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Remembering literary luminaries Beverly Clary and Larry McMurtry

Only one quarter of 2021 has passed, and we’ve lost two important American writers, Beverly Cleary and Larry McMurtry. We can take heart that both lived full lives leaving rich bodies of work, Cleary having died at 104 and McMurtry at 84. They were equally highly regarded and utterly different in their work.

Cleary, who has written many dearly loved children’s books aimed at about grades three to five, received pretty much every award a children’s literature author can have plus one I didn’t know about, Library of Congress Living Legend.

Cleary was born in 1916 to a farmer and a schoolteacher in Oregon. The family moved to Portland when Cleary was six, a move she found difficult. She had noted many years later that school was excruciatingly humiliating from her perspective. A weak reader who never truly grasped why she wasn’t better at it, she was put in the Blackbird Group in school. As she put it, “Everyone knew that the Blackbird Group were the disgraced readers.” As it turns out, she was simply unhappy and bored with the book choices. By the time she was in the sixth grade, her teacher told her she had a future in writing children’s books. She wrote what she wished she could have read as a child.

She was educated at the University of California Berkeley and became a school librarian. She felt a new type of children’s book should be available, so she wrote it. She felt that kids’ books should deal with the everyday common problems that they see in life, things adults think aren’t a big deal but are to kids. And that became her specialty.

You might well know such characters as Henry Huggins, his dog Ribsy, and Ramona, for example. No one made fun of her characters in her books, and she showed respect for common confusion and fear that children have.

To show how her books have survived the decades, you can find all these characters and more right in our library. At least 20 Cleary books are available in our collection in book, ebook, and audio formats.

You’ll have no trouble finding Larry McMurtry’s books at the library either. We hold twenty-three of them. McMurtry wrote long and richly descriptive books set in the west, often Texas, his home state from birth to death. If you haven’t read them, it’s likely you’ve seen the movies based on them such as his most famous, Lonesome Dove, plus The Last Picture Show, Brokeback Mountain, Hud (originally Horseman, Pass by), and Terms of Endearment. McMurtry has stated, “I’m a critic of the myth of the cowboy,” because he knew the myth from the reality.

It’s interesting that with all this success he felt that his most important work was putting together a personal library of 30,000 books. It’s especially remarkable since he “grew up on a bookless ranch.” Calvin Trillin, mentioned in this column last week (Tepper Isn’t Going Out) was a friend of McMurtry’s and has said, “Larry knows which shade of blue on the cover of Native Son indicates a first printing.” He was a selective, knowledgeable, and respected collector.

While all the books named here are those that people think of when they think of McMurtry, he had many lesser-known works, among them my favorite, All My Friends Are Going to Be Strangers, with the protagonist Danny Deck. Danny travels from Houston to California, a character to whom McMurtry gives an ambiguous ending. (Once as an undergraduate decades ago, I convinced an over-worked proctor to reward my six-page argument that the ending of All My Friends was “just like the ending of James Joyce’s Finnigan’s Wake.” This argument depended for its success on the element of surprising the person doing the grading. I still have a soft spot in my heart for McMurtry and his creation, Danny Deck.)

We should also consider that Cleary and McMurtry present us with two significant genres we haven’t talked about, Children’s Literature and the Western. See the library blog to get in on our genre reading challenge.

Please don’t forget to stop in the library soon to pick up your new library card and perhaps some Cleary and/or McMurtry books. The catalog system is changing soon, and you’ll need your new number.

See you at the Library!

(By Roz Weedman)

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