Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Happy Birthday, Beverly Cleary!

Childhood Memory #7: The Library

Walking to the books -
How many miles did I log
going back and forth?


One of Louis Darling's wonderful drawings; this one from Beezus and Ramona

I thought I was done posting haiku during this poetry challenge, but then I discovered that author Beverly Cleary is 95 today!

As a child, I lived a little less than half a mile from the library, which was then at the north edge of downtown, right next to the courthouse. The library loomed large in my childhood: it was my safe haven, it was my gateway to the world, it was one of a very few places where I felt cherished, safe, and totally free to be myself. I was a weekly visitor at any time of the year. During the summer, it was not unusual for me to make three or four trips a week to the library, sometimes two in the same day, usually on foot.

I may have been nine when I first discovered Beverly Cleary. Whether I found her on my own or whether Mrs. Judd, the archetypal librarian of my childhood, steered me Cleary's way, I cannot recall, but I do remember the first Cleary book I ever read. It was Ellen Tebbits, the story of a third grader who found her best friend in a janitorial closet where they were both hiding while they changed in and out of their dance clothes. (Read the book if you want to know why Ellen and Austine, her friend, were hiding.)

One book by Cleary and I was hooked. Otis Spofford (the wonderful bullfight chapter!), Beezus and Ramona (the applesauce!), and all the rest then available soon followed. Cleary's early works were illustrated by Louis Darling, whose detailed pen and ink drawings fascinated me almost as much as Cleary's words did. 

I missed out (the first time) on the rash of Ramona books Cleary wrote in the late 70s and early 80s. As luck would have it, after we moved back to Delaware, the girl next door one day brought over a sack of books she had "outgrown" and thought my boys might like to read. I was thrilled beyond words to find the bag was full of Beverly Cleary novels (including my beloved Ellen Tebbits), and thus I had the glorious opportunity to catch up on many of Cleary's later works that I had missed the first time around. I still have the twelve volumes we got that day and still dip into them frequently. I can never thank Bethany, then the girl next door and now a cherished friend, enough for that grocery sack of wonder.

In the 1990s, Cleary wrote two autobiographies, A Girl From Yamhill and On My Own Two Feet. These portray her childhood and adulthood up through the publication of Henry Huggins, her first book. Cleary wrote with clarity and honesty about her struggles to get an education and lead her own life despite constrained finances and the constant disapproval and opposition of her mother, themes which resonated deeply with me. They are as easy to read as her novels and I have returned to them more than once as well.

There is a wonderful line in the movie Hook (a favorite of mine), in which Captain Hook (the Captain Hook of Peter Pan fame) proclaims "What would the world be without Captain Hook?"

What would be it be indeed? That line rings true for all of the great characters of children's literature. What would the world be without Jo, Stuart, Charlotte, Laura, Harry, Dorothy, Jane, Pauline, Petrova, and Posie, Alice, Meg and Charles Wallace, Sara, Sam, Milo and Tock, Stanley, and Caddie? (Can you name the characters and the books?)

What would the world be without Beezus and Ramona?

Happy birthday, Beverly Cleary!

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Oh, I loved the Beverly Cleary books. In fact, I seem to recall that I wrote a grade school letter to her once upon a time. And to imagine that she is still kicking.