Beverly Cleary, who died March 25 at the age of 104, was once named a “Living Legend” by the Library of Congress, and rarely has such a distinction seemed so well-deserved. Cleary started writing for young readers in 1950 and somehow, unlike many of her contemporaries, her books never got dated or out-of-fashion – or, for that matter, out of print. That may partly be because of her commitment to writing grounded, realistic stories about recognizably unremarkable people. (Except, you know, for the ones about a mouse who rides around on a motorcycle.)
The kids in books like Ramona Quimby, Age 8 and Dear Mr Henshaw didn’t have wild adventures or live out larger-than-life fantasies. Their parents had big messy arguments and struggled with job loss and money troubles – real adult problems that affected their kids in real plausible ways. Characters dealt with divorce and self-esteem and mortality. Ramona failed to manage her impulses and Beezus was moody. Cleary’s thorough empathy and her tendency to treat characters like real, flawed people with complexity and integrity kept these storylines from curdling into melodrama, and also mostly helped her avoid the sexist representations that plague some other books of her vintage.
Beverly Cleary may be gone, but as long as there are books in the library, kids will continue to recognize themselves among the denizens of Klickitat Street.
Cleary also wrote a little bit about her own life in accounts that offer compelling insights into how she came to choose to write the kinds of stories she wrote.