It was clear to anyone who knew me as a child that Beverly Cleary was my favorite author.
Browsing the shelves of my local suburban library was an adored childhood activity in the 1960s. With my yellow paper library card clutched tightly in my hand, I would race to the children’s book section scouring the “C’s” to see if there were any new-to-me book by Beverly Cleary. My eyes would light up when I noticed a Henry Huggins book I had never read, quickly plucking it from the blonde wooden shelves.
Satisfied at my Cleary score I continued collecting books. I loved books. Lots of them.
Teetering and tottering as I carried an armload of them to the check-out counter, my small face was barely visible over the stack of books I was holding. The librarian would chuckle at the number of books I was carrying, surprised that it didn’t topple over my 4-foot frame. Taking my well-worn card from me to run under the mysterious copying machine, she would gently remind me there was a limit of 12 volumes that I could take out at one time.
Having to discard a book or two was never easy but I never once left a Beverly Cleary title behind.
As soon as I got home I would lock myself in my bedroom and look over my treasure trove of new reading material with anticipation. But it would inevitably be a Henry Huggins book I would devour first.
Even one I had read several times.
For a few hours the TV would be uncharacteristically silent and laying on my chenille bedspread I would be transported to Klickitack street in Portland for some new or familiar adventure with Henry, Beezus, and Ramona. My imagination would be sparked by the distinctive black and white ink drawing of Louis Darling. Hours would be spent copying his style, creating and illustrating my own stories.
For some in my generation, playful and unpredictable Pippi Longstreet with her freckles and long red braids was where it was at. Others fancied the Bobbsey Twins or the sleuthing of Nancy Drew. But for me, no one captured my inner spirit or attention the way impish Ramona Quimby did. I had an affinity to this eternal little sister of Beezus and not merely because we both had our breakout debuts in 1955.
Ramona and big sister Beezus had been a minor character introduced in 1950 in Clearly’s original book on Henry Huggins. Ramona helped explain the peculiar nickname of Henry’s female friend. The little sister couldn’t pronounce her real name “Beatrice” so everyone called her Beezus.
But Ramona’s popularity was such that she got her own book five years later.
There was realism in Henry, Beezus, and Ramona not found in that other fictional threesome in my life, Dick, Jane, and Sally. Ramona was funny, curious, imaginative, and complex. She asked the questions real children asked. There was no condescending. Cleary took children’s questions seriously. Respectful of kids, the children were on a level playing ground with adults.
By the time Ramona the Pest was published in 1968, I had moved on to more mature reading. But the appeal of a new Cleary book was irresistible. Sneaking back to the children’s section of the library with its impossibly tiny tables and low shelves I went to check it out.
I may have left Klickitack street for the bigger, grittier world of tumultuous 1968 but there was comfort in seeing my old friends again. And there would be generations of children who fell in love with these characters just as I had done. Though the characters changed in looks over the years with 5 different illustrators depicting the characters to make them relatable to different generations, the spirit of Klickitack street remained. The appeal was ageless.
Beverly Cleary who passed away last week at 104 had been called a living legend by the Library of Congress. She was nothing short of a living legend in my own life.