My nemesis was clear by first grade. Enemy, thy name is reading. My classmates sped, sprinted and gloated through our color-coded readers. Classmates were done with the Red Reader by recess. Stomped the Blue Reader into submission by lunch. Then they competed to see who would get through Yellow and Green the fastest. “Craig is on Yellow already. Where are you, Teme?”
Still hunched miserably over Red, if you must know. The letters didn’t resemble words. They were squashed mosquitoes and they weren’t giving up their secrets. Would Dick run and jump? Would Jane have fun? Heck if I knew. I could tell you who clearly was not having fun. I could tell you that without reading jack (or Jane).
Then came second grade and the magical library of Mrs. Gretz. Whatever forces, luck, bashert, drew me to Henry, Beezus and Ramona, I’ll never know. But that library nook, gateway drug that it was, changed existence as I knew it. Suddenly, reading was mine, the greatest peace and pleasure in the known world, an oasis wrested from mocking classmates, long-suffering teachers and frustrated parents.
In Beverly Cleary’s world, kids didn’t have to like school or each other. They fought with siblings. There were misunderstandings with teachers. They hated math. They suffered mortification and bullies and fought back. They had self-doubts without losing their voice and were allowed to look how they looked and talk like they talked. Adults were sometimes inexplicably unfair. It was a kids’ world uncensored. No one had to put on a pretend happy face, not within a million miles of Klickitat Street. These people were real. All these decades later, her books still make me feel understood.
Beverly Cleary is also a sort of therapist-magician who pulls comedy and laughs out of the muckiness of being a kid. Amazing that she wrote many of her books during the 1950s and ‘60s. They’ve resonated with every generation since.
Happy 100th Birthday, Beverly Cleary. I love you. You are the author solely responsible for turning this non-reader into an unrepentant, lifelong, joyful bookaholic. There are not enough words in all the libraries of the world to thank you.
Here are my top fifteen Beverly Cleary moments. For every one, I bet we could each come up with one hundred more! Please tell me yours!
1. Ramona sits for the present.
Kindergarten is looking up when Miss Binney tells Ramona to “sit here for the present.” Obviously, Miss Binney likes Ramona the best. No one else has been promised a present! As often happens when dealing with adults, anticipation gives way to disillusionment. Misunderstandings are frustrating, but sometimes hilarious. Ramona The Pest (1968)
2. Ramona locks Henry in his clubhouse until he teaches her the secret password.
Not satisfied with “no” for an answer, Ramona holds the bigger and older Henry hostage until he coughs up the goods.
Fadatta, fadatta, fadatta,
Beepum, boopum, bah!
Ratta data boom sh-h
Ahfah deedee bobo.
Henry and the Clubhouse (1962)
3. The green Christmas.
Bad news: Henry is in the wrong place (under a can of green paint) at the wrong time (thanks to that jerk Scooter). Good news: guess who gets the part of the Green Elf in the school Christmas play? Henry Huggins (1950)
4. The dawnzer and its lee light.
When her mother suggests a better reading light to Beezus, Ramona sees the chance to show off what she’s learned in kindergarten. “Why don’t you turn on the dawnzer?” When her parents and sister are baffled, Ramona scoffs. “It’s a lamp. It gives a lee light.” The family realizes that Ramona has misheard her class’s daily singing of The Star Spangled Banner. Hilarity ensues, but not for Ramona who has already had a bad day and proceeds to throw a great big Godzilla sized temper tantrum … which I always thought was completely justified under the circumstances. Ramona The Pest (1968)
5. Beezus discovers her strengths.
Beezus is forced to take Ramona and her imaginary friend (a lizard named Ralph) to an after-school art class. The teacher gushes over Ramona’s creativity and as usual, Beezus is left feeling like the dull older sister. But when Ramona fights with another kid, Beezus keeps her cool and draws the lizard herself, complete with candy for scales. The teacher displays her work to the parents saying, “This is a girl with real imagination.” Beezus and Ramona (1955)
6. Ramona (almost) destroys Beezus’s birthday.
After hearing the story of Hansel and Gretel, Ramona throws her doll “Bendix” into the oven with Beezus’s birthday cake. One ruined cake and a house full of toxic fumes later, the family reassures Beezus that it’s okay if she doesn’t always love her sister. Her Aunt Beatrice and her mom regale everyone with stories of their own childhood spit and venom. Beezus and Ramona (1955)
7. Jesus, Beezus!
Beezus has a crisis after boys in the park tease her by yelling “Jesus, Beezus!” Ramona steps in and makes them stop. A great tale for anyone who’s ever been teased because of an unusual name. Ramona also suffers a crisis when she realizes that instead of helping, she embarrassed her sister. No happy ending, but so true to life. Beezus and Ramona (1955)
8. Jean finds the perfect dress and it’s different and it’s not only okay, it’s perfect.
Jean, who does not have conventional Barbie doll looks, is surprised when popular Johnny invites her to the dance. Dress shopping becomes more than dress shopping when she rebels against self-doubt and frou-frou couture and discovers her own style. Jean and Johnny (1959)
9. Ramona names her doll after her aunt’s car and Miss Binney sticks up for her.
Ramona brings her doll “Chevrolet” to show and tell and the merciless fun-making begins. But Miss Binney is having none of it.
