It’s safe to say that there is no living author who has delighted as many generations of children as Beverly Cleary. I was one of the early fans.
As someone who has read thousands of books in my career as a librarian, reviewer, and reader, I’ll admit that many of them have disappeared from my memory. (In some cases, I’m quite happy about that.) But I will never forget Ellen Tebbits. It was at the Gale Elementary School library that I first came across Ellen and Cleary’s other great, early characters, Otis Spofford and Henry Huggins, and the world opened. Even by age 8, I was an avid reader, but most of the books I read were fairy tales—East of the Sun and West of the Moon was a favorite—or repetitive mysteries like the Bobbsey Twins.
But I was an angry kid, and seeing real emotion
. . . made me love it even more.
Ellen Tebbits, on the other hand, was a girl so real she might have been browsing the shelves next to me. Even now, without having reread the book in decades, I can remember every plot point: Ellen and Augustine discovering they both wear long underwear; Ellen digging up a huge radish in the rain and coming disheveled into the classroom; Otis’ endless teasing. But the chapter that hit closest to home concerned Ellen and Augustine’s decision to have their mothers make them matching dresses. Unfortunately, Ellen’s mother knew how to sew, and Augustine’s didn’t, leading to hurt feelings and tears. And anger. In a Dick-Jane-and-Sally era when children were supposed to be pleasant and well-mannered, reading about two girls my age getting mad at each other was astounding. I was an angry kid myself, and seeing real emotion—in a book I could have loved just for the laughs—made me love it even more.
When I started writing middle-grade fiction, the first author I turned to for inspiration—just like Judy Blume and Kate DiCamillo and countless others—was Beverly Cleary. As a reviewer and editor at Booklist, I had the pleasure of reviewing some of her later books, including her two autobiographies, A Girl From Yamhill (1988) and My Own Two Feet (1995).
I also interviewed her once. Of course, I tried to find out the secret of her success. To my surprise, she told me she didn’t really consider her audience when she was writing. She wrote for herself, for the child she once was. And that proves to me that, though the bells and whistles of children’s lives change, sometimes enormously, the emotions pretty much stay the same. The hopes and fears of a girl at the turn of the last century were not so different from those of a child of the fifties, or even a child today. It’s why her books are still read and loved. So happy birthday, Beverly Cleary! And thanks.