Early in her career Beverly Cleary said she wanted to write about “universal human emotions,” but the idea that there are emotions all readers can relate to, regardless of race, gender, and class, seems hopelessly optimistic, perhaps even dangerously dated now. Her Klickitat novels from the 1950s and mid-1960s reflect another America, but have shifting values invalidated her attempt to find common ground through the depiction of ordinary anxieties children experience daily at home and school? Things like, will something interesting happen to me? Or how am I going to hide something embarrassing from my peers? These two concerns play out humorously in Cleary’s stories time after time without lapsing into cruelty or condescension.
The pest Ramona Geraldine Quimby may be Cleary’s most famous character and, judging by some of the recent posts, the one many women like best. I still find Ellen Tebbits easier to relate to than Ramona, decades after making their acquaintances. Ramona courts attention because the littlest and youngest person won’t be noticed unless willing to make great big noisy fusses. Which, of course, she is. Ellen also wants attention, but is much more self-conscious when trying to get it Imagine Ellen, with a grimy face, balanced on top of a jungle gym howling and holding a lunch box which conceals the bone she stole from Ribsy as punishment for taking her ice cream cone… Ramona is not malicious, but it is perfectly in character that she pulls her classmate Susan’s curls repeatedly without feeling anything like the remorse Ellen does when she yanks Austine’s sash and tears it right out of the dress’s side seam. Compared to Ramona, the early 1950s four-year-old icon for girl power, eight-year-old Ellen hangs back, being more sensitive to other people’s feelings and more concerned about what they might think of her. She will surely outgrow some of her timidity and tentativeness, but she will probably never be in Ramona’s league for brass. Who can say what either of them will be like when they are grown up?
Anyone who had a Ramona-like sibling shouldn’t have any trouble believing her antics like taking one bite out of every apple in the bushel–or pushing down envy for having the imagination plus the nerve to have done it themselves. The upsets Ellen faces are more ordinary and easier to find parallels to similar experiences, regardless of personality type and social class, at least to some extent. While it surely helps to have set foot in a ballet studio, Cleary helps the reader imagine Ellen’s torment trying to dance, while keeping the winter underwear from unrolling past her waist. Leap and clutch. Leap and clutch. Leap and clutch. Finding something for show and tell puts pressure on children to think of something so interesting that they will shine, please the teacher, and engage their classmates. Ellen arrives at school in a dress stained with mud and beet juice carrying a huge vegetable for show and tell, but her moment of triumph dissipates as soon as she begins to worry that she’ll be sent home to change and lose the opportunity to talk about the beet. Unspoken is her fear of facing her mother in the ruined dress. There is probably not a reader who can’t hear his or her mother scolding them for not taking care of their things.
Klickitat Street was not home to a vibrant, diverse neighborhood that is the ideal now. But in the 1950s and 1960s, it could be regarded within limits as different, depending upon what part of the country readers were growing up. The arid Southwest was nothing like Oregon in the Pacific Northwest. A place so wet and rainy that would require someone to wear long woolen underwear was kind of exotic if you had seen a such a garment in stores or dresser drawers. Due to the rising demand for single-family homes in metropolitan Los Angeles, kids were more likely to scrounge for interesting stuff on construction sites than overgrown vacant lots. To a boy who was driven in the family car down the San Diego freeway, the struggles of Henry Huggins bringing the stray dog Ribsy home on a bus with a rain storm threatening may have sounded pretty adventurous. Kids weren’t allowed to go places by themselves on a city bus–if there were any lines they could have taken.
The “adventures” of the white middle-class characters on Klickitat Street might not compare with those of the Pevensey children, but Cleary demonstrated that they had interesting lives even if they didn’t travel to parallel magical worlds. Beloved by readers, her work has not generated a body of literary criticism as extensive as those of many fantasy writers, even though she was the recipient of the 1975 Laura Ingalls Wilder Award (renamed the Children’s Literature Legacy Award), the 1984 Newbery Medal, and the 2002 National Medal of Art. Perhaps if Cleary had written about a different cross-section of the American population or questioned contemporary gender roles, her standing within the canon of children’s literature might be higher. Ultimately what she produced, not what she might have or should have done, ought to be judged within the context of the society she wrote about. Perhaps we should think of Cleary as an heir of Maria Edgeworth, who tried to show through the series of stories about her alter-ego Rosamund, how a child’s mind, feelings, and values were formed through interactions with family and friends. Surely it is no small thing to try show with sympathy and humor the breakthroughs and setbacks in the socialization process of a particular time and place.