“If you don’t see the book you want on the shelf, write it.” – Beverly Cleary
Beverly Cleary’s journey, from being raised on a farm in Yamhill County, Oregon, all the way to a regimented school-life in Portland City enriched her exposure and understanding of middle-class childhood travails. After being branded as a “difficult learner”, the school librarian came to Cleary’s rescue and books became her savior. Later in life, she found her calling as a children’s librarian but realised that ordinary, relatable childhood stories were missing from the bookshelves. She knew she had to change that, and that marked the humble beginnings of the journey of a beloved children’s author, who would go on to sell just short of 100 million copies of her 40+ endearing books!
Her characters offer a glimpse of childhood that many of us have grown up experiencing, and her unembellished, effortless writing leaves even the adult reader with a warm, fuzzy feeling, like the one you get when you smell a familiar scent from your childhood. My most memorable character from her books is Ramona Quimby – the quintessential younger sister who, for the most part, reminded me of me. Ramona’s willful acts, much to the chagrin of her elder sister Beezus, gave me comfort that it is okay to do things your way. After all, if one likes jelly on one’s mashed potatoes, they must have it so! It is a different matter that when I now see my son being that headstrong, my sympathies and affection have shifted to Beezus.
Not only were Cleary’s characters relatable to me as a child, but now, as a parent, I see how big emotions can take over little beings, but with a little time and space, peace and calm can prevail in the house. Ramona’s self-awareness, especially after an episode of meltdown and being sent to her room, is proof that almost everything works if you press the restart button on it. On one instance, when Ramona decided to take a single bite from every apple in the fruit basket, her parents decided to not make a big deal out of it and simply put the butchered apples to good use without scolding Ramona. I have learnt so much about de-escalation just from this one chapter alone. Cleary’s books can definitely serve as Parenting 101.
I also particularly loved the subtle way in which Cleary showcased the variety of emotions in sibling relationships. The guilt that Beezus felt when she shared with her mother that she does not always love her sister, and the relief that Beezus felt when her mother said she didn’t have to, still feels like such a powerful and profound truth told so plainly. In Cleary’s writing, you can feel the characters sitting around the table with you, almost so real that you can have a conversation with them over fig Newtons and applesauce.
As I think back now, I feel Ramya’s character from my book Ramya’s Bat, has an element of Ramona in her – Ramya is strong-willed too, not afraid to be unpopular, and has faith in herself, regardless of what other people think of her. I feel we need more Ramonas and Ramyas now, more than ever, as they can truly champion the virtues of self-assuredness in girls and not fitting in molds. As a parent to a young boy, I always wanted to talk about gender stereotypes to him, but never found the right book to start the conversation at age three. And, so, I picked up the pen and wrote. I didn’t know then, but I was truly following Beverly Cleary’s vision. The power of simple narration and finding wonder in the mundane is Cleary’s legacy to the millions of writers who look up to her.
As Cleary departed at the ripe age of 104 last month, she has stirred a mélange of memories in her readers who, I am sure, can’t stop smiling at the innocence of her craft, and the reassurance that simple lives can be wonderful and fulfilling, just like those of her characters. Here’s bidding her farewell, but her stories live on.
(Ritika Subhash is a Delhi-based education technology professional, who works with schools to make math learning fun. She is also a children's book author and mother to a lovely six year old boy. Her books are titled — Let's Talk About My Feelings and Ramya's Bat. She writes extensively on conscious parenting, art of storytelling and building emotional vocabulary of children.)