Our windows are open on both sides of the apartment and the evil cross breeze is luring me outside. Yesterday I saw my first butterfly of 2016. It was black and yellow and flew ahead along my path. Signs of spring in the city don’t compare to the muddy tractor buzz of my childhood – we were surrounded by farms – but I’ll take whatever comes. Right now there’s a baby bird perched on our fire escape and dark chocolate almond milk chilling in the fridge.
Beverly Cleary’s books bring up warm childhood memories of reading Ramona on a Mickey Mouse quilt in my dad’s backyard. Ramona, Henry, Emily – the school library had them all. The plots are straightforward slices of life told with subtle wisdom and humor, and they take children seriously. Her characters aren’t flat devices to teach kids good behavior. They’re imaginative buggers who make messes and run around. Reading them as an adult is like visiting your old elementary school. They’re the same but different because you’re different but you still want to make messes and run around.
Beverly Cleary will be 100 years old this year. Mark your calendar. Her April 12th birthday is officially D.E.A.R. (Drop Everything And Read) Day, which is the best made up holiday ever. The calendar says drop everything and read. We must comply. I plan to do so with a few of her classics.
A Girl From Yamhill is a memoir of Cleary’s early years written in the same pared-down, not-a-word-wasted style that makes her stories so easy to adore.
This first of Cleary’s two memoirs covers her girlhood on a farm in Yamhill, Oregon, as well as her teenage years in Portland. Her second memoir, My Own Two Feet, focuses on her college years and young adulthood.
Without sugarcoating life on a farm, she manages to capture her thoughts and perceptions at these early periods in her life. As an only child, pragmatic adults were her main companions. Her father created rules to keep her from getting trampled by pigs or suffocating in grain, while her mother’s prickly rules nudged her to be a little lady seen and not heard.
The three of us, Lloyd, Mable and Beverly Bunn, lived – or “Rattled around,” as Mother put it – in the two-story house with a green mansard roof set on 80 acres of rolling farmland in the Willamette Valley.
The pages meander from pictures of day to day life, to funny anecdotes and glimpses of how the author’s mind works. One of my favorites was how her Aunt Maud became famous for riding a bike over a cow because she was too nervous going downhill to steer around (steer, get it). A number of Ramona’s quirky questions and shenanigans are based on Cleary’s twins, but taking the first bite out of all the apples (because the first bite tastes the best) was all Cleary.
It’s fascinating to read about what it was like for her to come of age during the Great Depression and how her small family survived once her father lost his job. There’s a compelling undertone when she describes escaping tensions at home during one luxurious weekend in the mountains with a friend’s family. Then there’s the complex relationship with her mother, underwhelming high school years and the cringe of being courted by a fellow she had no interest in.
Popularity required energy I lacked.
Many of the moments she chooses to share reveal insight on what drove her to be a storyteller. One of the many things that impressed me along the way is how Cleary organizes her thoughts. She makes it look so easy, like her fingers simply write what her brain tells them to. Her plain writing style is clear, distinct and rare.
My Own Two Feet is near the top of my pile, saved for the next time next time I want the kind of book that doubles as a companion for a few days. Otherwise I go to the library and come back with Doritos and rainbow sherbet.