It goes without saying, but I will, how much your body of work affected my literary world and eventually my life’s work since that first day I picked up Henry Huggins to read with daddy. He took my sis and me to the public library one Saturday morning while momma was rehearsing a cantata and asked the librarian where he might find a quiet place to introduce us to his favorite childhood friend, Henry. She led our little trio to the treasured area where all of your books in print at that time (1968) were shelved and displayed in all their glory next to your picture. My eyes grew large looking at this collection of treasures. REAL “chapter” books (I was five, so this was BIG)! Daddy sat at the little table and read Chapter One softly to whet our appetite…this daddy of mine who traveled for a living but spent Saturdays with his two girls reading in a library and drawing a little crowd in the process. I was allowed to check out two books that morning, a first for me and my library card. Henry, Beezus, Ribsy, and Ramona became my new literary friends, taking me on adventures, talking like I did with my own friends, and so much more. Ralph S. Mouse from The Mouse and the Motorcycle helped me through my own illness a couple of years later, and instead of momma giving me medicine, I imagined Ralph delivering the pills on his motorcycle while I slept. Ramona The Pest (a minor character before then) finally stepped into the spotlight that year on her own as a curious, enthusiastic, disruptive and unruly heroine of children’s literature on level with Jo March, Harriet the Spy, and other untidy gals who balked at the status quo. I may…or may not…have received a consequence for squeezing and decorating my own bathroom sink with an entire new tube of toothpaste (all in the context of experimentation, mind you), but then my sister decided she would paint the walls with it. Oh the stories, the drama, and the fun of your true life-like children in real-world situations and play… You, and your books, were and will always remain a remarkable influence in my literary world…and we even made an “A” on a college research paper or two together.
In my classroom, your books were often read-aloud choices where we paused a few moments each day to gather as a group and simply enjoy the gift of storytelling. Your books allowed many of my students to experience more simple joys, pleasures, challenges, and triumphs of childhood, no matter the time or place. Most of the students I had the honor of teaching for several years came from backgrounds very different than the neighborhood children and stories you shared, yet they identified and relished in the real childhood elements of life. Your stories demonstrated hope while giving a voice to the hearts of my students. Your soft, genuine, and respectful way with language and childhood conversations, even on the toughest adult issues like money, divorce, and loss, presented an opportunity for us to talk about ways to grow into our greatness with respect, compassion, and doing the right thing because it’s the right thing to do. You took the ordinary and added that little something “extra” for the ultimate experience or remarkable adventure. You challenged our critical thinking by showing us how problem solving (and I’m not talking calculus here) is really our life’s work. Most gratefully though, you helped me demonstrate to my learners how reading is pleasurable and “not just something that teachers make you do in school.”
I will miss your voice, your wisdom, and your words in the writing world. As Leigh Botts observes in Dear Mr. Henshaw, “I feel sad and whole lot better at the same time…” knowing your library of characters, problems, solutions, conversations, and words of love and hope in 42 books with over 85 million copies printed in 29 languages leaves us a legacy of stories to savor for generations to come. As you yourself once observed: “I think children like to find themselves in my books because the emotions of children I write are universal.” Dearest Mrs. Cleary…yes, and thank you.