I can’t remember how many Beverly Cleary books I read as a kid. There must have been at least half a dozen on my bookshelves, not counting the ones I got from the library. I’m pretty sure a battered hand-me-down copy of Ribsy was the first full-length non-picture book I read by myself, and there were several Cleary books I went back to again and again. It wasn’t just that she wrote about childhood in a way that was really appealing—in Henry And The Paper Route, one of the ones I owned, one of Henry Huggins’ newspaper customers is a woman who’s nice but mistakenly calls him “Harry Higgins”, and Henry is too shy to correct her. He’s also bothered on his paper route by his friend Beezus’s younger sister Ramona. It’s not high drama but I could relate to it. And Cleary could get into some heavy topics. The book Ramona And Her Father dealt with unemployment: Ramona’s father loses his job, her parents argue, and even the family cat becomes a point of contention as the family tries to save money but Ramona’s father still spends money on cigarettes. And yet the heaviness is balanced out with lighter drama, like when Ramona builds a crown out of cockleburs and then puts it on her head. Her father has to carefully cut out the ones that get stuck in her hair. And Ramona Quimby, Age 8 would do a similar job of balancing the heavy and the light as Ramona’s father goes to college, her mother keeps working, and Ramona is left in the care of the Kemp family after school. Ramona’s expected to be nice to their daughter Willa Jean, who’s younger and who annoys Ramona. And, in a memorable scene, Ramona’s parents are late picking her up and the Kemps eat dinner in awkward silence while Ramona sits in the corner of the room. I’d had that same experience once. I think lots of kids have. And even if you haven’t had that specific experience I think we can all relate to learning that adults are fallible.
As a kid I didn’t appreciate how revolutionary Cleary’s books were for their time—how they were really a new kind of children’s books. Sometimes they looked at adult problems from a child’s perspective but more often they dealt with how the world of childhood can be strange and baffling—how matters that are, from an adult’s perspective, minor or even inconsequential, can seem like, well, heavy drama to a child who lacks an adult’s experience. Even as an adult Beverly Cleary remembered how it felt to be a kid.
There was something else, though, something I haven’t read in any reviews of Cleary’s work, ever. Maybe you remember it too, or maybe you’ve spotted it while reading this. She didn’t write fantasy or science fiction like Madeleine L’Engle or even Tolkien—aside from the Mouse And The Motorcycle series—but her books were sequential, following a single character’s life over years, but while Ramona is a character in the Henry Huggins books she’d go on to get her own series. Like many science fiction and fantasy authors Beverly Cleary created a shared universe. It just happened to be one we, the readers, were also part of.
Hail and farewell, Beverly Cleary.