For a long time I thought her name was Beverly Clearly. That’s because she wrote so clearly. For real: as a kid I would look at the covers of these wonderfully readable books, and “Beverly Clearly” was the author name I saw.
It’s rare that I have a chance to celebrate a favorite author who is turning 100 years old. A couple of months ago I wrote an R.I.P. for David Bowie, who died way too young, in which I named his five most genius songs. Today, I’m going to going to list seven Beverly Cleary genius moments to celebrate her 100th birthday, which is a much happier reason.
To top it off, I’m doing this totally from memory, despite the fact that I haven’t actually read a Beverly Cleary book in probably four decades. I remember these seven moments in these books not only because they thrilled me as a reader, but because they inspired me as a writer.
Beverly Cleary’s stories are often about crisis situations, and they achieve a considerable psychological depth. She managed to attune her existential awareness to the intellectual level of a kid or a tween or a teen, but that doesn’t mean that the crises she describes are not complex, not twisted, not severe. It only means that the words she uses to tell the stories are simple enough for a third grader to understand, even when her observations are sophisticated enough to recall the works of Jean-Paul Sartre.
In this sense, her work is similar to that of Charles M. Schulz, who also managed to squeak a lot of intellectual sophistication into his Peanuts comic strips. Generations of reprints have brought a variety of illustrators to Beverly Cleary books, but the Henry Huggins and Ramona Quimby books I grew up with were all deftly illustrated by Louis Darling, who was later chosen (largely on the basis of his great work for Beverly Cleary) to illustrate the first edition of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring. As the two unjacketed covers presented on this page reveal, these illustrations sometimes achieved a minimalist brilliance that also recalled Charles M. Schulz, and were a part of her appeal.
Beverly Cleary wrote with a lot of clarity (as well as a lot of compassion), and that’s why her stories helped so many kids grow up. Here are seven examples I can think of in which Beverly Cleary’s classic stories hit notes of psychological sophistication with such power that they personally stuck with me all my life. (I hope I get these details right, since I’m relating these anecdotes from memory alone).
Mitch and Amy and the Eucalyptus Buds
Mitchell and Amy Huff are a brother-sister pair, and they constantly get on each other’s nerves. But they are forced to band together when they are suddenly and irrationally persecuted by a local bully named Alan Hibbler who taunts them by throwing eucalyptus buds at them while they walk, and who is impervious to any attempt at logical mediation. (Was the name “Alan Hibbler” supposed to resemble the name “Adolf Hitler” in a book written two decades after World War Two? Maybe.)
I remember Mitch and Amy as the first Beverly Cleary book I read, and I recall being impressed by the story’s surprising turns: how the Alan Hibbler crisis causes Mitch and Amy’s relationship to transform from sibling rivalry to trusting friendship, and then how even Alan Hibbler’s apparently bottomless evil is unexpectedly defused in a moment of understanding.
Henry and the Bubblegum
Henry Huggins of Klickitat Street was Beverly Cleary’s star creation before Henry’s friend Beezus Quimby’s little sister Ramona jumped into the spotlight, and I used to read a lot of Henry Huggins books. He was a regular small town kid, a good guy who tended to find himself in interesting situations. At one point, he and his friends suddenly discover an immense cache of throwaway bubblegum. Since these kids spend their days craving sweets, they dive into the discovery with all abandon … and soon make themselves thoroughly miserable by overdosing on bubblegum in every possible way.
It’s a cool little yarn, and as a little kid it struck me as a cosmic fable about the nature of desire and satisfaction — a lesson that I would soon find reinforced by Buddha’s Four Noble Truths: desire can be an illusion, and the satisfaction of your desires can turn out to be the thing that makes you unhappy. A few years after I outgrew Beverly Cleary’s books as a maturing teenager, I began calling myself a Buddhist, but maybe it was Henry Huggins and the bubblegum that pointed me in that direction.
I first read Ulysses by James Joyce in my freshman year at college, and was able to enjoy it a lot. Maybe my path into this highly internal narrative was eased by the fact that I’d already read a book that traces the stream of consciousness of a lost dog who wanders an unknown city in search of his home. This dog is Ribsy, Henry Huggins’s mangy hound, who gets separated from his owner and has to narrate his own adventures since none of the other Klickitat Street kids are around. Beverly Cleary’s Ribsy managed to capture the entire world from the inside of a canine brain, and does so with understanding and compassion.
Those are my first three favorite Beverly Cleary moments. The next four all involve Ramona Quimby of Ramona the Pest.
Ramona Quimby was Cleary’s greatest creation. She was first introduced as a side character, a bratty little shorty who hangs around with Henry Huggins and Beezus Quimby trying to force the older kids to pay her some attention. So how did Ramona evolve into such a great character? Well, she’s sensitive, fun-loving, creative and emotionally explosive, and in retrospect it’s pretty clear that she has undiagnosed ADHD, or Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. (As an adult, I was also told by a therapist that I had spent my life with undiagnosed ADHD, and maybe this explains why so many of my personal favorite Beverly Cleary moments involve Ramona Quimby and the troubles she kept creating for herself.)
The Dawnzer Lee Light
Ahh, the Dawnzer Lee Light! If you haven’t read Ramona The Pest (and you really should), the Dawnzer Lee Light is a light that Ramona believes is referred to in the first line of “The Star Spangled Banner”:
Oh say can you see, by the Dawnzer Lee Light
One evening as it gets dark, Ramona gets the idea to suggest to her sister and parents that they turn on the Dawnzer Lee Light. I love the slow burn visible on Ramona’s face as Beezus laughs in this great picture by Louis Darling, which captures so much of what it feels like to be embarrassed and ridiculed just at the moment that you think you’re being clever as hell.
Ramona Quimby had to write her name a lot, because she was a little kid in school, and it made her feel good to always draw little whiskers on her “Q” to turn it into a little cat. This caused Ramona a lot of trouble, because she felt she had a right to draw whiskers on her “Q” if she wanted to, even though it caused her teachers and parents some concern.
The Halloween Mask
I mentioned above that Beverly Cleary’s books can approximate the existential complexity of Jean-Paul Sartre, and here I’m thinking specifically of the Halloween mask story in Ramona the Pest. Ramona is really excited to be a witch on Halloween. In fact, she can’t even control her excitement as Halloween approaches. But when the day comes and she puts on her mask, she has a bizarre identity crisis that overwhelms her and freezes her in her tracks. With her mask on, she realizes, nobody knows who she is. Her parents will be watching the school Halloween parade, but there will be other kids with masks, and how will they know which one is Ramona?
The loving attention that Cleary places on Ramona’s identity crisis is gratifying, because it suggests that Ramona’s convoluted feelings at this moment are important, and really need to be dealt with. Ramona finds a way to deal with the feelings (which she barely understands herself, as she is constantly surprised by her own unexpected reactions) by carrying a sign with her name on it. Nobody else in the parade can figure out why she’s carrying a sign with her name on it, and Ramona really doesn’t care.
The arc of a Ramona Quimby story is well-captured by the phrase “The Day Everything Went Wrong”, which I believe was the title of one Ramona chapter but could actually have served as a title for several chapters in this girl’s life story. One problem Ramona has is an uncontrollable desire to pull the beguiling dangling curls of a golden-haired girl who sits next to her in school and yell “Boing”. Ramona just can’t stop doing “Boing”, and she can’t stop thinking about “Boing”. One day she takes “Boing” too far, and all kinds of hell breaks loose. I think many of us have been there.
Litkicks sends our love and birthday wishes to Beverly Cleary, who turns 100 years old on April 12, 2016. May that Dawnzer Lee Light shine on forever for readers all over the world.