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Telling the Truth While Making Things Up

klickitat_streetI met Beverly Cleary in 1980, when I was a barely published author and she was already an icon of children’s literature. As a new initiate into the writers’ group that was sponsoring a weekend writers’ conference, I was assigned the task of meeting Beverly’s plane.

I remember being amazed at my good fortune, but also terrified that I would somehow let her slip past me in the hubbub that was a pre-9/11 arrival gate. As the passengers deplaned, I anxiously scanned their faces. I spotted her quickly — tiny, pretty, dressed in blue; I approached her; and we began a conversation that has endured over the years.

Ours is an unlikely friendship, in many ways. I wrote nonfiction (mostly); she wrote fiction (mostly). I was just beginning cleary_ramona the pestmy career; a Newbery was in her near future. I was intimidated in the presence of such talent; she was encouraging to a new author. I listened to her every word. And paid attention.

Of course the entire world has paid attention to Beverly Cleary’s words, especially those that have come together to create the Klickitat Street neighborhood. Those stories about Henry Huggins, Willa Jean, Ribsy, Picky-picky, Beezus, and Ramona are the parables of childhood — stories that spark recognition and assent in the mind of the reader. Yes. That’s the truth, we think as we read, even if the protagonist is five and we are decades older.

It’s Halloween 2015 as I write these thoughts. Because of the holiday, I’m reminded of a scene in Ramona the Pest, when the kindergartener decides she will be the “baddest witch in the world” for the Halloween parade. However, others in the class have had the same idea. Soon the playground is overrun with witches, and beloved teacher Miss Binney doesn’t know “which witch” is which. Although the play on words is pure genius, I don’t believe that was Beverly’s point. Later in the text, she states her point clearly. “Nobody knew who Ramona was, and if nobody knew who she was, she wasn’t anybody.” Yes, that’s the truth.

Ramona and Her Father revisits the same theme. This time Ramona is a reluctant, pajama-clad, black-nosed sheep in the church Christmas pageant. Suddenly, in the middle of the gentle Nativity scene, a horror hits Ramona. What if her family doesn’t recognize her? And then it happens. Mr. Quimby, with a wink and an a-ok sign, sends a signal to his daughter. As Cleary writes, “Ramona was filled with joy…Her parents loved her, and she loved them, and Beezus, too…Ramona could not contain her feelings. ‘B-a-a,’ she bleated joyfully.” As we read, we bleat joyfully, too, because we recognize the feeling. Knowing others and being known by them is one of the great gifts of being human. Yes, that’s the truth.

scott_ramonabehindscenesBeing human is not without peril, of course. In 1988, with Beverly’s approval, I wrote about the creation of a television series that was based on chapters from her books [Ramona: Behind the Scenes of a Television Show, rev. 1/89]. An early draft contained a sentence beginning with these words: “However, just like Ramona…” A few days after I submitted the draft, my phone rang. “This is Beverly,” she said. I sat up a little straighter. After initial pleasantries, I was directed to that sentence with the comment, “No one is just like Ramona.” It was a simple statement of fact, and of course Beverly was right. Ramona’s feelings may have been universal, but Ramona herself was unique. I removed the offending “just,” because I still listened to Beverly’s every word and paid attention.

There is no one “just like” Ramona, and though many have tried, there is no author “just like” Beverly Cleary, either. In the years since I’ve been privileged to call her my friend, she has been heaped with honors and praise. She has been awarded a Newbery Medal and two Honors, the Laura Ingalls Wilder Award, and the National Medal of Arts, and has been named a “Living Legend” by the Library of Congress. Beverly Cleary is not only a living legend; she’s a national treasure. And yes, that’s the truth.

Happy birthday, Beverly!

From the March/April 2016 issue of The Horn Book Magazine. Happy 100th Birthday, Beverly Cleary! For more, click the tag Beverly Cleary at 100.

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