Beverly Cleary: Best Books : Pop Culture Happy Hour Legendary children's author Beverly Cleary died last week at the age of 104. Cleary wrote more than 40 books over about 50 years. Her characters, like Ramona Quimby and Henry Huggins, entertained kids for decades. So we decided to talk about some of Cleary's essential books.
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Beverly Cleary's Essential Books

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Beverly Cleary's Essential Books

Beverly Cleary's Essential Books

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LINDA HOLMES, HOST:

Legendary children's author Beverly Cleary died last week at the age of 104. Cleary wrote more than 40 books over about 50 years. Her characters, like Ramona Quimby and Henry Huggins, entertained kids for decades. I'm Linda Holmes, and today we're talking about some of Beverly Cleary's essential books on POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR from NPR, so don't go away.

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HOLMES: Welcome back. Joining us from her home in Washington, D.C., is Weekend Edition book editor Barrie Hardymon. Welcome back, Barrie.

BARRIE HARDYMON, BYLINE: Hey there. How's it going?

HOLMES: I am so excited that we have you here to talk to us about this. We've been doing this Essential series with actors up until now, but it occurred to us that for a lot of readers, Beverly Cleary is about as essential as a creator can get. She wrote, as we mentioned, more than 40 books between 1950 and 1999. She had worked as a children's librarian. She believed there was sort of an unmet need for books about kids who were special even though they were ordinary, loveable even though they were imperfect. She also wrote some books for and about young teenagers which we would probably now call YA. So we're going to talk about a few of her essential books.

Barrie, what is first on your list?

HARDYMON: Well, I know everybody thinks I'm going to start with "Ramona," but I'm not. I'm going to throw you a little curveball because...

HOLMES: You got layers.

HARDYMON: Yeah, I got layers. So "Dear Mr. Henshaw" is a very slim, little volume, and I still have my original copy, which shows you what a - I think of Beverly Cleary as a comfort read. I have them now as an adult. As a kid, they were even more important. But "Dear Mr. Henshaw" is about a young man named Leigh Botts, who begins an epistolary relationship with an author named Boyd Henshaw.

Now, the thing about this is that, first of all, I'm sure that this was the first novel I read that was in letters, which was such an exciting thing as a kid to sort of observe another kind of narrative style.

HOLMES: Yes.

HARDYMON: And it feels very much like you're peeking in on somebody when you're reading their letters. And just the way the story is told is just so wonderful. And then also, the problems that Leigh Botts is dealing with - he's living with his mom. He's got divorced parents. And he's truly - as we said in the beginning, he is a special and ordinary special kid.

One of the things about this book that I love is that it doesn't date that much. It's still very hard to have your parents split up. It is still really, really terrible when the mean kids steal stuff from your lunchbox. It is still hard to spell certain words, which you see his spelling improve throughout the book.

And you also see this marvelous - just sort of the growth of the characters. You see the author, Boyd Henshaw, who is first kind of curmudgeonly, really begin to sort of help Leigh come out of his shell and, of course, become a writer himself. And both characters emerge in this way that is this sneaky kind of narrative where, all of a sudden, you feel like you are in this relationship. You, too, are writing and reading these letters.

And, I mean, whenever I was in a bad mood or if I'd gotten in a fight with my parents, I would race up the stairs and I would, you know, like, cry and stomp around and make sure they heard me slam the door, and then I would pull this book out because it's very slim and it was just - it was a comfort read.

This is a great one. It really holds up. Go ahead and grab it. And I really, by the way, would say this one, I think, works from, like, some 8-year-olds all the way up till - I am, you know, in my very, very late 20s.

HOLMES: (Laughter).

HARDYMON: So - super late. So, you know, this one can go early. You can read it to your kid. Your kid can discover it on their own. This is wonderful. And you should discover it as well.

HOLMES: Yeah. You know, it was interesting to hear about this book from you because I didn't know this one, right? This is a 1983 book, won the Newbery Medal.

HARDYMON: Very prestigious children's prize.

HOLMES: Absolutely. And this came out when I was 12. I'm a little bit older than you. I'm in my even later 20s.

HARDYMON: (Laughter).

HOLMES: And so I was a little probably past my peak Beverly Cleary reading, particularly of new books. What I do remember reading of hers when I was that age - we would probably call it YA now, but it reads a little bit younger than that to me, even. It's kind of like what we would now obnoxiously call tweens. It's...

HARDYMON: Yeah. Yeah, yeah. It's like middle-grade YA, kind of crossover-y (ph).

