Even with all my years as a reader, and as a writer, I wouldn’t claim to know what makes a book “great.” There have been many books touted as such that have left me cold, and others that have escaped any serious note, which have moved and seduced me. Even as my tenth novel DARKNESS, MY OLD FRIEND will find its way to shelves this August, and I have been reading voraciously since as long as I can remember, I only know what I like, what makes me feel, what transports me.
As a mother, books are an important part of my life with my daughter Ocean. We read every night, and we have literally since the day she was born. This year, her sixth year, our reading time has taken on a magical quality. She has made the shift from picture books to chapter books. And suddenly we are laughing together over stories; she is asking questions far beyond what I would have expected of her, making inferences, thinking about plots long after the book is closed. We recently finished Alice in Wonderland (A bit dark, I thought for a five year old. She seemed to enjoy it, though there has been quite a bit of anxiety about The Queen of Hearts. She’s not real. Right, Mommy?). But, by far, her favorite books have been the Ramona series and the Ralph the Mouse series, by the incomparable Beverly Cleary.
Maybe not coincidentally these books were also my favorites as a kid. I remember these stories with such clarity. As I read them to Ocean, they feel like memories — such as when Ramona’s teacher tells her to “sit here for the present” and Ramona stays put for the whole day waiting for the mystery gift her teacher promised her, or Ralph’s nighttime ride through the hotel searching for an aspirin for the sick boy who gave him his beloved motorcycle. Often, I can’t remember the plot of a book I read last month, but these books have stayed with me my whole life.
So Beverly Cleary turns 95 tomorrow. Her books about children and family are simple, profound, funny, and rich with the emotions of her characters. They moved me as a young reader, and they are just as relevant and accessible to my daughter.
I loved this article in the New York Times today about this accomplished and beloved author.
I still don’t know what makes a book great, but I have a feeling Beverly Cleary does.