Beverly Cleary books have been a saving grace for my 7-year-old during the pandemic. Here are the ones he couldn't get enough of.

By Yelena Moroz Alpert
May 03, 2021
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An image of a boy reading on his tablet.
Credit: Getty Images.

Hiring a babysitter was not something my husband and I felt comfortable doing in the midst of the pandemic. But we needed something that didn't result in hours of screen time—and then we discovered Libby, our virtual babysitter. Libby is an app that links OverDrive to my library card, offering thousands of titles as both e-books and audiobooks for free. We quickly filled the "shelf" with Judy Blume and Roald Dahl novels.

But it was Beverly Cleary stories that captured my 7-year-old son's attention for hours, weeks, months. Whenever the house was oh-so-quiet, I knew that Bradley was in his room accompanied by an audiobook. He was listening to Stockard Channing narrating yet another one of Cleary's Ramona Quimby books; other days it was Neil Patrick Harris, recounting the adventures of Henry Huggins and his dog, Ribsy.

I don't need to tell you the pandemic has been tough on children who are no longer attending in-person schools, participating in team sports, or having recurring playdates. Somehow, Cleary helped my son fill this void of lapsed friendships. "Listening felt like I was there," Bradley told me. "I like to picture the characters in my mind—to see Ribsy running everywhere, to see Ramona's feet sticking out through the attic ceiling. Books make me feel happy." When Ramona was working on her playground calluses, Bradley enthusiastically showed me his palms after a stint on the monkey bars, a testament of solidarity. "Ramona is a person who is very excited, like me," Bradley says as to why he likes the heroine.

Benefits of Beverly Cleary Books for Kids

No wonder Michelle H. Martin, Ph.D., Beverly Cleary professor for children and youth services at the University of Washington, refers to reading as "comfort food." "This old-school skill helps kids escape from what they are dealing with and refresh their imagination," she says. The magic of Cleary is that while the conflicts aren't overwhelming, they deal with real-life issues, draped in humor—frustrating siblings, parents tired from work—as the issues resolve, the characters grow stronger, and wiser, as a result.

The kids on Klickitat Street—Ramona, Beezus, Henry—appear across books, creating a revolving group of friends that stay in the reader's life. By bonding and empathizing with these protagonists, silly misunderstandings within a story are tangible. The kids tap compassion, perhaps not just for the characters, but for themselves, too. "Cleary had a knack for creating really likable kids who were flawed, kind of like her readers," says Dr. Martin.

Cleary's stories are very much like hugs, and not just for my kids. I feel comforted, knowing that Bradley has found a compatriot in Ramona and Henry. I try to look at my kids as Cleary might, not naughty rascals bouncing off the walls of my house, but as curious, imaginative kids. Instead of getting irritated that Bradley and his 4-year-old brother, Rhys, are singing songs about poop while jumping on the bed, I recall the delight of Ramona and her best friend, Howie, as they stomp up and down their street wearing tin-can stilts, singing the entire rendition of "99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall." I want my boys to feel this joy.

What's more, audiobooks built Bradley's confidence to transition from picture books and graphic novels to chapter books. When kids listen, they are "ear-reading" which has essentially the same literacy benefits as tracking the words on paper, says Dr. Martin. He's half-way through Ramona the Pest, his second chapter book—proudly updating me on the page number he's on. The day he showed me the last of 183-page Beezus and Ramona, his first accomplishment, may have been the happiest I've seen him since finishing a 968-piece Lego set on his own.

Our Favorite Beverly Cleary Books

These Beverly Cleary books helped us make the pandemic months not just bearable, but lively and not so lonely. From our family to yours, here are six of our favorites.

Henry Huggins

This is Cleary's first book about a third-grader, Henry, who is just a bit bored, until he finds a stray dog he calls Ribsy. The adventure starts with Henry trying to sneak Ribsy on the bus and ends with a twist at a local dog show. Henry also acquires quite a few guppies half-way through the book—a circumstance that puts him in quite a pickle (jar).

Beezus and Ramona

Sibling rivalry at its wholesome best. The first book in the Ramona series depicts just how challenging life with exasperating young siblings can be—from unplanned nursery school bashes to spoiling two birthday cakes in one day! "Ramona put egg shells into the cake mix and baked her doll in the other cake," Bradley says laughing. "Who ever heard of that?"

Ribsy

"I love picturing funny things in my mind," Bradley says of this fast-paced tale of a lost dog trying to make his way home back to Henry. The book delivers with messy pup bubble baths, a rowdy squirrel-chasing scene, and a riotous football game when the dog sneaks into the stadium, then the actual field to chase the ball, helping the home team win.

Ramona Quimby, Age 8

The book is dubbed as "extra funny" by Bradley for its shocking cafeteria scene that will make you think twice about following lunchroom fads. The elementary school escapades and teacher misunderstandings hint that school is not always crayons and rainbows, but it doesn't have to be bad either. Then there is a boy nicknamed Yard Ape—is he friend or foe?

Ramona's World

When a game of dress up goes terribly wrong, Ramona is left hanging—quite literally. The final volume in the series starts off with an introduction to Ramona's baby sister Roberta, followed by babysitting antics, and concludes with birthday party drama that will make you rethink cake frosting.

Mitch and Amy

The novel, loosely based on Cleary's own twins, shows that siblings bicker as much as they have each other's back. Sure, fourth-grader Amy might not be good at her multiplication tables, and Mitch is struggling with reading (not to mention dealing with a pesky bully), but together they help each other. "This book makes me think that I still have things to learn," Bradley says.