Last Thursday, March 25, was a sad day: both Beverly Cleary and Larry McMurtry died that day. Cleary was 104. McMurtry was 84.
Beverly Cleary was a children’s librarian before she was an author of children’s books. She had a great sense of what children wanted to read, and what they needed in a book. She thought about writing books long before she started actually writing. In her autobiography, My Own Two Feet, she wrote about a time she found a ream of paper in a house she and her husband Clarence had just moved into:
“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.
May we all have such supportive people in our lives.
Elsewhere Cleary spoke of “‘the minutiae of life,’ those details that give reality to fiction.” That attention to the details of life is very apparent in her stories. But I think my favorite thing about Beverly Cleary was that she really seemed to remember what it was like to be a child. That sensitivity, combined with her attention to detail, yielded scenes that make young readers feel seen—and, hopefully, makes parents a little more attentive to the inner lives of their children.
I especially love a scene from Beezus and Ramona in which poor Beezus is trying to connect with her favorite aunt but can’t get a word in edgewise:
After Father had served the chicken and mashed potatoes and peas and Mother had passed the hot rolls, Beezus decided the time had come to tell Aunt Beatrice about being Sacajawea. “Do you know what I did last week?” she began.
“I want some jelly,” said Ramona.
“You mean, ‘Please pass the jelly,’” corrected Mother, while Beezus waited patiently.
“No, what did you do last week?” asked Aunt Beatrice.
“Well, last week I—” Beezus began again.
“I like purple jelly better than red jelly,” said Ramona.
“Ramona, stop interrupting your sister,” said Father.
“Well, I do like purple jelly better than red jelly,” insisted Ramona.
“Never mind,” said Mother.
“Go on, Beezus.”
“Last week—” said Beezus, looking at her aunt, who smiled as if she understood.
“Excuse me, Beezus,” Mother cut in. “Ramona, we do not put jelly on our mashed potatoes.”
After some more of that foolishness, Ramona eventually gets sent to her room, but it’s cold comfort for her older sister; when she finally gets to tell her Aunt Beatrice about playing Sacajawea in the school program, the moment is spoiled for her.
Somehow she did not feel the same about telling the story after all Ramona’s interruptions. Being Sacajawea for the P.T.A. did not seem very important now. No matter what she did, Ramona always managed to spoil it. Unhappily, Beezus went on eating her chicken and peas. It was another one of those terrible times when she did not love her little sister… What a terrible girl she was not to love her little sister! How shocked and surprised Mother would be if she knew.
That, friends, is how you write children’s literature. The concerns of nine-year-old Beezus, which are easily dismissed or not noticed by grown-ups like you and me, fill up the whole frame; they feel important. These concerns are dignified by the fact that Beverly Cleary wrote about them. Young readers are dignified too. And as an adult reading this scene, I feel Beezus’s frustration just as surely as a young reader feels it…and I wonder how many times at my own boisterous dinner table I overlooked the frustrations of a sensitive child (even while I thought I was taking that child’s side!).
I should clarify: when Beezus worries that she’s a terrible girl because she doesn’t love her sister at the moment, that’s not a small worry. That one goes all the way down. But it’s also a worry that is easily missed by the grownups in a child’s life.
At the end of almost every episode of The Habit Podcast, I ask my guest, “Who are the writers who make you want to write?” When I answer that question for myself, one the first two or three writers on my list is Larry McMurtry. Lonesome Dove is one of my favorite books of all time. I love Westerns for those big, sweeping vistas, but McMurtry was also attuned to the “minutiae of life” for cowboys and retired Texas Rangers. When I flip around in Lonesome Dove (something I do pretty often), I’m always struck by how much pleasure is to be found in the little quiet, dusty moments between the big action sequences. The book’s opening paragraphs are a good reminder that even a 900-page novel (and a trip from the Rio Grande to Montana) can start with something small and manageable:
When Augustus came out on the porch the blue pigs were eating a rattlesnake—not a very big one. It had probably just been crawling around looking for shade when it ran into the pigs. They were having a fine tug-of-war with it, and its rattling days were over. The sow had it by the neck, and the shoat had the tail.
“You pigs git,” Augustus said, kicking the shoat. “Head on down to the creek if you want to eat that snake.” It was the porch he begrudged them, not the snake. Pigs on the porch just made things hotter.
Give your readers something they can’t get for themselves. We all think we know what to expect from a Western; McMurtry gives us most of that. But he also gives us pigs eating a rattlesnake. That was something I didn’t see coming. That was something I couldn’t get for myself. Surprising but believable, as I often say, is the sweet spot for storytelling.
A Dallas News obituary quoted writer George Getschow:
What made Larry McMurtry Larry McMurtry is that he turned the romantic notions of the cowboy upside down. He showed the misery, the hardship, the anguish, the pain and suffering, because he lived the life, and that’s what people forget. They forget that Larry was first a cowboy.
This is as good a place as any to acknowledge (confess?) a debt I owe to Larry McMurtry. In The Charlatan’s Boy, my fourth novel, I wrote about the cattle drovers of Corenwald, who were forever stealing one another’s cattle:
All over Corenwald, the poor cows is about run ragged from getting stolen three nights of a week. Corenwalder cows sleep all day, like coons and possums, so they’ll be rested up to get stolen at night. More than once I heard of a group of cattle raiders coming home with a herd they’d stolen—only to meet their own herd coming the other way, driven by the very cowmen they was stealing from.
I thought that was a pretty good joke. I was right proud of myself. But when I picked up Lonesome Dove for a reread some time after The Charlatan’s Boy was published, I was a tad embarrassed to see that I had unwittingly borrowed the joke from McMurtry. It’s right there in Chapter 1:
“It was the way the stock business seemed to work along the border, the Mexican ranchers raiding north while the Texas ranchers raided south. Some of the skinny cattle spent their lives being chased back and forth across the Rio Grande.”
We aren’t always conscious of our influences. J.R..R. Tolkien spoke of the “leaf mould of the mind”: a story, he wrote, “grows like a seed in the dark out of the leaf-mould of the mind: out of all that has been seen or thought or read, that has long been forgotten, descending into the deeps.” It is safe to say that Lonesome Dove has had such an influence on me that I don’t even know how much influence it has had on me.