Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Beverly Cleary Turns 100

(By American Zen's Mike Flannigan, on loan from Ari.)
OK, time for a palate cleanser. We need it during this sick, twisted election cycle.
     As some of you may know, children's book author Beverly Cleary turns 100 today. This is a big, hairy deal for anyone who grew up with Cleary's Ribsy, Henry Huggins and Ramona Quimby books while growing up in the 50's, 60's and 70's.
     I first discovered Ms. Cleary during the mid-late 60's through those corrupt and collusive book clubs that shoehorned their order forms directly to our elementary school and made sure our teachers brow beat us into buying at least one or two from the catalog, which of course our parents would have to buy. We never thought to say no because this was just the way things were. It was set in stone like the Ten Commandments. Thou Shalt Buyeth One Book From Column A and One From Column B! So Sayeth Scholastic!
     So, faced with a hard choice and very resentful at being told I must purchase through my father's equally unwilling tribute to the nation's publishing juggernaut, I bought Ribsy, the sixth and final entry in the Henry Huggins series. In fact, the one shown above is the exact same edition I'd (or Dad) bought. I loved dogs and I figured, how could I go wrong?
     Well, it was like meeting your wife during a blind date set up by one of your well-meaning but misguided friends. Ribsy and his owner Henry Huggins were two delightful characters who came right out of Main Street, USA. As children's books are the quintessential Coming of Age Tales, I immediately identified with the kids in Cleary's books because she could have been writing about me, the kids across the street or anyone with whom I went to school. The kids thought the way we did, making typical juvenile observations (one character in Ribsy was described as fat, sweaty and, to boot, he "smelled funny.")
     And that was the essence of Cleary's widespread and enduring appeal (Her publisher, in celebration of her 100th birthday, issued a three book set of Cleary's work, launching the centenarian scribe clear into the digital age where hopefully she will continue to reach children still yet to be born). Harry Potter has his readership for those who love wizards and magic and Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys will always have fans among those who love cozy, harmless mysteries where the characters never suffer a worse fate than getting tied up and missing supper.
     But Cleary's world is of a bygone age of innocence, one portraying children the way they really were. It's inevitable that Cleary's work would suffer and get dog-eared with time. She is, after all, 100 and published her first book when Truman was president, before the start of the Korean War, before the Hydrogen Bomb, when there were more radios in American households than televisions. One story details woolen underwear, which sounds like something out of Dickens. In response to this, her publisher in reprints tries to make it more relevant by updating the bicycles and helmets to resemble something more relevant to today. But despite these upgrades, you know the bikes still have cards in the spokes and Henry Huggins still has a paper route.
     And the anachronisms that date Cleary's books (which are now approaching 100,000,000 in sales worldwide) is what, curiously, makes her relevant again. They were written during those more carefree days when child abduction and domestic violence weren't serious concerns, before we had to teach our kids about Stranger Danger, before they were hooked on drugs or arrested and brutalized in the classroom by police for little or nothing and sent to for-profit corporate prisons by crooked judges making millions in kickbacks.
     Cleary's children never had to worry about those things and neither did their largely invisible parents. They were allowed to act and talk just like typical kids. Even the Red Menace or the completely useless Atom Bomb drills never played a part in Henry Huggins' or Ramona Quimby's safe little universe. A boy's best friend was still his dog and girls weren't bullied for being tomboys or "different."
     Sure, kids were bullied back in my day and every generation going back to the dawn of human history has had them. Sure, there were dangers to children. But Cleary never dwelled on those things and never attempted to write a "message" book intended to impart a point of view whether out of political correctness or private bias.
     It's plain Cleary has long since joined the ranks of other great children's book authors such as Beatrix Potter, A.A. Milne and, yes, J.K.Rowling. Her story lines were, by necessity, simple and quotidian yet never boring, giving the readers a glimpse and confirmation that their childhood was normal, giving children the comforting feeling that, yes, these books are about you and you're perfectly OK.
     Messages the kids of today and forever need to hear a lot more often from grownups.


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