Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Birthdays: Beverly Cleary is 101.


Beverly Atlee Bunn Cleary (1916- )

Asked in a recent interview how she felt about turning 100 last year, Cleary responded, "Well, I didn't do it on purpose!" While events are planned across the country to honor the milestone, Cleary prefers to keep the day low-key, celebrating with friends and family and having a slice of carrot cake. She said, “Someone told me, ‘You don’t look a day over 80,’ and I took it as a compliment. I’m surprised that I’m almost 100. I sometimes write the figures down on paper to make sure.”

The second of our birthday honorands to reach the centenary (Herman Wouk was the first, last year), Beverly Cleary remains a beloved figure, not least in Portland, Oregon, where she grew up. The neighborhood she recreated in her children’s books is celebrated by Portlanders: the branch library has a huge wall map of sites in her books about Henry Huggins, Ramona, and Beezus. Nearby Grant Park has statues of the kids. Her elementary school was renamed for Beverly Cleary for her 92nd birthday.

Beverly Cleary was born on a farm in Yamhill, outside Portland, in a world unfathomably different from ours, Sarah Larson wrote in The New Yorker this week:

In Cleary’s first memoir, “A Girl from Yamhill,” it becomes clear just how different that world was. One of her earliest memories is of all the bells in Yamhill ringing at once: it was the end of the First World War. She was two years old. That long, accurate memory is key to her understanding and articulating childhood. In that house, she writes, “At night I climbed the long flight of stairs alone, undressed in the dark because I could not reach the light, and went to bed. I was not afraid and did not know that other children were tucked in bed and kissed by parents not too tired to make an extra trip up a flight of stairs after a hard day’s work.” And her father, laissez-faire parented to the extreme, was sent to the butcher shop for beefsteak at age fifteen. “Instead of buying the meat, he continued, by what means I do not know, to eastern Oregon, where he worked on ranches all summer,” she writes. When Cleary asked her grandmother if she had worried about his disappearance, she said, “Oh, my, no.” They knew he’d be back, and he was, three months later. “All his father said was, ‘Did you bring the beefsteak?’ ”

The family moved into town in 1922, after her dad lost the farm in the post-war recession. He worked as a security guard for a Portland Bank until the Depression robbed him of that post in 1930. She was a slow, indifferent reader until a sixth-grade teacher told her her homework stories suggested she had a future as a writer. As is so often the case, that moment made all the difference.

Still, the seed took a while to germinate. Her mother, a controlling sort who was jealous of her daughter’s writing, tried to marry her off. It was what one did with girls in those days. Cleary planned to be a children’s librarian, and studied at UC Berkeley and the University of Washington. She fell in love with a classmate at Berkeley, Clarence Cleary; her parents disapproved of him for being a Catholic, and enabling Beverly’s odd plans to have a career of her own, and they eloped. After a year’s service in a Yakima, Washington school, Cleary and her husband moved to Carmel, California. Clarence died in 2004.

In 1950, she published her first book, Henry Higgins. She’d been wondering, for a while, why there were so few kids books that portrayed real children- since Yakima, in 1939, when a boy asked where the books were “about kids like us”- so she wrote one. Henry had postwar parents who struggled to make ends meet with a growing family. Henry had a dog called Ribsy, and there were some annoying girls down the street, Ramona and Beezus. Ramona Quimby (there’s a Quimby Street in Northwest Portland, where the east/west streets are named alphabetically)  was the sort, The Writer’s Almanac says,

who wipes paint on the neighbor's cat, draws pictures in library books, and locks her friend's dog in the bathroom, without ever realizing that she's bothering anybody.

