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BOUND TO PLEASE / Beverly Cleary’s long life and short sentences

The Japan News

By Tom Baker / Japan News Staff Writer“Henry and Beezus” and “Ramona the Brave”

By Beverly Cleary

201pp and 175pp, Harper

In 1952, the year that Ernest Hemingway published “The Old Man and the Sea,” Beverly Cleary published “Henry and Beezus.” Hemingway’s novel would become required reading for many American high school students. Cleary’s novel, a sequel to her 1950 debut “Henry Huggins,” was part of a series that would stretch to 14 books read and loved by generations of younger children, required or not. 

Some of those young readers grew up to write for The Japan News. One of them, learning that Cleary was alive and well and celebrating her 100th birthday (April 12), hurried to the bookstore to get reacquainted with a couple of her works.

Henry Huggins is a boy in Oregon whose life is a series of comical misadventures. In “Henry and Beezus,” Henry trains his dog Ribsy to fetch the newspaper. But Ribsy takes to his task too well, fetching every paper in the neighborhood and heaping them all on Henry’s doorstep. His friend Beezus Quimby tries to help with some of his problems, but her little sister Ramona is always tagging along and getting in the way.

In a rare scene where Ramona isn’t causing trouble, she sits on a box pretending to wait for a bus. When Henry remarks that it seems like a stupid game, Beezus shushes him: “She thinks it’s fun and I don’t want her to find out it isn’t. It keeps her quiet.”

Ramona became Cleary’s most famous character, with a title role in eight books. In “Ramona the Brave” (1975), she graduates from kindergarten to first grade and confronts dangers both real (a growling dog that steals her shoe) and imagined (a boneless gorilla that can ooze under doors).

When Ramona becomes angry with a classmate who plagiarized her art project, it is Ramona rather than the copycat who is punished — just one of many injustices that leave her seething. 

Hemingway’s short, simple sentences have long been noted by teachers and critics. But such sentences are par for the course for children’s authors. Cleary’s books have remained popular for nearly 70 years because her deceptively simple sentences build character and plot while telling emotional truth.

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Here’s a passage describing a game that Ramona and her friend Howie play with some old red bricks in the Quimbys’ driveway to burn off the frustration of being young and tiny and misunderstood. Watch how Cleary’s sentences grow shorter as the feelings grow more intense.

“‘Let’s get started,’ said Ramona, running to the garage and returning with two big rocks she and Howie used in playing Brick Factory, a simple but satisfying game. Each grasped a rock in both hands and with it pounded a brick into pieces and the pieces into smithereens. The pounding was hard, tiring work. Pow! Pow! Pow! Then they reduced the smithereens to dust. Crunch, crunch, crunch. They were no longer six-year-olds. They were the strongest people in the world. They were giants.”

Beat that, Hemingway.

Where to Read

On a big chair or sofa where a child can join you to listen. Or just read them to your inner child.

Maruzen price: ¥1,120 each (as of April 13)

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