My sister learned to read when she was four. My parents talked about it all the time, telling their friends how one day “She just picked up a book and started reading.” I was so sick of listening to that damn story, I’d leave the room every time.
Meanwhile, I struggled. I didn’t know it at the time but it’s clear to me now that I had dyslexia. I hated reading out loud, had a lot of trouble sounding out words if there were too many letters, and I often read and wrote backwards. It still happens to me now; I look at a long word, and after more than two syllables I zone out.
I stuttered while all my friends seemed to glide through reading. It was so hard for me. To this day when I teach myself something, like knitting, I do it backwards. It’s just the way my brain is wired.
It wasn’t until I read Beverly Cleary’s book, “Ramona Quimby, Age 8,” that I began to grasp reading. That was over halfway through second grade year of school. I remember glossing over some of the words but for the first time, I wasn’t reading a graphic novel. And for the first time, it didn’t feel overwhelming to me.
My sister had all of Beverly Cleary’s books lined up on her bookshelf. It was the only part of our shared bedroom she kept clean. I wasn’t allowed to touch them either. She’d had this collection (that seemed to go on forever) for years.
After reading that first book (I had to sneak it), I looked at that bookshelf in a different light. I wanted to read all of Cleary’s books, and I did. Instead of reading my sister’s though, I’d check out my own at the library in our town — the selection there was even bigger than my sister’s, which made our weekly trip suddenly exciting for me.
Reading is better when you aren’t doing it under your sheets with a flashlight because you are afraid your sibling is going to rip their book out of your hand.
There was something about those colorful books with bold and bubbly titles that made me feel at home. Reading about Ramona and all her relatable relationships — with her dad; with Beezus; with her mother — made me meld into the story and feel like I was actually there with them.
I can’t deny Ramona would annoy me at times, and I began to realize these books were doing something to me I’d never had the pleasure of experiencing: I was feeling emotions based on what I was reading, and it was an escape.
That was the hook for me. It was a few months before I tried reading another author. I was afraid they wouldn’t measure up to Beverly and her books. I was also afraid I would miss out on the feeling I got while reading on our hammock while my younger sisters begged me to mash up old apples that had fallen from our apple tree to make applesauce. I hated leaving my book.
There are times I’ve wondered: If I had never picked up a Beverly Cleary book, would I have ever been a reader? You can only hear from your teachers how poor your reading and comprehension skills are a few times before you begin to believe it yourself.
What if I’d skipped over her famous books? What if I’d never been compelled to defy my sister and take “Ramona Quimby, Age 8” off the shelf that Saturday afternoon when I was bored and she had a friend over? Would another writer have given me the gift that Beverly Cleary did?
Reading her books also turned on another switch inside of me: Cleary’s books were entertaining, they were consistent, they were relatable, they were simple. All these components made me realize that maybe I could write too — lord knows I loved to talk and tell stories so surely, I could put those on paper.
Hearing about Cleary’s death was like a stab in the heart. It took me back so far and made me really think about what my life would be like had I never had access to her books.
She has left this life, but the gifts that she’s given through her writing will always be with us. Honestly, you can’t put a price on that.
Even though I didn’t know it at the time, Beverly Cleary changed my life … and I know I’m only one of millions.