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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