Dear Mrs. Cleary

klickitat_streetLooking back, I’m amazed at the impact Beverly Cleary’s books had on my life, as both a reader and a writer. The first Cleary book I remember reading was The Mouse and the Motorcycle, which featured a talking rodent named Ralph who could ride a toy motorcycle just by saying “pb-pb-b-b-b.” I had just seen the animated movie The Secret of NIMH, so I was on a search to find something similar. When I finally came across The Mouse and the Motorcycle, Cleary did not disappoint me. Ralph was brave, adventurous, and loyal. I rooted for him, and was genuinely worried when he went off to find an aspirin for his human friend Keith (aspirin are deadly to mice, you know).

cleary_mouse and the motorcycleThe Mouse and the Motorcycle was both my first foray into Cleary’s books and my first organized and intentional step into series books. With that series, I discovered that finishing a book didn’t mean I had to give up my favorite characters. I could follow them, book after book, adventure after adventure. After reading the final book, Ralph S. Mouse, I decided that I was only going to read books that were part of a series, and I was only going to read them in order. No exceptions. Which, it turned out, was very difficult when trying to finish a series as popular in the library as the Ramona books. However, this was also a blessing in disguise, as it often forced me to read other books while waiting—such as another famous series, Judy Blume’s Fudge books. And the good thing about having a twin brother who read as much as I did was that we could team up and double our check-out limit. It was like binge-watching, except with books.

Dear Mr. HenshawBut the Cleary book that affected me the most was Dear Mr. Henshaw. I didn’t understand all the humor in the book at the time — and actually I was pretty ticked off that Mr. Henshaw didn’t write back very much — but I loved how Leigh Botts was turning into a writer. A real writer. Letter by letter, page by page, Leigh was becoming what the fifth-grade me wanted to be more than anything else in the world.

Like Leigh, I started my own diary, with entries to be addressed to an author. I didn’t want to address the letters to Boyd Henshaw (perhaps it’s silly now, but I remember thinking that I could only write pretend letters to a real person, not an imaginary person…never mind the fact that I wasn’t going to mail them). And I couldn’t address the entries to Beverly Cleary, because I assumed that every other kid who had read the book was doing the same (because obviously every kid wanted to be a writer). Eventually I decided on another author and began my diary. This worked just fine until my cousin stole my notebook and told everyone that I was writing love letters to a mystery girlfriend named Judy Blume.

All those years ago, the eleven-year-old me had no idea what lay ahead. He had no clue that his favorite authors — Cleary, Blume, and Walter Dean Myers — would set him on the path to becoming a children’s book writer. But perhaps that’s for the best.

Beverly Cleary’s job wasn’t to turn me into an author. Her job was to turn me into a reader. An adventurer. A thinker. A challenger.

Turning me into a writer was icing on the cake.

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.
Varian Johnson
Varian Johnson
Varian Johnson is author of the 2018 Boston Globe–Horn Book Fiction & Poetry Honor Book The Parker Inheritance.

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