One of my favorite authors turned 100 today. The amazing Ms. Beverly Cleary, author of the first chapter book I ever read (Ramona Quimby, Age 8, when I was, fittingly, 8 years old), has been telling stories to kids for generations, since she published her first book in 1950. (Who else learned what bluing was because of her?) I grew up with her characters regardless of what decade they lived in. I freaked out with Ramona when her dad lost his job because my dad had just lost his. I maybe even stole some of her cigarette-hiding ideas to get my dad to quit (it didn’t work). I commiserated with Ellen Tebbits about changing in front of people when I was a dancer (luckily woolen underwear was not a thing by my day–also who wears underwear with dance tights, Ellen?). And I learned more about writing and character development than I ever realized at the time. Thanks, Beverly Cleary.
With that, in honor of her birthday, here are four of her books you have to read right now. Even if you don’t have kids to read them with. Just read them.
1. Ramona the Pest
Ramona starts kindergarten. She discovers things like Susan’s boingy curls that she just has to pull and the joy of brand-new boots. This remains one of my favorite books of all time.
Highlights: So many! Ramona being told to “sit here for the present” and thinking that she’ll get an actual present, and then she’s afraid to go outside for recess because she might not get her present anymore if she gets up.
Ramona telling Beezus to turn on the “dawnzer” when it’s too dark in the room (“it gives a lee light”).
Ramona’s mom telling her to leave for school at “quarter-past,” and a quarter is worth twenty-five cents, so she therefore leaves at twenty-five past. And everything looks different because it’s later than usual, and also she’s five years old and walking to school alone–wow 1950s, you don’t play around.
Jane Purdy is fifteen and starts dating her first boyfriend, Stan Crandall, who is just dreamy, with his green eyes and perfect tan. Why would he ever like a girl like Jane, when there are girls like Marcy Stokes around, the “cashmere-sweater types” who make Jane feel mousy and unimportant. This cover may look like 1987 threw up all over it, but the book was written in 1956. Parts of it are delightfully dated (dogs eat fresh horsemeat that gets delivered in a truck, like the milkman but, you know, horsemeat), and there are parts that make you think “how casually racist of you, Buzz Bratton, no wonder you’re not as popular as Stan,” but overall this story of first love is timeless.
Highlights: Sir Puss, the Purdy family cat, deciding to plant himself down in the middle of the living room and lick his butt while Stan is meeting the parents.
Jane’s bff Julie’s description of Stan’s date to the dance: “Everybody calls her Bitsy, because she is such a little bitsy thing….You know the type. She has to wear real high heels, because she is so little. The type that makes the other girls feel big and awkward. Especially me. She made me feel all wool and a yard wide as if I should be running around with a hockey stick instead of dancing.”
3. The Luckiest Girl
This was published only two years after Fifteen, but it always felt less dated to me for some reason. In my head it’s a 60s book even though it’s from 1958. Sixteen-year-old Shelley gets to leave rainy Oregon and travel to California for the semester, where there are orange and olive trees, and no one has ever heard of Munchkins–excuse me, doughnut holes–and star basketball player Philip Blanton likes her. But she’s young and dumb and takes almost the entire book to figure out that the real boy of her dreams was right there the whole time, sitting behind her in homeroom.
Highlights: Shelley’s pink raincoat with a black velveteen collar and matching hat with a velveteen button on top, which is completely hideous back home in Oregon but super-adorable in California. I have wanted this raincoat to be mine to this day.
“‘Mother, they’ve crowned me Queen of the May,’ exclamation point,” which shy, awkward Luke had to read in front of his class.
Shelley starting to realize that maybe Philip isn’t all that great after all…when he tells her he doesn’t want to go to college and would rather just work on trees. (“Nobody was a poor woodcutter in this day and age.”)
4. Beezus and Ramona
I was going to limit myself to just one Ramona book, but this book is for Beezus, the plain-Jane older sister whose shining moment in life came the day when Selena Gomez was cast as her in a movie. Basically Ramona spends one chapter after another ruining Beezus’ life in various ways, culminating with baking her doll into Beezus’ birthday cake. Beezus learns that sometimes it’s OK to not love your little sister when she’s being a pain in the ass. It’s kind of a shocking and also relieving message to hear when you’re a kid.
Highlights: Beezus thinking she has no imagination but managing to paint a kick-ass candy dragon in art class.
Ramona not wanting to return her steam-shovel book to the library, so she writers her “name” (aka i’s and t’s, her favorite letters) on every page.
Ramona riding her trike around the house all morning singing “I’m going to have a par-ty!” and then the family being shocked when kids start to arrive and she actually does throw herself a party. You think they’d have learned by now.