Miss Binney ignored the giggles and the snickers. ‘I think Chevrolet is a lovely name,’ she said. Then she repeated, ‘Chev-ro-let.’ The way Miss Binney pronounced the word made it sound like music.
‘Say it, class.’
‘Chev-ro-let,’ the class said obediently, and this time, nobody laughed.
Ramona the Pest (1968)
10. Amy versus the multiplication tables.
Amy Huff studies valiantly for her multiplication test only to be thwarted by the latest technology. Her teacher has decided to let a phonograph give the exam. The disembodied voice marches inexorably on, oblivious to Amy’s struggle to keep up. This story perfectly captures all the anxiety that (for some of us) goes with arrghrithemetic. Mitch and Amy (1967).
11. Susan’s curls go boi-in-nnng!
Ramona’s classmate Susan has long, lustrous, springy curls. How could anyone resist pulling them, stretching them to the utmost, then watching them rocket back towards Susan’s head? If you’re Ramona, it will also be irresistible to shout, “BOI-I-NNNNG!” at the same time. Who could blame her? Unfortunately, everyone. Ramona is suspended from kindergarten. As she sits on a bench waiting for her mother, her humiliation is compounded by a little girl who points and announces, “That girl has been bad again.” Ramona the Pest (1968)
I thought of this story years later when I read David Sedaris’s essay about fighting his own impulse on airplanes to reach out and pat the heads of passengers in front of him. I wonder, who’s the tougher enforcer: Miss Binney or the TSA? I hope I never find out because honest to God, haven’t we all been tempted?
12. Beezus pulls a bicycle out of disaster.
Henry, Beezus and Ramona attend a bike auction where Henry hopes to bid. Everything goes wrong. Henry can’t get through the throng to bid and Ramona gets lost in the fray. The afternoon threatens to come crashing down until the auctioneer shouts for everyone’s attention, and there he is, holding up Ramona (Scooter promptly bids one dollar.) When Beezus goes up to claim her little sister, she finds she is in the perfect position to bid and she wins Henry his bicycle. Alright, turns out it’s a girl’s bike, but they’ll figure it out. Henry and Beezus (1952)
13. Howie is stoic.
We all know people like Ramona’s friend, Howie. He’s a decent chap, but his refusal to get excited or react or what the heck, talk about his feelings or even crack a smile, makes Ramona feel crazy and like doing something explosive and wild just to get a rise out of him. Howie first appears in Beezus and Ramona (1955) and makes appearances in all the Ramona books.
14. Ellen Tebbits’ embarrassing underwear falls down during ballet class and Otis Spofford mocks her.
My favorite first chapter in all of literature opens with Ellen Tebbits, a girl whose mother insists she wear old-fashioned woolen winter underwear. Bad goes worse when the underwear develops a mind of its own during ballet class and begins to slip past Ellen’s tutu. The “leap and clutch” maneuver Ellen is forced to execute does not sync with the rest of the graceful corps de ballet. This is not what Rhapsody of Autumn looks like, she’s admonished. But Ellen is “too busy thinking about falling underwear to think about falling leaves.” As if matters could deteriorate any further, the teacher’s son, chronic troublemaker Otis Spofford, picks that afternoon to stand next to Ellen and mimic her every move. Ellen Tebbits (1951)
15. Ralph the Mouse drives toy ambulance, careens through hotel corridors, evades dogs and disaster, delivers aspirin to his fevered human buddy, Keith.
Ralph isn’t like the rest of his timid family at the Mountain View Inn. He craves adventure and new vistas and speed. When Keith arrives at the inn with his family and collection of toy cars, the two become instant best friends. The magic feels so real. By making motorcycle sounds, Ralph finds he can vroom through the hotel, explore, and scout and deliver delicious treats to his family. Of course, he has to evade detection. His agility pays off when Keith becomes ill and Ralph is forced to become more resourceful and heroic than he’d ever imagined. I loved how a human could be a part of the mice’s mini-world and vice versa … and the awesome motorcycle helmet Keith fashioned for Ralph out of half a ping pong ball. The Mouse and the Motorcycle (1965)
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