Everyone in my family has a favorite moment from the girls on Klickitat Street.
For Mom, it will forever be the image of a kindergarten teacher saying “Sit here for the present,” and a young girl spending all day wondering what her present will be.
For me, it’s the inevitable confusion of directions while trying to drive to an appointment. “Do I turn left?” “Right.” (Turns right) “MOTHER! You were supposed to turn left!”
For Heather, it’s the image of a young force of nature sullenly declaring “I am TOO a merry sunshine!”
For all these and a thousand more, we have Beverly Cleary to thank. Even if we can no longer do so in person.
For those who missed the news, the beloved children’s author and one-time librarian died recently at the did-I-really-type-that age of 104. She left behind shelves full of stories and more than a few autographed cards from retired library card catalogs. But if there’s just one thing that carries her legacy, it has to be the stories of Ramona Quimby and her family.
It’s not just that the stories are funny or touching or familiar, though they’re all of that with a hard-boiled egg on top. It’s that Clearly had one of the rarest gifts that an adult can have – the ability to truly remember how a child sees the world.
It’s harder than you think.
Oh, we chuckle at the amusing things children say or shake our head exasperatedly at the strange things they do. These days we even make internet memes out of the most striking ones. But what so many of us forget is that to a child, these moments are neither amusing nor thoughtless. They come from thoughts that are just as rational as any adult’s – it’s just that the reason is based on much less experience and very different assumptions and priorities.
So to a Ramona, it makes perfect sense to lock the dog in the bathroom for stealing your cookie. After all, misbehaving kids get sent to their room, right?
In a Ramona world, it’s a reasonable conclusion that the national anthem’s verse about “the dawnzer lee light,” must mean some kind of lamp. After all, “dawnzer” isn’t any stranger than any other word the grownups use.
And when a favorite teacher tells you to go home until you can behave, it might as well be the end of the world. After all, if you were that bad, why should she ever forgive you?
That understanding of life from the smaller side of the street is one huge reason why Cleary’s stories have endured. And it’s a lesson of basic empathy that’s still needed, not just when dealing with children but with adults as well.
Which is why I’m gratified every time I find someone else who can see with Cleary’s eyes.
My wife Heather speaks “child” better than any adult I know. When she’s confronted with a child making a big deal over a small thing, she never lets her amusement show in her eyes – however tempting it may be. To them, she knows, it’s serious.
A nurse we met recently had to deal with our protesting, struggling Missy who was NOT eager to be poked with a vaccine needle, however important it might be. At a time when it would have been easy to be impatient and move to the next appointment, she met Missy with friendliness and understanding. (And some impressive arm speed.) To Missy, she knew, it was frightening.
When all of us meet all of us, it’s not always easy to understand, even when we’ve been there ourselves. Not easy – but oh, so essential.
The books are done. The lessons remain. May we retain them well.
In a world where so much is veiled in confusion, there’s still a need to see Cleary.