Beverly Cleary

Now THAT’S a rock star!

I’m trying to remember the first time I encountered Henry Huggins.

Back in the fifties, you didn’t learn how to read before you went to school, not even in kindergarten, reading was for the first grade. My younger sister Wendy always told us she could read at three, but I never truly believed her, maybe because I was jealous, that she was starting before me, that she’d jump ahead of me, and life is nothing but competition, you learn this at an early age, especially in families.

Miss Godfrey was our first grade teacher. At least that’s how I remember it. Do you ever lie awake at night trying to reconstruct your school history? Not only the teachers you had in elementary and high school, but the courses you took in college? I used to know them by heart, now they’re drifting away, like the faces of those in my graduating class at Andrew Warde High School. The fiftieth reunion was delayed. It’s been rescheduled, as Carly Simon would sing, it’s coming back ’round again, but I don’t think I’ll go. I’ll almost definitely not go. Reviewing the names on the class list I was reminded that I didn’t enjoy their company so much the first time around, why suffer another bite of the apple? But even worse, I don’t know who most of them are. They tell me that reunions are really about hanging with your friends, but if they were truly friends I’ve kept up contact, as for the rest…

So, they start you off with big letters. Then sounds, then words, and suddenly you’re reading. In retrospect, it’s a miracle. And these teachers have the patience of a saint, because not everybody gets it at the same time. And I never wanted to be a teacher, I didn’t want to be stuck in time, the students moved on, they stayed where they were. But the older I get the more I understand it, then again, teaching used to be a respectable, middle class job, now you’re fighting for survival, unless you live in one of those off the grid backwaters like Centerbury. There used to be a lot of them, remember Mayberry? But now, in truth, they no longer exist.

And when you finally get a hold of it, they pass out books. This was a different era, today no one wants to own anything, why should they, when what they want is at their fingertips, on demand, and you can always get the latest iteration, as opposed to something passed down over the years, oftentimes out of date. You remember that stamp in the front cover of school books. You had to write your name down. You saw everybody who had it before you. And if the book was really old, there were not enough lines, you had to enter your name beneath the grid. But even worse was the dates. I remember when it was a thrill reading books written in the sixties, woo-hoo! But most of the school books were years old.

But you had the sense of ownership. Which you were proud of. At least until you got to junior high and they made you cover the books, to protect them, tomes that were oftentimes well past their sale date anyway. Remember getting a brand new school book? That was a rare event.

But in first grade they don’t make you cover the books. Then again, you don’t take them home. They don’t have that many words on the page, you graduate from one book to the next, just a little bit more difficult, and about halfway through the year, when you’re up to speed, you get the “Weekly Reader.” I remember reading about the construction of the Verrazzano-Narrows Bridge. I don’t think it was until I was an adult that I finally realized where it went. But the “Weekly Reader” was my first periodical, I’ve been hooked by periodicals ever since. In truth, I gave up reading books for magazines long ago, and I didn’t come back to books until Felice gifted me a Kindle back in 2009. I want something vivid, something up-to-date, information that I can use, that fills out my worldview. Then again, the internet is killing magazines, and in truth it’s about time, they’ve outlived their usefulness, it turns out very few had high standards of writing, and now that we can get what we want from experts 24/7…they seem quaint.

I also don’t remember the first time I went to the library. Fairfield Woods Elementary School had its own. Did your school? I think that’s a feature. But really, it was the downtown library that hooked me, there were two, the one for adults and the one for children. My mother used to dump me in the kids’ one while she did her business in the adult building, and I pulled books and discovered… Is that where I first encountered Henry Huggins?

You remember Henry, there was that damn donut machine. But back then they still spelled it “doughnut.” Talk about a vivid memory. Come on, you can see it in your mind. Having to eat all those doughnuts to find the lady’s necklace. It’s one of my most striking childhood memories!

Not that I ever related to Henry himself, I thought he was kind of a doofus. But, he had a life in his town and although it seemed more of a backwater than mine, he was living in a world where the big issues did not matter, where everything was personal, it was a kid’s eye viewpoint, and that I could appreciate.

And then I found out that Henry Huggins had an entire book!

I believe I first read a Huggins story in an anthology. Maybe in school, maybe in a library book, and then when I was cruising the aisles of the library…

I remember reading about the doughnut machine before anybody else in my class knew about it, and then everybody did. In truth, as much as you recommend books, you want them to be personal, you want to own them, you have a special relationship with them and you don’t want to share.

So I got hooked by Henry.

And that’s where I encountered Beezus, and Ramona.

Now in Beverly Cleary’s obits they focus mostly on Ramona…

Wait a second, it turns out my memory isn’t that good! I wanted to make sure I had their identities right, Beezus and Ramona, and doing research I learned that it was HOMER PRICE and the doughnut machine, not Henry Huggins! And Homer was kind of a doofus, but this now makes it clear, I discovered Henry Huggins at the library, all by my lonesome,

In today’s era of child enrichment, you feed kids books. But back in the dark ages, kids found them on their own. Assuming you were looking. You see some people learn how to read and the whole world opens up to them. And others see reading as a chore, something school makes you do, and turn off right away.

