In a 2011 Atlantic interview, Beverly Cleary shared what she believed to be the reason for her popularity: “I have stayed true to my own memories of childhood, which are not different in many ways from those of children today,” she said. “I don’t think children’s inner feelings have changed.” Cleary seems to have been right about that. The author, who died last week, drew from intense memories of her own early life to write about kids with rare understanding and care. She understood—and respected—children’s inner feelings. Many saw their own awkward experiences reflected in those of Cleary’s characters; they felt heard by her words. For my colleague Sophie Gilbert, the author’s depiction of mortification stood out the most. Learning that she was not alone in even her most humiliating moments, Gilbert writes, was one of the most potent lessons of Cleary’s work.
Many of the best children’s books work like this—by helping kids identify difficult emotions and then work through them. This week, I asked several of my colleagues to share the books that helped them through challenging moments early in life. Some wrote about small experiences that feel big, such as competing with siblings for attention and grappling with the constant discomfort that is puberty. Others wrote about more staggering tragedies, such as losing a friend. As I read these selections, and as I revisited my own favorite children’s books, I was struck by how powerful the experience of seeing one’s own emotion reflected on the page can be—especially for the first time. There’s a reason these stories still resonate even decades after we first read them.
Every Friday in the Books Briefing, we thread together Atlantic stories on books that share similar ideas.
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What We’re Reading
ALAN TIEGREEN / RAMONA THE BRAVE
The Henry Huggins series, the Ramona series, and more, by Beverly Cleary
Beverly Cleary, who died last week at the splendid age of 104, has been heralded for the way she captured—sweetly, and with humor—all the ordinary ups and downs of childhood: sibling rivalry, misunderstandings, having a teacher who you can sense doesn’t like you. But for me, and I’d posit for millions of other kids who messed up everything all the time, the awkwardness of Cleary’s characters was everything. My memories of them are defined by their humiliations.
— Sophie Gilbert, staff writer. Read Sophie’s full review here.
Anastasia Krupnik, by Lois Lowry
I was nearly 5 when my brother was born, and when we were kids, that age gap sometimes felt enormous, as though we were different species. In our competition over a limited resource within our shared habitat—parental attention—he frequently came out on top. So when a babysitter gave me a copy of Lois Lowry’s Anastasia Krupnik, I was quickly taken by the protagonist’s dry humor and incorrigible moodiness, and I very much related to her irritation at her parents’ focus on her much-younger brother, Sam. Anastasia showed me that girls like us had to look out for ourselves, and maybe that wasn’t such a bad thing; even surrounded by familial frustration, one’s inner life was one’s own, after all, and worth tending.
— Amy Weiss-Meyer, deputy managing editor
Mona in the Promised Land, by Gish Jen
I first experienced kinship with a fictional character while reading Gish Jen’s Mona in the Promised Land. In it, Mona Chang (16, quiet, funny, boy-crazy, struggling with her parents’ vision of assimilation and her own) enthusiastically converts to Judaism, and dates a sort-of-Jewish hippie boy who wears a dashiki and enjoys the free life in a tepee in his rich parents’ backyard. I (13, quiet, desperately curious about dating anyone at all, struggling with my parents’ vision of assimilation and my own in an all-white rural town) saw people I knew in those characters. The 1997 book captured the awkward indignities of being a second-generation Chinese American teenager, and stirred in me an awareness of the complex dynamics of cultural appropriation, at a time when those words weren’t so readily discussed.
— Shan Wang, senior editor
The Care and Keeping of You, by Valorie Schaefer
For me, the most uncomfortable part of childhood was leaving it. American Girl’s “Body Book,” The Care and Keeping of You, made that transition less alien. Even after I’d committed most of it to memory, rereading the familiar passages soothed me with the proof of puberty’s scientific universality that even my mother’s best advice lacked. (Books can’t lie to make you feel better.) No matter how singular I felt staring into the bathroom mirror, with the page depicting different stages of breast development folded open on the sink, the book reminded me that growing up would never be as devastatingly unique to me as it seemed.
— Haley Weiss, assistant editor
Roxaboxen, by Alice McLerran
As a kid, I was terrified of growing up. I cried on my fifth birthday when my mom asked me to share my favorite memories from the year. I feared what I might lose as time passed and who I might become. Roxaboxen first drew me in with a group of characters who, unlike me, were delightfully occupied by the present; they created a town out of boxes, pottery scraps, and glass in shades of amethyst, amber, and sea-green. But in the novel’s final pages, those characters grew up and left their make-believe town behind. As I confronted my anxiety about loss, the book offered a soothing reminder of all that we have the capacity to hold on to, if we wish: “Roxaboxen was always waiting. Roxaboxen was always there.”
— Kate Cray, assistant editor
Jacob Have I Loved, by Katherine Paterson
Like the narrator of Jacob Have I Loved, one of Katherine Paterson’s two Newbery Medal–winning novels, I have a sibling who always seemed to be in the spotlight. Also like Louise, growing up I both begrudged and accepted my identity as the overshadowed sister; when you don’t yet know who you are, being adjacent to someone smart and talented and outwardly confident can feel like a decent place to settle. But when that identity felt too confining, I read, and reread, the book, taking comfort in the ending, which promises—truthfully, in my experience—that the world has a place for everyone, even if you don’t find yours right away.
— Karen Ostergren, deputy copy chief
The Little Prince, by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry
Growing up, I owned three copies of The Little Prince: one in French, passed down from my brother; one in English, purchased by my mother; and one in Spanish, gifted by an aunt in Mexico. It’s taught me so much each time I’ve read it, but the first and most formative lesson came when I was being bullied in elementary school; reflecting on that time, I had inklings that I was different from my classmates, but I didn’t have the vocabulary to describe my sexuality. All I knew was that I was lonely, in the “secret place, the land of tears,” which the narrator ponders while the prince cries in his arms and describes the pain of being consumed by worry for the object of his affection: a rose. The story of this prince and this rose that became his whole world taught me about self-love and perseverance, wisdom I have carried with me into the adult world.
— Christian Paz, assistant editor
Kira-Kira, by Cynthia Kadohata
In Japanese, kira-kira means “glittering” or “shining,” and this word describes the lens through which Cynthia Kadohata’s narrator, Katie, views the world, even as she grapples with her sister’s terminal illness and encounters racism in 1950s Georgia. I read Kira-Kira when I was in fourth grade, after a friend my age died in a car crash. The book’s exploration of death through a child’s eyes gave me the space I needed to grieve, while gently pointing me toward the path of healing.
— Morgan Ome, assistant editor