Do you ever have those memories creep in where you can recall something so vividly, seemingly so recent, that you can transport yourself right back to that very moment? When I heard of the passing of the beloved Beverly Cleary, I had this very thing happen.
I remember sitting in Mrs. Gent’s second grade class at Franklin Elementary School in Rahway, NJ. The warm sun was beaming through the large 8-paned window, and my desk, the recipient of that sunshine, was just beyond that. In my hand I was holding one of the best gifts I had ever been given. But at that moment, I hadn’t known it yet.
What I did know is that I absolutely loved this part of our school day. Each of us nestled comfortably into our seats, the room transformed from organized chaos to calm and quiet as Mrs. Gent quietly placed our reading flag into it’s holster. It was reading time. I don’t mean teacher-assigned, leveled-just-perfectly-for-me reading. I mean, free-range-anything-your-heart-desired reading. Mrs. Gent created this classroom environment that made even the most reluctant reader excited to dive into a book for silent sustained reading time. I don’t know how she did it, and even as a teacher, I am confident I couldn’t recreate it. It was that “teacher magic”. And it worked.
Lighting the Spark
Growing up, I didn’t own very many books. But twice a school year, my sisters and I ordered from the monthly Scholastic Book Order. My mom saved her change in a giant clear Coca-Cola bank and kindly allowed us to empty it in the Fall and in the Spring and turn it into book money. It was April and I had been eagerly waiting to order the latest Babysitters Club, Little Sister series book. This was my very favorite series. I remember walking home with the Scholastic Book Order in hand, my book choice already circled and filled out on the back. And I remember how excited and proud I felt each time I was able to turn in these order forms to my teacher. Within a couple of weeks, I would have “Karen’s Worst Day” (#3 in the series) in my hands. I could hardly wait. So when the book box arrived, I watched intently and waited patiently for Mrs. Gent to pull that book out of the box and place it on my desk. But instead, she handed me a book by some author I had never heard of before named Beverly Cleary. The book – Ramona Quimby, Age 8. The note on the front said that my selected book was on backorder, so enjoy this book while I wait for it to arrive. Ugh. It was almost as if Mrs. Gent could feel my disappointment. “Give it a try. I think you will love it.” she said empathetically.
As the sunshine casted itself upon my desk, me, and this book I was questionably holding in my hand, I reluctantly started reading. I trusted Mrs. Gent’s words and I knew that she knew what I liked – especially when it came to books. It was this very moment that I remember so vividly. From the first page, I instantly related to Ramona. Ramona loved the things I loved and she struggled with the same things I struggled with. Ramona’s family reminded me of my own, and the everyday encounters that Ramona endured were so much like the days and experiences I encountered myself. It seemed as if this character, this book, and all the experiences within it were written for me.
Words and Wonder
This is the magic of Beverly Cleary. Her written words upon the pages resonated for so many of us young readers. She had a way of creating experiences upon the pages that only could be internalized otherwise. For me, she was the writing between the lines, and she put feelings to real-life experiences in a way that made sense to me.
In that moment, I discovered a newfound love of reading. Now, don’t get me wrong, I had always loved reading. But this was a different kind of love. That page-turning, can’t-put-it-down, heart-aches-when-you-reach-the-end type of love of reading. And that is how I felt about all of her books that I read: Beezus and Ramona, Ramona the Pest, Ramona the Brave, Henry and Ribsy, Socks, The Mouse and the Motorcycle, and Dear Mr. Henshaw. As I think about these books, I can remember their covers, I can recall their stories, and I can look back on how these written experiences helped me make sense of my own world. She got at the heart of childhood in such an important and real way. I am forever grateful that my original book didn’t arrive in that box, because it introduced me to the work of a literary legend that forever impacted my childhood literary journey.
Remembering Beverly Cleary
As a way to celebrate her life and contributions to our literary world, I encourage you to pick up a Beverley Cleary book, read it to your students, or encourage them to read it on their own. The wholesomeness of the content, the timelessness of the stories, and the fulfilling feeling they will get will undoubtedly encourage them to pick up another book and continue reading.