Beverly Cleary turns 95 years old this week, and while I’ve never had the chance to meet her, she’s had a huge impact on me.
It started somewhere around second grade, when my parents decided that taking ballet lessons would be good for me. I found myself signed up for weekly classes with Miss Laurie in a community center a few blocks from our old, white house in Medina, NY.
I was not a tall, slender, elegant second grader. I was a little chubby, a lot clumsy, and downright clunky when it came to those ballet moves. My leotard didn’t fit right, and my movements were nothing like beautiful, tall, blond Miss Laurie’s.
That was the year Ellen Tebbits became my best friend.
Ellen, with her woolen underwear under her tutu, who itched and scratched her way through her ballet class, was my hero. Finally! Someone who would understand why I kept picking at the elastic and why I frankly did not want to put my leg up on that barre. Why would I want to do that when I could be home on my bed with my feet up on the wall, reading a book?
Ellen Tebbits was my first introduction to the work of Beverly Cleary, the writer whose characters truly carried this awkward kid through elementary school, until I grew into myself and found words of my own. Her characters were a part of me, just as sure as my two left feet.
Sometimes, people ask why I write for middle grade readers, and when they do, I inevitably think of Ellen and Ramona, and of Beverly Cleary. How many clumsy girls have they befriended in these past sixty years? (Ellen Tebbits was written in 1951, which seemed impossible to me when I was a kid. How could Beverly Cleary have known I’d need that book 20 years before I was even born??) The books we read when we’re eight and nine and ten years old are the books that raise us, the books that bring us up with love and laughter, empathy and advice. They are the books that make us who we are. Beverly Cleary and Judy Blume made me a reader, and later on, a writer, too. They were nothing short of gifts to me when I was a kid. They still are.
Happy Birthday, Beverly Cleary! And thanks. For everything.