Ramona grew from being a bit player to the central player in a Cleary series all her own, over thirty years. Sarah Larson explains how Cleary took her childhood and made it universal:
People have been talking about how her books lure kids into a thrilling world of independent reading, which is still true. Cleary was an early pioneer of emotional realism in children’s writing, respecting young readers enough to write about the feelings provoked by the joys and embarrassments of the world as it was, for children and their allies, animals. Henry’s love of Ribsy, Ralph S. Mouse’s love of riding a motorcycle and his joy in figuring out how to make it go, Ramona’s consternation about her father’s smoking, Beezus’s fears about not having an imagination—these things are as much a part of American childhood as the things we actually did in our childhood. They helped so many of us understand who we are and what the world is.
Cleary is perhaps best loved for her books about Ramona Quimby, in whom she found her funniest details and most tender lessons. Ramona, like Superfudge, in Judy Blume’s books, is the younger, crazier sibling of a reasonable protagonist, a lovable scene-stealer. She rides a tricycle around the living room while playing a single note on her harmonica, and then ruins Beezus and Henry’s checkers game; she makes tin-can stilts with a friend and clatters around the neighborhood joyfully singing “One Hundred Bottles of Beer on the Wall.” But though Ramona is often up to some mild form of noisy mischief, her emotional struggles and childhood realizations and confusions are every bit as vivid as her boisterousness; she is not just a figure of fun. In childhood, the humor that results from your actions—making a NO SMOKING sign that looks like NOSMO KING, or singing about the dawnzer lee light instead of the dawn’s early light, or getting burrs stuck in your hair and not wanting to explain why you put them on your head—is very often the result of your best efforts to get along in the world as you understand it. If people laugh, it can step on your dignity a bit. Ramona bore these slights sometimes with reserve and sometimes with indignation. When Ramona, in the at-times-unbearably-sad “Ramona and Her Father,” gets the idea to become a child actor in order to help support her family when her father is laid off, she doesn’t tell anybody about it. She just starts practicing by acting chipper and cute, like kids on commercials, which annoys her family. Then she makes a crown for herself, like a kid has on TV, out of burrs. The scene in which her father patiently and kindly copes with Ramona’s burrs might just finish you off.
Cleary wrote wonderfully about animals, whether lightly anthropomorphized, in “The Mouse and the Motorcycle” and its sequels, or not, in “Socks” and “Ribsy.” Socks is a cat whose owners seem to love him a bit less after they have a baby; I’ve thought of him often over the years. I reread “Socks” last week, marvelling at a scene whose details I’d filed away: a grandmotherly babysitter shows up, brushes Socks’s coat, affectionately calls him Skeezix, and lets him sprawl on her lap. Read it in adulthood, and I dare you not to weep for Skeezix. 
For all these reasons, Cleary’s books are addictive for young readers. Learn to read just well enough, and off you go, like Ralph S. Mouse going pb-pb-b-b-b and zooming down the hallway of the Mountain View Inn. A couple of months ago, a friend who lives in Massachusetts told me that her six-year-old son had begun to read that way: hours and hours, lost in a world of books. He seemed a good age for “The Mouse and the Motorcycle” or Ramona, so I recommended Cleary to my friend, who was glad to be reminded. Now the boy is hooked on her books. He reads them on his own, and my friend also reads them aloud to him and his rambunctious five-year-old brother. These kids, she said, “go from kissing each other and snuggling in a pile to beating the shit out of each other, and back again, in minutes.” Reading them the last chapter of “Beezus and Ramona,” she told me, was an incredible experience.
In the chapter, after Ramona ruins Beezus’s birthday over and over, driving Beezus crazy, the girls’ aunt comes over for the birthday dinner, and she and their mother talk about awful things they did to each other growing up. “They assuage Beezus’ deepest and most shameful fear that she’s a horrible person for not always loving her own sister,” my friend wrote me. “As I read the parts about not always having to love your sibling, they were so fascinated that they got very still. They were completely motionless and barely breathing. Which I loved! How nice for them to feel like it’s okay to have those ideas and feelings.” Young readers can find Ramona and her antics hilarious, but they also relate to her, because they can be just as hyper and wild and reluctantly kind as she is. Slightly older kids can relate to both Beezus and Ramona. Parents can relate to all of them, and to the dogs and cats. 
Thinking about Cleary, whether we have children or not, makes us think about growing up—the way we did it and the way kids do it now. The feelings and human relationships are the same, but the wild roaming around the neighborhood in preteen packs, or riding in the basket of an eighth grader’s bike, have gone the way of davenports and spurs. “The laissez-faire parenting is fascinating and exotic to me,” my friend wrote me recently. “It just amazes me to think of sending your six-year-old across the city on a bus and not thinking about it again until the meatloaf is done and the kid appears in a cop car with a stray dog.” My friend likes living in the country, which allows for some element of feral, if observed, kidhood, but it will never be the same as the world we grew up in, or the one Cleary knew.

Cleary’s publisher, HarperCollins, has celebrated her birthday for years as DEAR (Drop Everything And Read) Day, celebrating the pleasures of taking time to read attentively. UW has named a chair in its School of Library Science and Technology for Beverly Cleary. She has sold over one hundred million books; won the National Book Award, a Newberry Medal, the National Medal of the Arts, and been named a Living Legend by the Library of Congress. There’s a dormitory at Berkeley with her name on it. Into her nineties, her publisher reported, she was still getting 35,000 fan letters a year. Once in a while, the illustrations in her books are updated; the stories don’t need it.

In hindsight, it’s tempting to see Cleary’s success as inevitable. She began writing when the Baby Boom generation was creating an enormous market for children’s books. A 1959 New York Times story notes that 1,500 new titles were due to be published. By the ’70s, young adult (YA) novels had become a phenomenon, further segmenting and enhancing the kinds of books available for young people. These days, sales of kids’ books top $3.2 billion annually in the United States, her UC alumni magazine wrote of her work.

Some are blessed to live long enough to know they are appreciated. Beverly Cleary has earned that honor.

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