“Ramona, clean up your room!” Mrs. Quimby raised her voice.
from: Ramona Quimby, Age 8
written by Beverly Cleary
illustrated by Alan Tiegreen
(newer reprint editions with various illustrators are in print.)
The world of children’s literature lost a shining star last week. Beverly Cleary passed away Thursday, March 26, 2021, at age 104.
Her books were filled with what she called “the minutiae of life,” those details that make a work of fiction feel real and universal. She wrote stories of regular kids (and Ralph S. Mouse and Ribsy, a child-like mouse and a dog) for regular kids.
In a 2006 interview for her 90th birthday, Mrs. Cleary was asked how she wrote for children so well. She told an NPR interviewer, “I do have very clear memories of childhood. I find that many people don't, but I'm just very fortunate that I have that kind of memory.”
She was fortunate and so were her readers.
Cleary published Henry Huggins in 1950, two years before I was born. Ellen Tebbits came along in 1951, and Henry and Beezus in 1952. Ramona, Beezus’s little sister appeared in Beezus and Ramona in 1955. Her real name is Beatrice, but Ramona had a hard time pronouncing it correctly.
In between and until she was in her 90s, Beverly Cleary published about one book per year, over 40 different titles in her 50-year career. Her books have sold over 85 million copies. Most of her titles starred children in about third or fourth grade, but she published picture books and books for young adults, too. She wrote a short story collection and two memoirs. She was the definition of prolific.
Although I might have grown up with Ramona and her crowd, I did not. I wasn’t much of a reader growing up, although I loved to spend time at the library. (I still do!) It took me a long time to read a whole book, and during the school year I mostly used my time for homework and playing outside. I found Beverly Cleary’s books when my girls read them and loved them.
I have since become an avid reader.
Sometimes I read to learn. I’ve been on a non-fiction binge the last few weeks.* Sometimes I want to experience someone else’s point of view or imagine what might have been. The Midnight Library by Matt Haig (Viking, 2020) is a new favorite.
I read picture books for new ideas and to study the craft. I also read lots of Middle-Grade books, written for kids from about 8-12 years old. I study them, too, and read them because I like them.
Last week I began a 4-week on-line course with Tricia Springstubb called “Using Personal Experiences to Write for Children.” Writing from memory feels nostalgic. The trick is to capture the emotion without being sappy. Tricia’s an excellent teacher who is continuing her successful writing career with a new book coming out June 1, 2021, The Most Perfect Thing in the Universe.
Like Beverly Cleary, Tricia mines her childhood for ideas to include in her books. She’s teaching us to trust our memories and find our own good ideas. Of course that’s not all. Writing is a craft, but it’s also an art.
Mrs. Cleary spoke of her art and craft. She said “Nothing in the whole world felt as good as being able to make something from a sudden idea.” I’m pretty sure not all her ideas were sudden, but she sure made the most of them.
When she was asked, “What year do your books take place?” her answer was always, “In childhood.”
She saw in children’s books “there are more and more grim problems, but I don’t know that I want to burden third- and fourth-graders with them.” Although she recognized that the world changed since Henry Huggins, and continues to change, she didn’t think children themselves have changed that much.
Beverly Cleary’s stories about Ramona and her big sister Beezus ring true for me. My big sister knew everything. Her friends were cool. She wore all the right clothes.
Sometimes it was a pain being the little sister, though. I’m sure having one must have been a challenge, too!
Thank you, Beverly Cleary, for helping me remember what it was like to be a child. Thank you, Tricia Springstubb, for helping me use those memories for something good.
In an interview with author Reyhan Harmanci, Judy Blume mused about Mrs. Cleary. “Beverly’s books have touched generations of readers and I can’t imagine kids growing up without them," she said. "What kind of world would that be?”
While Mrs. Cleary is no longer with us here on Earth, her shining star lives on in her many delightful characters and in all the children (and adults) who read their stories.
I found this quote from Beverly Cleary which has become my favorite. “I wanted to be a ballerina. I changed my mind.”
Thank you for making our world a little better.
- Lightman, Alan. Searching for Stars on an Island in Maine. Pantheon Books, 2018.
- May, Katherine. Wintering: The Power of Rest and Retreat in Difficult Times. Riverhead Books, 2020.
- Colapinto, John. This is the Voice. Simon & Schuster, 2021.