So, do you know what it’s like to find the travails of Henry Huggins all by your lonesome? Not through word of mouth, not by parental push, but purely via your own hunt fueled by curiosity?

You remember curiosity, don’t you? Too many adults have lost the ability to be curious, but if you’re a young kid, your whole life is consumed by curiosity, you want to know EVERYTHING! Life is a bazaar, that is sometimes bizarre, and you can’t get enough of it. The same thing is true as you age, and the discovery process can be just as enticing, it’s just that while they’re teaching to the test they leave this lifetime learning skill out, the ability to be interested, peel back the layers, analyze…

In any event, I read Henry Huggins long before the Beverly Cleary tsunami. It’s like I found her in her Hamburg days. Or maybe on the first single, before she broke big. But I knew she was great, and I had to read everything of hers that I could get my hands on.

But there was no internet back then. I’m stunned reading her bibliography, all these books I never came across, never mind one I did!

Yes, that was called “Centerbury Tales.” That’s where Henry and his compatriots lived. Maybe it’s an anthology, a greatest hits, but I’ve always remembered it, because even at that young age I knew it was a takeoff on “Canterbury Tales.”

Kind of like Henry Huggins himself. His name always reminded me of the character in “My Fair Lady,” Henry Higgins. I thought Beverly Cleary did this on purpose. Maybe she did, maybe she didn’t. But that’s one of the great things about being a reader, you come with your own background, you add your own insights, which is why great songwriters tell you what you think the lyrics mean is just as important as what they do.

Anyway, “Beezus” was short for “Beatrice.” The only Beatrice I encountered growing up was Beatrice Foods, which made Dannon yogurt, which my father ate and I did not, back when yogurt was considered a health food. And when that royal family member was named Beatrice… It stuck with me, still does.

And it was Ramona who was the terror. A pain in the ass. Beezus was Henry Huggins’ contemporary, and when you’re in the single digits, age is everything. And the truth is every kid comes with their own personality, I didn’t learn that until recently, I thought you could groom them, make them your own, but that is untrue, you can stifle their personality, but you can’t eliminate it.

And Ramona couldn’t be stifled. Come on, you remember growing up. You’d be in a group and tell the younger kids, the hangers-on, to go home, you were going on an adventure and you didn’t want them to hold you back. At some point they’d cry and…if they came along, they always did. Then again, there was always a kid who could act like their elders, fit in, and they were embraced.

Also, as parents have more children they become less strict, and the younger ones have fewer boundaries and act out more, and without constant supervision they go their own way, get into their own trouble. Then again, does this even happen anymore? We were never supervised. We were told to go outside and not come back until supper. Playing inside? Illegal, only if it was dark or raining. Those were my mother’s rules, back before you spoke back to your parents, for if you did you paid the price, usually with a hand or the belt or the hairbrush or soap in your mouth. Yes, by today’s standards, we were abused children. But we survived. And survivors are always proud, they don’t want to make it easier for those who come after. Like the bar exam, they just shortened it, made it easier to pass, because not enough people could jump the hurdle in California, which was the highest in the nation. Then again, it’s progress.

But some things are forever. Most are not, but then there are Beverly Cleary’s books, not only read by new generations, but remembered by everybody who read them.

And the truth is you outgrow the books of your youth, your reading skills improve and you move on. Actually, it’s kind of a thrill, to have your world widened, to be able to comprehend more.

But getting my memories in order, I now remember Henry Huggins was not a doofus. He didn’t feel like a brother so much as a kid I’d like to befriend if I lived in his neighborhood. Funny how you find your level, your friends, your matches. For me, it’s people with an interior life, who are never the most popular.

So, Beverly Cleary died, at 104, quite a long ride, no complaints. And most of the obituaries talk about the arc, the transition from Henry to Ramona as the star, kind of like with Huckleberry Hound and Yogi Bear. It was Huckleberry’s show, Yogi just had a feature, but you can’t keep a star down, they shine and…

I hope I’m not gonna die soon. You never know, people have been dropping like flies, some from Covid, some not. And it all makes you realize your time here is limited. Everything they tell you about life is true, it goes by in the blink of an eye. Life is short, but it’s also very long, quite a conundrum. And when the years go by, what do you remember? Oh, the stupid TV shows you watched. Maybe most of those you had sex with, their names fade too. But Henry Huggins, Beezus and Ramona…THEY’RE FOREVER!

That’s quite a skill, try to match that. You paid your dues, you built a career, and if you broke through at all, chances are it’s only your generation that is aware and cares about you.

But not Beverly Cleary. Her books mean as much to younger generations as they did to us. They lasted. There was no plan, it just turned out that way. That’s what happens when you start, when you do your best to be original, when you try to write truth as opposed to fantasy, when you’re concerned with what resonates as opposed to what impresses. If only we had more of this. This is what we’re looking for in all of the arts. Something different, out of the norm, something that does not pander, something that reverberates.

Like Henry Huggins. And Beezus and Ramona Quimby.

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