The Most Important Thing that Beverly Cleary Taught Me About Writing

When I was writing one of my middle grades, Queen of Likes, I momentarily forgot what it was like to be a tween. In that book, 12-year-old Karma Cooper gets her phone taken away. At first, I got right to this punishment and had Karma communicating her regret.

Wrong! I had forgotten what it felt like to be a seventh grader. How could this happen? After all, I teach an online course, Middle Grade Mastery with the Children’s Book Academy, and exhort my students to crawl into the head of a kid and stay there. Instead, I was writing the text like—gulp–a mom. I hate how my children and their friends are on the phone in the car and don’t talk to each other. I don’t allow phones at the kitchen table. I constantly make them put their phones away. But a kid might feel different. She might feel as though Mom is really patently unfair. In revision, I had to remember how Karma felt about her phone, not me, the Mom. When I had Karma name her phone Floyd, I got back into a child head space.

Let’s look in more detail how to do this. Beverly Cleary recently just celebrated her 103rd birthday, and I can think of no better middle grade mentor to learn from than her. Cleary clearly (I just have been waiting to put those two words together for a very long time), understands and remembers what it is like to be a child.

Cleary’s Ramona Quimby, Age 8, focuses on tension over a beloved eraser. As an adult it is too easy to forget the attachment that children have to small inanimate objects. Sometimes as grown-ups we see things merely as tools whereas to a child an eraser is an entire sensory experience and imbued with magic. When Ramona first receives her eraser this is how it is how her new treasure is described: “smooth, pearly pink, smelling softly of rubber, and just right for a racing pencil lines.”

Of course, this treasure is taken away from her on the bus by some boys. To an adult losing an eraser may seem minor, but to Ramona, it’s a catastrophe. From an eight-year-old perspective, it is not just an common school supply but a “beautiful pink eraser.”

And because the family is struggling financially, as Mr. Quimby has left his job to go back to school, it is even further appreciated.

I love how efficiently Cleary sets up the importance of the eraser. After its introduction, within a few page turns, the eraser is missing. This all happens on the first day of school. Not an ordinary day but one that is ritualized.

Try this exercise to get back to the child mindset:
1. Go back to being 8, 9, 10, 11 or 12. Think about an inanimate object.

2. Consider how much you love the object.

3. Name the object.

4. Touch it. Smell it, feel it. Using your senses describe it.

5. Write down why it is so important to you.

6. Why do you have such strong feelings?

7. Not consider how you would feel if that object were taken from you!

If you’re getting all the feels—then pat yourself on the back. You’re remembering the magic of childhood. Let’s all celebrate the master of understanding children, Beverly Cleary.

Hillary Homzie is the author of Ellie May chapter book series (Charlesbridge, Dec 18, 2018), as well as Apple Pie Promises (Sky Pony/Swirl, October 2018), Pumpkin Spice Secrets (Sky Pony/Swirl, October 2017), Queen of Likes (Simon & Schuster MIX 2016), The Hot List (Simon & Schuster MIX 2011) and Things Are Gonna Be Ugly (Simon & Schuster, 2009) as well as the Alien Clones From Outer Space (Simon & Schuster Aladdin 2002) chapter book series. She teaches at Hollins University Graduate Program in Children’s Literature, Writing and Illustration and at the Children’s Book Academy. She can be found at and on her Facebook page as well as on Twitter.

Hillary Homzie