Speaking as an English major who spent a lot of time reading a lot of great literature, I’m gonna go out on a limb here and say that Beverly Cleary is the greatest author in all of American lit.
I love the Beats, I adore Faulkner, and I admire the Algonquin Round Table‘s caustic humor, but in the end, nobody can hold a candle to Beverly Cleary, the children’s librarian who in 1950 set out to write the kinds of books she wanted to read as a child. The result of that first effort was a brilliant little novel called Henry Huggins that more or less encapsulated, in 155 pages, exactly what it is to be a kid.
The world has changed since 1950, but somehow Henry and his friends remain timely, perhaps because the overall experience of being a kid really hasn’t changed. I’m reminded of this every year when I require my sophomores to write a narrative essay about their funniest childhood memory, and three-fourths of the kids’ essays recount the sorts of adventures (and misadventures) that Henry and the rest of the kids on Klickitat Street would be proud to share.
The perils and delights of childhood — embarrassing moments, lost pets, playground bullies, prolific guppies, creative entrepreneurial efforts, annoying classmates, bratty younger siblings, silly fears, etc., etc., etc. — are universal, and Cleary captures them in magnificent detail.
The earliest editions of her books are my favorites, as they were illustrated by the great Louis Darling, who captures the essence of each character in a few simple strokes. Some very cool person called AnnainCA has posted some of Darling’s illustrations on Flickr. Go take a look. If you grew up reading Cleary, you’ll almost certainly love them as much as I do.
Portland, Ore., put in a Cleary-themed splash pad/sculpture garden in 1995. I want to go play in it. Route 66 will always be my favorite road, but the Klickitat Street of Cleary’s imagining is most definitely first runner-up.
If you’ve never read her work, get yourself to the library. Now. You can thank me later.