?"

There weren't any, so she sat down and wrote Henry Huggins, her first book about a regular little boy on Klickitat Street in Portland. Henry Huggins was a hit upon first printing, but her readers wanted to hear more about the little girl who lived just up the street.

Ramona Quimby, the most famous of all of Cleary's characters, was unforgettable. Mischievous, spunky and a hater of spelling, Ramona would be the first to tell you she's not a pest — no matter what anyone (especially her older sister Beezus) says...

I read Cleary as a youth, around seven or eight years old, after my family moved to Florida and we went to Dunedin Public Library pretty much once every week. It started with Henry Huggins but moved onto Ramona where even as a boy reader the angst and issues for girl characters echoed a lot of the drama and anxiety of childhood itself.

Along with Judy Blume - with Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing anchoring the Fudge series - Cleary was one of the few authors I read who seemed to write FOR children, not to us (in terms of lecturing and preaching). The moral life lessons of her works - in the Ramona series, often odes to the strengths of family and sisterhood - offered in subtle yet recognizable moments.

I think I quoted on this before, but let me quote here from Kate Dries at Jezebel about Cleary's importance and influence:

As an adult, I remember far more of Cleary’s descriptions of the life that influenced her children’s books than the actual fiction she wrote—stories about how she hates the taste of almond extract because it’s all they had to make desserts with during the Depression, or how eating a whole avocado every day from the tree outside her window in college caused her weight to bloom, or what she and her friends asked of each other’s clothes during the lean years: “Is it new, or new to you?”

Cleary’s writing is always matter-of-fact, observant without being unkind. In her limited first-person work, she’s evaluative of herself perhaps more than anyone else, and she allows certain undertones that are mostly absent from her children’s books to creep in...

Remember, as Cleary does, it would be years before “the labels ‘teenager’ and ‘young adult’” would even be used regularly. Back then, to look at young people this way, you had to be extraordinarily interested in understanding the emotional states of an age group that was almost always overlooked. Cleary did; she had a firm grasp of the reality that children have complex inner lives, and this sensibility made her books break through...

That emphasis on writing simply and about life’s minutiae explains why Cleary’s fictionalization of her normal if sometimes difficult life has been so embraced. “For years I avoided writing description, and children told me they liked my books, ‘because there isn’t any description in them,’” she said of her simple style, influenced (perhaps negatively in her mind, though not in anyone else’s) by a teacher who was overzealous with the red pen early on. Her characters are flawed but not overly dramatic: average, but interesting because of it, you might say (or in other words, realistic). Upon reading her memoirs, you can see the specific and broad bits of real life Cleary did use in her books—the “Smells to Heaven” casserole that her friend’s mother served that Jane won’t eat before a date in Fifteen for fear she’ll ruin her breath, or the comfortable home she didn’t have growing up run by Bernadette’s less-involved mother in Mitch and Amy...

Cleary described how her writing mentor encouraged her to pursue writing about 'the universal human experience,' the shared hopes and despairs that we all feel when we're young and curious and worried and envious and learning how to cope. As a writer herself, she gave us characters and stories that showed us how to cope, and we all grew up under her care.

She is one of the reasons I enjoyed visiting libraries. It wasn't until I was a librarian myself in my 30s when I found out Cleary was a children's librarian from Yakima WA when she started writing her stories for her youthful patrons.

Cleary should have won a Nobel Prize for Literature, goddammit.

I am deep in mourning tonight. My childhood physically ended a long time ago, but emotionally and spiritually that childhood stayed with me. A part of that is gone now.

Sunday, March 14, 2021

Pi Day 2021

This is the perfect year to celebrate the circumference of PIE.

 I normally don't post political stuff on THIS blog - I do it on the other one - but if Joe Biden wants to go down in history in the Top Ten Greatest Presidents of ALL TIME, he'd better fight to make March 14 an official national holiday.