The death of writer Beverly Cleary

There is, inherently, a timelessness to great writing. Beverly Cleary was a great writer.

“Don’t pester, Ramona,” said Mrs. Quimby. “I’ll get you there in plenty of time.”

“I’m not pestering,” protested Ramona, who never meant to pester. She was not a slowpoke grownup. She was a girl who could not wait. Life was so interesting that she had to find out what happened next.

Cleary, who died last week at the age of 104, set out to write books about normal kids living normal lives, using her childhood in Portland as a template. There were no wizards or crime-solving or magical nannies; there were children who play with their dogs and ride their bikes and have parents who occasionally quarrel.

That formula sparked enough imaginations for Cleary to sell an estimated 90 million books and help generations of youngsters learn to read.

As columnist David Von Drehle writes in The Washington Post: “Cleary accomplished something that few writers have even attempted. She wrote brilliantly about childhood as it really is ... To inhabit the lives of children without distorting or condescending is an imaginative feat of the highest order.”

The benefits are extraordinary. As the American Academy of Pediatrics has noted, reading to and reading with children from an early age provides lifelong benefits and enhances future academic success. It also broadens their view of the world and helps them process their own corner of it while developing positive life-long habits.

Studies have shown that avid readers of all ages have more empathy than nonreaders and a broader understanding of the world.

Perhaps we are biased by a bit of provincialism when it comes to Cleary, because she holds a special place in the Northwest.

Her stories often were set among the streets and parks of Northeast Portland, especially Klickitat Street. Today, the neighborhood features Beverly Cleary School as part of Portland Public Schools, and nearby Grant Park has a Beverly Cleary Sculpture Garden that features statues of some of her most beloved characters.

But Washington also can lay claim to part of Cleary’s legacy. She graduated from the School of Librarianship at the University of Washington, worked as a librarian in Yakima, and has received the highest alumni honor at UW. The university also has established the Beverly Cleary Endowed Chair for Children and Youth Services.

All of that — in addition to Cleary being honored with a National Medal of Art — originated when she was a librarian and saw children frustrated that they could not find books about kids like themselves. So she took to writing them.

Childhood has changed since the era depicted in Cleary’s books, and she told The Washington Post in 2016: “I think children today have a tough time, because they don’t have the freedom to run around as I did — and they have so many scheduled activities.”

Yet the adventures she penned still resonate today, sparking and celebrating curiosity and imaginative play. In so doing, Cleary creates characters that children can relate to, imbuing them with impishness and meddlesomeness. About her most beloved character, Ramona Quimby, she said: “Things just didn’t work out the way she thought they should.”

That remains part of the charm. As website Literary Hub wrote on Twitter last week: “RIP to the great Beverly Cleary, who taught girls to embrace their ‘too muchness.’”

In that, Cleary’s books and her writing remain timeless.

The (Vancouver) Columbian

March 30

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