HOLMES: Yeah. I really loved this book she wrote called "Fifteen," which is about a girl who, you know, wants to meet a boy. It was written in the 1950s. It's very old-fashioned. When you read it - you know, she's ironing a dress to go on a date to the movies. And it's - I mean, now it's like a period piece.

HARDYMON: Yeah.

HOLMES: But I loved that book when I was, like, 10 or 11. It was probably the first love story that I really, really loved reading. Before I was reading, you know, grown-up Harlequin romances and stuff like that, which I started doing in my teens - before that, I was in love with this book, "Fifteen," which, as we were talking about earlier, she falls in love with a boy named Stan.

HARDYMON: Can you imagine? He's the love interest. When Stanley is your love interest, you know it's the '50s.

HOLMES: Nothing against Stans, right? The same thing happened with "A Streetcar Named Desire." You could have a hot Stanley, right? But I loved that book. And I read it so many times that when I looked at it again last night, I was like, oh, I remember everything that happens in this book (laughter).

HARDYMON: Isn't that amazing? Yeah.

HOLMES: I remember every event that happens in this book and every kid she babysits. I absolutely love that one, so I'm glad you brought a book that's a little bit outside the most common little kids books.

HARDYMON: And I will say, you know, here's the thing about "Fifteen." You know, before you do get to the - whether it's Harlequin or you get to the sexier - you know, the holy trinity of Judy, Judith and Jackie, it's kind of lovely to read this very, very buttoned-up romance, which is really even not a romance. It's about crushes. It's about a crush. I think it culminates in them going to, like, a fundraiser, like - or, like, a raffle of some kind.

HOLMES: Right. I think that's right. And it felt not intimidating to me as, like, a 10 or 11-year-old.

HARDYMON: Yes.

HOLMES: It didn't feel kind of too intense for me, even as a very, very early reader of love stories. There's a huge place in my heart for that book.

So in addition to "Dear Mr. Henshaw," what are we going to talk about next?

HARDYMON: Let's go to Klickicat (ph) - I can't even say it - Klickitat Street. Let's go there.

HOLMES: Klickitat Street.

HARDYMON: That, of course, is the famous street where Ramona Quimby lived in Portland. And Ramona is, I think we - it's safe to say it's her most beloved character. I think people who haven't even read the whole series have probably come across Ramona in some way.

I have the great fortune to have a 7-year-old, so I have just - I've been reading these books to him. And what I am just totally stunned by is that these are books that are written in the, you know, the '70s and the '80s. And the gender dynamics are actually, like, pretty good. You know, I mean, as a person that's read a lot of "Encyclopedia Brown," that could use an update. You know, the relationship between mom and dad Quimby is so real and wonderful. The siblings are so - I mean, this is how siblings interact, whether they're fighting over toys, televisions, video games. It doesn't matter. This is how real people interact.

And Ramona is really, really special because Ramona is a pain. In fact, Ramona is a pest. I think the most well-known book of the - is probably called "Ramona The Pest." And she is really kind of a difficult kid - all the toothpaste out of the tube, taking a bite out of every single apple. You know, she has done - every impulse that a child has, I promise you, Ramona has done - and every mistake - you know, the - like the pulling of the friend's hair. The - my favorite is, you know, she has a doll named Chevrolet because it's a beautiful name.

HOLMES: Yes. I love that, too.

HARDYMON: But here's the thing I really want to recommend it for because, obviously, you know, the prose is lovely. The characters are - just live. It's hard to even say the writing is good because it just feels like you're in their house. But what Beverly Cleary does so well is these were the first books where I really saw a family working through their financial situation.

Mr. Quimby - you know, in "Ramona And Her Father," he loses his job. He is in a bad mood. He's smoking. You know, Ramona has to try to help him quit smoking. He's - keeps going, trying to apply for jobs. He eventually gets a job at the supermarket as a checkout guy. And they are really - you know, they have to buy the less expensive cat food. They have to make real decisions. And Mrs. Quimby gets a job, which is, you know, something she didn't expect to do at that point but is also kind of a marvelous part of this whole thing.

But the way these financial difficulties are handled is so sensitive. And it's not the central - you know, sometimes too often with these books, they're teaching you a lesson. This is just a family making a decision about what kind of diapers to buy.

HOLMES: Right.

HARDYMON: And she - and Ramona is absolutely aware of it, not in a way that is - you know, it is sometimes an anxiety and sometimes a fact of her life, the way it is for most of us.

HOLMES: Yeah.

HARDYMON: I think, you know, it is truly this real portrait of what it is like to be a human child that is really aware of all the things that are happening with her parents and her family.

