The childhood memories we retain most searingly tend to involve shame. When I was 6, after being chided twice for talking too loudly during lunch, I was made to stand in the cafeteria by myself until the other kids finished their food. I can’t even type that sentence without flushing at how conspicuously bad I felt, and how alone. Humiliation is a kind of trauma; when we experience it, our nervous system floods us with adrenaline, heightening our perception and preserving the memory as a warning against future social transgression. And childhood is nothing if not a series of bungles, one maladroit, painfully public flop after another.
Nobody understood this better than Beverly Cleary. The children’s author, 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. There’s Ellen Tebbits trying, with ungainly persistence, to pull an enormous beet out of the ground to bring to class, tearing her dress, covering herself in mud, and having to be rescued by her friend’s older brother. And Ramona Quimby, after being frightened by a dog and throwing her shoe at him, finding herself one shoe short at school on the day she finally gets picked to lead the flag salute. And Ramona’s equable big sister, Beezus, left weeping after a misadventure at a local beauty school leaves her with, horror of horrors, “forty-year-old hair.”