It’s impossible to overstate the impact of Beverly Cleary’s work on both her generations of readers and on authors of children’s books. I named my blog after an incident in the life of Ramona, perhaps her most beloved creation. But everyone has a favorite Cleary category, and a different perspective on exactly what was unique about her work. There is her utter lack of condescension towards children, her outstanding empathy, her understatement, her crystal-clear language with no extraneous words.
After I learned of her death, I reread Ellen Tebbits, her second book (1951). Ellen is a bit more concerned with conformity than Ramona, a little less bold. Today, I read a wonderful article in The Atlantic Monthly by Sophie Gilbert, about the role of childhood humiliation in Cleary’s work, and she referred to Ellen Tebbits’ almost crushing embarrassment when she attempts to pull a really dirty and huge radish up by its roots and arrives to school looking like a mess. She also discusses the dreaded woolen underwear which Ellen’s mother believes to be protective against cold weather, and comments that, when she read the book as a child, she didn’t even know what woolen underwear was. But it didn’t matter; it was Cleary’s ability to convey Ellen’s anguish that drew readers into the story.
That sums of the reason why Cleary’s work is not dated and never will be. Her characters are specific young people, as well as adults, whose personalities, mistakes, and successes are completely individual as well as universal. That’s why she was a great writer. Please read her books with the children in your life, or just to remind yourself what great writers do.
(My recommendations include: Ramona the Brave; Beezus and Ramona; Emily’s Runaway Imagination; and even the “Malt Shop” book Jean and Johnny. As you peruse these suggestions, you will note that Beverly Clearly worked with a number of top illustrators, but especially Beth and Joe Krush (born 1918!)
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