HOLMES: Yeah. What I really loved when I started reading the "Ramona" books - and, you know, she started off as a 4-year-old in a book about Henry Huggins, who was friends with Beezus. Beezus is her sister, whose real name is Beatrice. So Beezus was introduced as a character who had this little - little, little sister, Ramona.

HARDYMON: Very "Superfudge"-esque.

HOLMES: Then she kind of became her own character. When I started reading these books as a little kid, it was so special to me to see this girl who was - she had just big feelings about everything, which is how I very much was as a little kid.

HARDYMON: Yeah.

HOLMES: Big feelings about everything, wanted to sort of express every emotion that she had. When she decided that she really loved her kindergarten teacher, Mrs. Binney (ph), she loved her the most, you know?

HARDYMON: Yeah.

HOLMES: Seeing this girl who has, as you sort of mentioned, no impulse control - she kind of is still wrestling with all these giant feelings, and yet she's so sympathetically drawn in the sense that the books really understand that she is a kid who wants to be loved and approved of and just wants to be part of everything.

You know, I loved the fact that she's not having sort of spectacular adventures like Eloise or Heidi or - you know, it's not that kind of stuff. She lived a sort of relatively ordinary life with ordinary, as you mentioned, parents. And she has just all these little things that happen - the stuff with making the paper bag owls and the stuff with them drawing her name with a Q like a cat. And I remember the time that they were having the housework done, she told everyone there was a hole in the house.

HARDYMON: The hole, yes.

HOLMES: And, you know, it turned out that people were unimpressed by the hole in the house.

HARDYMON: (Laughter).

HOLMES: I related to this character so much because she's so stubborn and emotive.

HARDYMON: Yeah.

HOLMES: Boy, the "Ramona" books were important to me as a little kid.

HARDYMON: And if you were not the most emotive child, as I know that you were and certainly I was, if you were the other - if you were the - maybe the older sister, then there was Beezus. And Beezus is a great character who is so worried because she doesn't feel as creative as her little sister...

HOLMES: Yup.

HARDYMON: ...Because she's trying to keep it together. You know, there was really something for everybody. And the thing about "Ramona Forever," where she is in - actually in third grade, a little bit older, and her relationship with Beezus, who is really now starting to become a teenager - she's starting to have skin problems, she's starting to get real grumpy. And that relationship really changes in a way that is really, really sensitively drawn.

There's a moment where she calls her sister pizza face, which is - like, she doesn't mean it like you have a pimple. And she realizes, you know, oh, this is really hurtful in a way that I - you know, like, something's changed here. And you know how sometimes you read a book and it's part of a wonderful series, and sometimes you read a book and you're like, oh - especially a children's book - and you're like, oh, this is a novel?

HOLMES: Yeah.

HARDYMON: This is a novel.

HOLMES: Yeah.

HARDYMON: You know?

HOLMES: Yeah.

HARDYMON: This stands alone on its own as a novel. And there's almost nothing that happens that I - like, that you can't relate to. And I notice, you know, my 7-year-old boy - he can latch on to all of these things. There's a wonderful moment in "Ramona And Her Mother" where Mrs. Quimby and Mr. Quimby have a fight. And it is a real fight.

HOLMES: Yeah.

HARDYMON: It is the kind of fight I would have with my husband. Remember, I'm emotive. And you feel Ramona's fear and Mrs. Quimby's, you know, fed-upness and, you know, all of the pressures of Mr. Quimby's job and wanting to be - you know, it is so sensitive.

HOLMES: Yeah. What these books remind me of in some ways are all of the pieces of art that take seriously the emotions and problems of young people, right? You know, most often I've seen this in things about teenagers - "My So-Called Life" and "Freaks And Geeks" and things like that that can really honor the fact that your feelings at that age are important.

I think this is where I see that with people who are even younger. This is where I see that with people who are in kindergarten and elementary school - that even then, your feelings are important, and they're important to you even if they seem like, this will pass; you'll grow out of it. And I think that's what always distinguished her for me was the respect that she had for the feelings and the sensitivities of little kids rather than everything being about how you'll grow out of it and it won't matter when you're older.

HARDYMON: Yeah. You know, the thing that is just so perfect is the respect for the little kid, but it's also the respect for real families, where there's no wizard, where there's no rich aunt that's going to leave you a mansion. This was my family. I recognized it.

HOLMES: Yeah. Me, too. And so we want to know, also, what you think about your favorite Beverly Cleary books. Find us at facebook.com/pchh and on Twitter - @pchh.

That brings us to the end of our show. Barrie, thank you so much for being here for this episode.

HARDYMON: I can't think of someone I would rather talk to Beverly Cleary about.

HOLMES: (Laughter) And, of course, thank you for listening to POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR from NPR, and we will see you on Monday.

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