Isn’t it amazing how some books and characters make indelible impressions on us? I can’t recall when I first met Ramona, but I will to my dying day never forget her first grade excitement as she took her seat, following the teacher’s instructions to “wait there for the present.” I would bet anyone reading this blog has a favorite Beverly Cleary moment, not unlike today’s Friend Friday guest, Vicki Conrad. Her new picture book, Just Like Beverly: A Biography of Beverly Cleary (Sasquatch Books), has garnered stars and wonderful reviews not simply because of the beloved writer herself, but because Vicki pushed herself to find the true heart of Beverly’s story.
The seed that eventually grew Just Like Beverly most likely started in my second grade year when I discovered the joy of independent reading. I could travel to another world right in my own home. Adventure and solace were always waiting for me in the pages of a book.
In my elementary years, Ramona and I grew up together. Beverly was writing one every year, so as I moved up a grade, so did Ramona. I would order it from the Scholastic Book Order when I came back from recess and when my purchases were placed on the corner of my desk, it truly felt like Christmas. I was an avid reader as a child, but there was something about Ramona. I felt like she felt. Grown-ups did not understand her; I could relate to that. Her parents were worried about paying the bills, and life was not always easy. I could relate to that. Ramona played funny games, pestered her sister, and got into mischief. She was the most relatable character. Beverly Cleary’s books were companions of comfort and humor.
Fast forward to my adult life, when I began to pursue my dream of writing. That little seed began to sprout, with a few words from a fellow Beverly Cleary fan. “Did you know Beverly Cleary struggled to learn to read as a child, that is why she wrote the books she wished were there when she was a child?” That struck me and I remembered reading A Girl From Yamhill. I sat down with a copy of that book and began my first picture book biography.
I took a rough manuscript to my first round table critique. That day I made a connection with an editor from Portland, beloved Beverly’s hometown. She liked the idea, but the manuscript was not strong enough, so I got a no from her. I worked on that story for two more years, finally putting in the shelf, chocking it up to a practice piece. Then, I got an email. The editor from long ago now worked for Sasquatch Books; she wanted to pitch it. For the next five months I re-wrote, hoping to make my manuscript worthy of publishing. It was a long struggle, and it did not work until I found the true heart of the story.
To find the heart I had to go back to second grade me, reading books and finding a friend in Ramona, who was just like me. I thought of young Beverly, struggling as a reader, and longing for funny, relatable books. I thought of my students, learning to read and longing to see themselves reflected in the pages. When I wrote with those seeds in my head and heart, Just Like Beverly grew into a manuscript that resonated with readers, and the story that was eventually published. Beverly Cleary planted a seed that came full circle in my life a writer. I am so grateful for all the books she wrote, and how my dreams blossomed from it as well.
Vicki Conrad is a teacher with a passion for literacy development and inspiring students to love reading just as much as she did as a child. Growing up, she was always found with a book in her hand, and she has stayed that way ever since. When she is not writing or teaching, she is traveling the world, growing a garden, or searching for stories. Her first book, Just Like Beverly was released from Sasquatch Books in 2019. It received a starred Kirkus review and was a Junior Library Guild Selection. She has called Seattle her home for many years. She doesn’t mind the rain, as long as she has coffee, friends, and good books for company.