Beverly Cleary passed away at the remarkable age of 104 last Thursday. Cleary leaves behind some of the best known and beloved works of children’s literature, such as the Ramona Quimby series and the Newbery Medal. Dear Mr. Henshaw. Cleary grew up in the Grant Park neighborhood of Portland, Oregon and used it for the staging of many of his books. Her stories about Ramona, her sister Beezus, and their neighbor Henry Huggins were humble tales of parents losing their jobs and bored by little sisters who seem very ordinary indeed against a current ecosystem of kids and young adult books stuffed with elected officials, exclusive boarding schools. , and cosmic battles between good and evil. His books have taught children to see the worlds they grew up in as universes for themselves. This adventure could be found by exploring the woods behind your house or writing letters to someone you have never met. That you don’t have to have the fate of the galaxy on your shoulders to be important and have a story worth telling; you just have to move with your single parent to a new city and try to fit into a new school. And yet, even when you feel alone, you are part of a community that takes care of each other the best they can. Cleary’s books don’t have a superhero rushing to save the day and no one finds out that they have magical powers. But Cleary’s neighborhoods and lonely apartment buildings with fast food fried chicken as a special treat and the agony of getting a haircut before a big event are stories that have gone on for decades.
It was work that reflected the wider culture of film and television. For every clean-lined sitcom like “The Brady Bunch”, there was one like “All in the Family” or “Good timeWhere if the characters have a brand name at the grocery store, it’s because they cut a coupon for it. Movies like “The Sugarland Express“and”Sounder»Focused on families concerned with how to keep food on the table, not fighting dynastic power struggles. And even when the director of “Sugarland Express” Steven spielberg ventured into science fiction with “Encounters of the Third KindThe film was rooted in the rhythms of the life of a working-class Indiana family. It was a tradition that stretched into the 80s and 90s with children’s books like Lensey Namioka Yang the youngest and his terrible ear and Mary Hoffman’s amazing Grace. Hit shows from those decades included “Roseanne” and “Family Matters”.
Evidence of this loss of confidence in ordinary life, especially in children’s entertainment, can be found in every new Netflix show based on a young adult series called something like “The Maginarium Special School for Merewolf Princely” “. Or that the pre-pandemic entries into the Marvel Cinematic Universe were the biggest guaranteed box office hits. Families who struggle to live with life and children who mature by recognizing themselves as part of a larger picture are no longer seen as interesting enough on their own. Cleary wrote the kind of stories that teach children to endure. It taught them that one day they would grow up and therefore be careful what kind of person they would be. And the most popular entertainment these days are stories that promise adolescence should never end. That if someone tells you no, well, they’re just jealous of how special you are.
I don’t want to create a false binary between realistic and genre stories with only the former able to talk about ordinary people and their struggles. Kim Stanely Robinson’s science fiction is a case study of the epic feel ordinary people can feel as they struggle to build communities on alien worlds and cope with post-climate climate change. But overall, our pop culture is defined by a desire for escape. Game shows promise instant wealth, our streaming series and movies show us time and time again that it all comes down to being born to the right person in the end. Protagonists who discover that they are the heirs of a secret network of power. Characters who don’t help another person because it’s the right thing to do. They do this because they seek redemption, need to complete a quest, or recognize another chosen one who needs protection at all costs.
Much like pop culture, it bleeds the way people behave in the real world. There are sour Tories who hang their mighty flag to become ardent British monarchists because apparently the only thing better than an old unjust system of power is an even older unjust system with no mechanism for the people to fix it. . There is the weird spectacle of people on social media who are unpaid publicists for deep pocket entities like Amazon, Disney and Elon musk. The latter is especially curious as so many of Musk’s most ardent supporters don’t seem to believe they could be the next Elon Musk or even get as rich as him. Rather, it’s like watching a run to become Musk’s most favored of minions, in the hopes that he could smuggle them into the baggage hold on one of his escape rockets to Mars. The idea that our lives are worth defending, our material conditions which deserve to be improved, are increasingly foreign to cultural conversation.
This is why the loss of authors like Cleary is so heavy. It is also a work that seems to belong to a twentieth century that is moving further and further away. And so he can’t help but think that Cleary’s passing is an even more acute loss, symbolic of the faith our culture has lost in ordinary life. If there is hope, it is how much his books have been and will continue to be loved. If only to remind us of what is worth holding onto. And what could do us good if we remembered their lessons more often.