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Thursday, June 13, 2024
The Observer

An ode to Beverly Cleary’s timeless, everyday magic

Maggie Klaers | The Observer
Maggie Klaers | The Observer

Before I even knew how to read, Beverly Cleary’s stories were an important part of my life. One of my earliest memories is of my mom reading me, “Ramona the Pest,” before bed. Night after night, I begged for “just one more chapter,” not wanting to abandon the world of Klickitat Street. Years later, once I could finally read, unencumbered by the limits of my parents’ time, I tore through the Ramona books, then the rest of Cleary’s body of work. Her novels quickly became my favorites, and I returned to them again and again. While I can credit any number of books and authors for my passion for reading (and the English degree I’ll hopefully be receiving in May), Cleary is the one who inspired me to love books the way I do today. 

Cleary, who died March 25 at the age of 104, managed to capture childhood in a way that is funny, yet moving; specific, yet timeless. She was inspired to write children’s books while she was working as a children’s librarian, when a young boy asked if she could find a book about kids “just like us.” Cleary decided to do just that, and built a legacy doing so. Her gift for capturing the humorous and tender sides of sisterhood, friendship and community is why she is hailed as one of the most important and accomplished authors of the 20th century. 

Undoubtedly, Cleary’s most popular works are the books centered around the eclectic, ever-hilarious Klickitat Street, which follow an ensemble cast of characters, including Henry Huggins and his dog Ribsy, Beezus Quimby and her imaginative, mischievous younger sister Ramona and a whole neighborhood of friends in suburban Portland. Two series, one which centers Henry and one which centers Ramona, endure the test of time, despite the old-fashioned language and references. While Cleary’s books capture a very specific experience — white, middle class families living in suburbia — there’s a universality to all of them, one that transcends dated references or language. Perhaps a different series would have been lost in its era, but Cleary’s characters, with their engaging, endearing personalities, stand the test of time and remain literary friends to book lovers over 60 years later.

Cleary’s books do something that is both rare and beautiful — they validate the little joys of daily life alongside the struggles. Henry Huggins’ desire to buy a new bicycle gets an entire book in, “Henry and Beezus.” In contrast, “Dear Mr. Henshaw,” an epistolary novel where a young boy corresponds with his favorite author, addresses divorce, family struggles and bullying. Nothing is too small, too insignificant to matter to Cleary’s characters or readers — but she also doesn’t water down the trials of life. Instead, the two exist in tandem, laughter and tears together, because children are resilient enough to handle these realities. 

The stories we love become part of us, and in many ways, Cleary’s characters reside in my memory like a dear friend, her stories entwined with my own memories as tenderly and intimately as family vacations and birthday parties. While I always related more to sensible older sister Beezus, I always wanted to be as carefree and imaginative as Ramona. I’ve never once squirted out an entire tube of toothpaste, like Ramona did, but hardly a day goes by when I don’t think about it while I’m brushing my teeth. When I was younger, I begged for a pair of shiny red rain boots just like Ramona’s — my parents said no, because it was impractical to buy rain boots in Arizona — so I made do with my grubby sneakers. Both now and then, Cleary’s stories inspired me to let my imagination run wild, ideas bleeding beyond the pages of her novels and into my life. 

Beverly Cleary once said, “If you don't see the book you want on the shelves, write it.” In doing just that, she showed the world that there’s a little bit of Ramona in every one of us, inspiring us to find the joy in stomping in puddles and riding bikes with streamers whipping in the wind. By writing stories for “ordinary children,” Cleary sparked a passion for reading that has lasted through generations, and her books will live on in the memories of those who have read and loved them.