Monday, October 24, 2011

The Pest, Age 8, Forever: Beverly Cleary Through The Ages

When I was in middle school, we were told to write to someone we admire. My close friend wrote to Will Smith, my neighbor wrote to President Clinton. I wrote to Beverly Cleary. She wrote back with a quick note and included a pen and some encouraging words like, "Keep writing!" There is a distinct memory of one of my parents spilling coffee on the envelope, but I kept it with me throughout most of middle school, and now it's buried deep in a box full of Girl Scout patches and construction paper hats. But she continues to inspire me, as a reader and a writer.

Beverly Cleary, author of the infamous character, Ramona Quimby (along with Beezus, Henry, and the whole gang), turned 95 years old this past April. The Atlantic released a thoughtful interview with the literary legend.

In 1950, Cleary published her first novel, Henry Huggins. Since then, she has written over 40 novels, which have been translated into 20 different languages, and sold over 91 million copies in all. When asked if her books (many of which are now 60 years old) still related to children of today, Cleary confirmed the timelessness of her characters. "Although their circumstances have changed," she said. "I don't think children's inner feelings have changed." Which is why the author feels the Ramona from the 60s can still be the same Ramona in 2011. "I simply [wrote] about a little girl growing up."

The Atlantic goes on to ask Cleary about the changes throughout her writing career and what felt different over the decades of being an author. For starters, Cleary isn't a big fan of new and evolving technology. "I don't go on the Internet," she said. "I don't even know how it works." The resource was something she never felt able to adjust to. Having children as a big-time author was also a challenge. "It wasn't easy. I loved my family and I loved my young career. A neighborhood woman felt that I needed help and offered to come babysit the children. I would write while she looked after them." Cleary was able to spend time with her two children, Marrienne and Malcolm, while also writing about other children, like Howie Kemp and Willa Jean.

Oddly, the Atlantic interview takes a slightly awkward turn towards the middle. The unsettled feeling stems mostly from the reporter's bizarre questions - such as "How should libraries respond to declining resources?" - and less from Cleary's demeanor which, like I would imagine Ramona Quimby's wrangler to be, is firm but charming. Overall, the author just wants to talk about books, characters, and children's lit.

While she confirms that no further novels are in her future - "After all, I'm 95," she said - Cleary encourages young writers to keep at it. As a woman who struggled to afford college tuition during the Great Depression and supported herself her entire life, her determination is an inspiration, and her career's work will live on for generations of young readers and writers. For Cleary, literature will always feel like home. "I don't think anything will ever replace the pleasure of holding a book and turning its pages."

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