Life when you’re young is a thrilling, bewildering, joyous, fraught romp through the funhouse of childhood. You want to grow up and fast, to know all the secrets you are sure the gatekeepers of the world—those pesky grown-ups—are hiding from you. Adults may long for the innocent and carefree days that fill their nostalgia-laced memories of youth, but they are suffering from amnesia. When you’re in it, you see your life as anything but happy-go-lucky.
It is a conundrum that Beverly Cleary uniquely understood. The children’s book author, whose death at the age 104 was announced Friday, may have been one of those aggravating adults herself—a lofty 33 when she published Henry Huggins, the first of her beloved books—but she became a best friend to every young reader who skipped down the pages of Klickitat Street.
Growing up, I was a voracious reader, craving the entertainment and escape of the worlds I discovered between the covers. But I also saw books as the key to unlocking the mysteries of the world. I often felt like I was the Ramona in the room, blissfully singing “dawnzer lee light,” only to discover with a blush that the words weren’t a mess of confusion, I was.
But when I think back on the long afternoons I spent reading—my favorite day in school was by far Drop Everything and Read Day, which takes place on April 12 in schools across the country in honor of Cleary’s birthday—I don’t have strong memories of Beezus, Ramona, Henry, or Ralph. I know I read Cleary’s books, I read everything I could get my hands on, but memories of the Klickitat clan had faded in my adult mind, which admittedly has matured to resemble Swiss cheese. (My mom confirmed that I was more of an Anne of Green Gables and American Girl Doll series fan. I was a Felicity, in case you were wondering.)
It puzzles me that I didn’t form a more lasting bond with Cleary’s books, as I see so much of myself and my childhood on her pages when rereading them today. Cleary’s characters feel familiar and comforting, like family members who have come home to transport me right back into the jungle of youth. Like Ramona, who Cleary and I share as a favorite character, I was the second child to an older sister who I followed around just hoping to be invited to play… and who usually had better things to do than entertain her pesky shadow. I was also curious and eager to learn and often found myself misinformed.
It’s a state of being that can feel so isolating, until, with the hindsight of age, you realize it’s the universal and prosaic nature of youth. Cleary not only understood this visceral condition of growing up, she also wrote about it in a way that served her readers as no author before her had. Decades worth of kids have found in the books of Cleary the one thing every reader wants to see on the page—themselves.
“I was so annoyed with the books in my childhood, because children always learned to be better children, and in my experience, they didn't. They just grew, and so I started Ramona, and—and she has never reformed,” Cleary told Reading Rockets. “Her intentions are good, but she has a lot of imagination, and things sometimes don't turn out the way she had expected.”
While Cleary has always contended that Ramona was something of an accidental creation—she realized that all of her characters were, like her, only children and decided to give Beezus a little sister—it’s hard not to spot the similarities between the author and her favorite spunky creation. Cleary’s memoir of her childhood, A Girl from Yamhill, is filled with antics that will seem familiar to any fellow Ramona-stans.
Cleary’s earliest years were spent on a farm in Yamhill, Oregon, where she enjoyed tripping chickens, throwing rotten eggs, peeking under the town’s saloon door, and setting out on adventures around the world (only to have her journey cut short by her parents and their constant chorus of “What will you think of next?” and “Remember your pioneer ancestors.”)
Cleary was born into a family of readers and librarians, and it was clear from an early age that she shared the family calling. She loved encountering new words and was so excited to learn how to read in school that she refused to be taught how before that momentous day came.
But, like many of her readers, she did not find things easy in school. Like Ramona, she was often perplexed by the senseless rules she encountered and the confusing information coming her way. While she loved to read from a young age and eventually discovered a passion for writing in high school, she found the material she was offered during her elementary years to be boring and about kids whose lives looked nothing like her own.
Which is why she was uniquely positioned to answer the problem posed by a disgruntled young boy who approached her “rather ferociously” while she was working as a librarian in Yakima, Washington, to ask, “Where are the books about kids like us?” Cleary realized there really weren’t any.
So she decided to write her own. In 1950, Henry Huggins was published to wild acclaim, and Cleary would continue to produce new stories over the next five decades. She wrote about the big stuff—the joys and difficulties of starting a new school and making friends, the family hardships of divorce and money problems—but also the small, everyday things that seem so big in the moment, the things that make up a childhood.
“I think the emotions of children don't change. Their life situations change, but inside they're just like they always were,” Cleary once said. “They want a home. They want parents that love them. They want friends. They like teachers that they like. And—and I think that—that's rather universal.”
For her literary achievements producing such beloved works, Cleary received the National Medal of Arts Award (from President George W. Bush), the Library of Congress’ Living Legend award (in 2000), and the Newbery Medal (three times). An elementary school was named after her in Oregon, a library professorship created in her honor at the University of Washington, and a children’s sculpture garden built in Portland.
But the biggest testament to Cleary’s legacy are the generations—both those long past and those still to come—who develop a love of reading after discovering the Klickitat kids.
“Beverly just beautifully captures the essence of childhood,” Judy Blume told Pamela Paul in The New York Times in 2011 on the occasion of the author’s 95th birthday. “We might not all have childhoods like that, but there’s still something so universal about it. I think kids will always love those books.”
Cleary has entertained and comforted generations of American children as they navigate the perils of growing up. But, most importantly, she has shown us that we’re not alone. Through the adventures and the hardships, the tears and the boundless joys of childhood, Cleary has been a constant friend to every child who needed someone to understand just what they were going through.
As one of those American kids, Beverly Cleary, I thank you.