July 10, 2014

Cleary and Kimmel and me—Whoopee!

Janet Fisher, an author I knew when I lived in Roseburg, wrote A Place of Her Own, a neat historical story about an ancestor who bought her OWN farm (imagine that!) in Oregon back in the 1800s, even though a mere woman. Another excellent example of the overlooked stories of pioneer women who came out on the Oregon Trail—not always willingly! (Coincidentally, we have the same publisher: Globe Pequot of Connecticut. Who would have imagined that?)

She just wrote in her current blog about her book signing at Annie Bloom’s bookstore, which reminded me once again that I should bring my blog up to date. I did see Janet at Annie Blooms, but my big event was at McMenamin’s Mission Theater earlier this week. The program was an Oregon Encyclopedia History Event on Beverly Cleary’s Neighborhood, and the speaker was Eric Kimmel, one of my favorite children’s book authors. He taught children’s literature at Portland State University, before writing a hundred picture books of his own.

Many people don’t realize that Beverly Cleary, the author of Ramona the Pest among others, set her stories in the Hollywood district of Portland where she grew up. (As a school librarian in a Chicago suburb who loved sharing her books with students, I’d thought the setting was imaginary.) Years ago Eric, who also lives in the neighborhood, helped raise money for a Cleary splash pond in Grant Park, with three wonderful statues of Henry Huggins, Ramona, and Ribsy. Mrs. Cleary had shown Eric all the places where she had lived or that were in the book, so when I was writing Walking Portland and wanted to include her neighborhood, I asked him to show me around. So he did, for both editions, and then asked me to share his stage.

 He had a great slide show, and his commentary was fascinating. The Cleary books about everyday kids are now almost as historical as Janet’s story about pioneer days! It was fun. One of the audience questions was about the differences between children who grew up in the 1930s and those of today. Children today don’t have paper routes (would any parent ALLOW their child to get up at 4 in the morning to go out on their bicycle?) and could play freely with each other in the street and all over the neighborhood. They learned from their peers, and their parents trusted neighbors would tell them about any problems. He also pointed out that children were nicer to each then. Otis Spofford (the title character in one book) was a pest, but not a bully.

Children’s lives didn’t used to change so drastically between generations as they have in the last thirty years or so. I grew up a couple of decades or so after Cleary, and wasn’t quite as free. I always had to say where I was going, but I went there on my own. The one big rule, in the summer when we could go out after dinner, was to always come home when the streetlights went on. When I became a parent I could count on my neighbors watching the children as well—I remember once when a neighbor called me to tell me my son was walking to school—in the road—backwards.

Perhaps it’s a side effect of cars being so common now. It’s dangerous to walk backwards on the road! And no one knows who is behind the wheel—we live in neighborhoods of strangers. Adults now run most outdoor activities. As Eric pointed out, the children of today will sometime grow up to write about their own childhoods. Wonder what they will say?

FYI, my next “gig” will be at the Eugene (Oregon) Public Library on July 17th. This time I will be with Joy Rich, Karen Tolley, and John and Judy Waller; the authors of Berta and Elmer Hader, A Lifetime of Art, which just received the Benjamin Franklin Silver Medal Award. The Haders were Caldecott Medal winning artists and authors who wrote and/or illustrated a hundred books in the 20th century. It’s a full-color book showing and commenting on their art, ranging from Berta’s miniature portraits to Elmer’s impressionistic paintings, and of course all the charming illustrations in their children’s books. A hard act to follow! My new book on Berta and Elmer Hader, Drawn Together, is far more about their actual lives, and I am finding them fascinating. They were happily married, were surrounded by talented friends who helped them build their own house on a hill, fought to save their neighborhood from demolition, and adapted to the myriad changes in publishing and in life. Like Henry and Ribsy, they found solutions for most of the problems they faced.

So, add a children’s book or two along with the beach books. Ask your children’s librarians for good new ones, but don’t forget the old. They’re fun, easy, and most problems are solved by the end of the book. Perfect summer reading!

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