When Ellen Grae first appeared in 1967, it was deemed too taxing for children of Ellen Grae’s age because the moral dilemmas and conflicts with which she is faced were considered too difficult and/or inappropriate. Ellen Grae not only must decide whether to reveal a secret entrusted to her by a friend but also must deal with the adult issues of familial divorce, death, mental retardation, and poverty, balancing community values and personal values and independence in addition to the question of right and wrong.
The strength of Ellen Grae, however, is that the protagonist is shown to be capable of handling these quite difficult issues in an appropriate way because she can make decisions on her own, although she is not always comfortable with the outcome. The beauty and strength of the Cleavers’ writing is that they make readers believe that Ellen Grae is capable of moral determinations. They do so by graciously moving readers slowly to the conflict and by using a first-person narrative.
The authors situate the story in a small, lazy Florida town where everyone is known to each other, foibles and all, as is Ellen Grae and her tendency to tell outrageously comic stories. Although Ira spills his story to Ellen Grae at the beginning of the book, the novel’s first half is basically plot-free, even though the authors are skillfully heading toward a fast conflict and painful denouement. The plot moves as imperceptibly, quietly, and lazily as the overheated Florida town at Labor Day, when the conflict suddenly reemerges on a fateful treasure-hunting trip that Ellen Grae,...
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Ellen Grae, Bill and Vera Cleaver’s first novel, was published in 1967, at a time when children’s book fare was light, romantic, and episodic; mainly showcased intact families with young siblings; and often featured characters who romped around happily in the suburbs.
Ellen Grae signaled one of the earliest attempts to produce successfully a feisty, honest, thinking female character. (One thinks only of Louise Fitzhugh’s title character in 1964’s Harriet, the Spy as eclipsing her.) The Cleavers’ book presented social values and norms not then seen in children’s books; it was, for example, one of the first to present a protagonist of divorced parents, whose relationship is unstereotypically amicable and whom Ellen Grae calls by their first names. The themes of the book blatantly challenged and questioned prevailing norms and values by presenting a character who, at age eleven, was capable of coming to a state of self-awareness without the aid of adults.
From 1967 until 1981, when Bill Cleaver died, the couple produced seventeen books. The last, Hazel Rye, was finished by Vera Cleaver and published in 1983; she went on to write several novels until her death in 1992. Many of their books, two of which reintroduced Ellen Grae, include similarly strong female characters, notably The Whys and Wherefores of Littabelle Lee (1973) and the justly famous Where the Lilies Bloom (1969). The Cleavers never flinched from portraying social issues, often dealing with the difficult themes of mental retardation, death, alienation, poverty, and illness of the body and soul.
The Cleavers’ books also set a high standard in excellent, well-researched regional writing for children, setting stories not only in the rural Deep South, but in the southern Appalachians and the Ozarks, as well as in metropolitan areas such as Chicago and Seattle.
The Cleavers were trailblazers of the realistic and seriocomic novel for young children, and it is a tribute to them that their works, beginning with Ellen Grae, still display dignity, grace, and honesty as they guide the reader eloquently toward personal growth.