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The Daily Tar Heel

Column: Beverly Cleary created characters that will live on forever

Arts desk writer Maggie Dunn

On March 25, my suitemate knocked on my door bearing bad news — the beloved children’s author Beverly Cleary had passed away. 

I promptly shut the door in her face.

“Don’t talk to me,” I joked. “Don’t even look at me.”

To say I was surprised was an understatement, because I’d never really thought about Cleary dying. It was surreal — it was like hearing that the queen of England died, because it forced me to see her as a human being rather than as an unstoppable force. 

Cleary was 104 when she passed away in her California home, and she wrote children’s books for generations. Some of her books, like "Beezus and Ramona," were popular when my parents were kids, but they must have a way of transcending time, because they were still relevant when I was in elementary school. I remember sitting on the edge of my bed one summer afternoon, unable to put down my battered library copy of "Henry Huggins." It was a warm, sunny day outside, and yet I was cooped up in my room, captivated by Cleary’s words.

In her time as an author, Cleary wrote over 40 books, the first published in 1950. She was widely admired for the way she wrote about children, depicting them authentically, rather than as perfect role models, unlike many children’s authors of the time. Cleary featured both male and female protagonists in her books, and she showed that girls could be as funny, rambunctious and brave as their male peers. Her books inspired girls around the world to be unapologetically themselves and forced boys to see girls as equal.

I devoured the entire Ramona Quimby series, and I can still tell a few jokes from those books — their humor sticks with me to this day. After finishing a particularly funny chapter, I ran around my house yelling gibberish like Ramona did after she was told to “make a joyful noise unto the Lord.” I thought that “guts” was a bad word because Ramona did. I even remember crying to my parents after realizing I’d lost my place in "Ramona Quimby, Age 8."

A few years later, after my initial obsession with Mrs. Cleary’s creative worlds died down, I walked into school to find a copy of "Muggie Maggie" sitting on my desk. I was in fifth grade, and I remember thinking that I was too old for children’s books, because I fancied myself a mature adult at the ripe age of 10. I shoved it in the lost and found before learning it had been a gift from a classmate, who was cleaning out her books and thought of me because the title character and I share a name. So, I gave it a shot, not wanting to hurt her feelings. I finished the book in one sitting. Granted, it was short, and the font was large, but, once again, I’d found myself lost in Cleary’s magic. 

Today, I’m still friends with the girl who gave me the copy of "Muggie Maggie," and I’m sure there is an abundance of Beverly Cleary books lying around my house. The next time I’m at home, I think I’ll look for them, and maybe I’ll even skim through a couple.

“Quite often somebody will say, ‘What year do your books take place?’ and the only answer I can give is, ‘in childhood,'" Cleary once said.

I might not be a child anymore, but I know that the heart of Cleary’s work is applicable to anyone. Now that she has passed away and I am a young adult, I admire her even more, because she found a way to relate to children from any and all generations. Her nostalgia and humor will live on in her books, ready for kids to lose themselves in, whether that be tomorrow or 50 years from now.

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