Like real people, Cleary’s characters make messes, slam doors, leave nasty notes on the kitchen counter and bicker at the dinner table. Who can forget the time Ramona refused to eat the “yucky” beef tongue her parents bought on sale and tried to pass off as a prime cut?
Although Cleary never shied away from issues such as unemployment and divorce, she will be remembered for her sly, intelligent wit, which managed to be wicked and kind at the same time. She elevated misunderstandings and near misses into an art form, subtly demonstrating how to turn embarrassment into a funny story without making anyone a punching bag.
“Beverly Cleary is funny,” Judy Blume, the author of “Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret” and “Blubber,” told The Times in 2011. “There’s both gentle humor and laugh-out-loud humor.” When Blume’s children were young, she’d come home from the library with armloads of books: “Most of them went into the ‘I don’t want to write books like these, they bore me’ pile,” she recalled. “Then I came to Beverly Cleary and I fell off the sofa, I was laughing so hard. I thought, oh my God, I want to write books like this.”
(In the early 1980s, Cleary’s and Blume’s boxes of fan mail were accidentally switched by their publisher, and Cleary was horrified to learn that Blume’s admirers had asked her to send items from her garbage as mementos. “This is ridiculous,” she wrote to Blume after the mix-up. “You must be firm with them and not do these things.”)
Cleary didn’t start writing until she was in her early 30s. She’d talked about it for years and, in “My Own Two Feet,” describes an epiphany she had while working at Sather Gate Book Shop in Berkeley: “One morning during a lull, I picked up an easy-reading book and read, ‘Bow-wow. I like the green grass, said the puppy.’ How ridiculous, I thought. No puppy I had known talked like that.”
In 1948, Cleary moved into a new house and discovered a ream of typing paper in the linen closet. She told her husband, Clarence, “‘I guess I’ll have to write a book.’
“‘Why don’t you?’ asked Clarence.
“‘We never have any sharp pencils’ was my flippant answer.
“The next day he brought home a pencil sharpener.”