When asked who my favorite authors are, I usually rattle off a list of contemporary writers whose new releases I anxiously await and classic novelists whose books fill my shelves. All of those answers are true, but at the same time, I neglect to mention a very big piece of the puzzle: the authors who made me a reader in the first place. When it comes to that category, there is one writer who stands above all else—Beverly Cleary.
Last month, when the news broke that the beloved children’s author had died at the age of 104, I wanted to write something about what she meant to me. I wanted to contribute to the outpouring of love in the tributes that flooded social media, but what could I add that hadn’t already been said? Instead, I turned to a group text with my friends, where we immediately started talking about the ways in which we’d love to honor her.
Squeezing a tube of toothpaste in the sink.
Smashing eggs over our heads.
Wearing our pajamas under our clothes.
Sitting for the present.
We hadn’t just lost a literary icon, we had lost someone who gave us cherished memories—memories every bit as concrete as the ones we’d formed in our own lives.
While I loved books before I could even read on my own, Beverly Cleary’s were the first I can remember thinking of as more than stories. They were whole worlds, with people as real to me as my own family and neighbors. Ramona Quimby wasn’t a character. She was a girl like me who annoyed her older sibling and had an imagination that could soar for miles and miles past Klickitat Street. I knew everything about her life, from her favorite toys, Chevrolet the doll and the stuffed Ella Funt, to her after-school antics with blue dye in Howie Kemp’s basement. She wasn’t fictional, she was a friend, and all of the players in her life—her parents, her sister Beezus, the Kemps next door, Aunt Bea and Uncle Hobart—were woven into my life too.
The Ramona books weren’t the only Beverly Cleary novels that stayed with me. There was also Ralph S. Mouse and his motorcycle, Henry Huggins and his dog, Ribsy, Socks the cat whose life was upended by a crying baby, and Muggie Maggie with the strong aversion to cursive. (Same, Maggie, same.) Every character she put out into the world reiterated that storytelling is about so much more than words on paper, so much more than a beginning, middle, and end. I know I’m not alone in saying that she showed me the true magic of books.
Over 30 years after falling in love with her books, I still think of those pages like they’re second nature. When I curl my hair, I think of Susan with the boing-boing curls. When I try to save money, I think of scrimping and pinching to make ends meet. When I see a mouse—well, first I scream, but then I wonder if he’s looking for a little crash helmet for his bike. Beverly Cleary gave me a suitcase full of memories I’ll carry with me always and hundreds of pages worth of friends I’ll never forget. I have no doubt that she made me the reader I am today, and maybe a pest, and certainly brave. For all of that and more, I am eternally grateful.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, there’s a tube of toothpaste with my name on it that needs a good squeezing.