By Terrance Turner
March 26, 2021
Beloved children’s books author Beverly Cleary died Thursday at her home in Carmel, California. She was 104.
Born Beverly Bunn on April 12, 1916 in McMinnville, Oregon, she lived on a farm in Yamhill. When she was 6, the family moved to Portland. She was a slow reader at first. “I had chicken pox, smallpox, and tonsillitis in the first grade, and nobody seemed to think that had anything to do with my reading trouble,” she later told the Associated Press. “I just got mad and rebellious.”
She had a breakthrough one rainy Sunday afternoon: “The outside world drizzled, the inside world was heavy with the smell of pot roast and my father’s Sunday after-dinner cigar, and I was so bored I picked up The Dutch Twins to look at the pictures. Suddenly I was reading and enjoying what I read! It was a miracle. I was happy in a way I had not been happy since starting school,” she wrote in her autobiography A Girl from Yamhill.
By the third grade, she enjoyed reading and spent much of her time with books from the public library. A teacher suggested that she write children’s books. The idea appealed to her. According to the Educational Books and Media Association, “In sixth grade Cleary wrote a story for a writing assignment about a little girl who goes to Bookland and talks with some of her favorite literary characters. She remembered in her autobiography that a “feeling of peace came over me as I wrote far beyond the required length of the essay. I had discovered the pleasure of writing.”
After her teacher, Miss Smith, read the story aloud, she exclaimed, “When Beverly grows up, she should write children’s books.” Miss Smith’s praise gave “direction to my life,” Cleary maintained, adding in More Junior Authors that the suggestion “seemed like such a good idea that I made up my mind that someday I would write books–the kind of books I wanted to read.”
In high school, Beverly studied journalism and wrote stories for the school newspaper. She went to Chaffey Junior College in Ontario, California. After graduating, she enrolled at the University of California at Berkeley. She graduated in 1938. A year later, she earned a degree of the University of Washington’s school of librarianship, becoming a children’s librarian in Yakima, WA.
In 1940, she married Clarence Cleary, whom she had met at Berkeley. Beverly’s parents disapproved of the couple (they were Presbyterian; he was Catholic). So the couple eloped and moved to San Francisco. While her husband served in the military, Mrs. Cleary sold children’s books and worked as a librarian. She became dissatisfied with the books available to children. So did the kids. One boy pointedly asked her: “Where are the books about kids like us?”
Mrs. Cleary wondered the same thing. “Why weren’t there more stories about children playing? Why couldn’t I find more books that would make me laugh?” she recalled in 1975. There weren’t any. So Beverly Cleary decided to write her own.
Inspired by her own childhood, Cleary began a collection of stories about children on Klickitat Street — an actual street in Portland, Oregon, where she grew up. The result was Henry Huggins (1950), a book about a third-grade boy. Henry adopts a stray dog, whom he names Ribsy because he’s so skinny that his ribs show. The book was a success — Kirkus called the book “enchanting” — and spawned several sequels, including Henry and Beezus (1952), featuring Henry’s friend Beatrice “Beezus” Quimby.
Beatrice’s younger sister Ramona was introduced in Henry Huggins almost as an afterthought. “All of the children appeared to be only children, so I tossed in a little sister and she didn’t go away. She kept showing up in every book,” Cleary remembered in a March 2016 interview.
Indeed, Ramona Quimby showed up in book after book: Henry and Ribsy (1954), Beezus and Ramona (1955), Henry and the Paper Route (1957), and Henry and the Clubhouse (1962). She would soon become one of Cleary’s most beloved characters.
Ramona had a supporting role in Beezus and Ramona — released the same year that Cleary gave birth to twins, Malcolm and Marianne. In the book, four-year-old Ramona annoys Beezus by scribbling all over her library book and disrupting a checkers game with Henry. She later ruins not one but two of Beezus’ birthday cakes. Beezus decides that she does not love her sister. But Beezus later hears her mother and Aunt Beatrice (her namesake) laughing about the trouble they caused each other growing up. After hearing the conversation, Beezus decides that it’s OK to dislike your sister every now and then.
Reviewer Heloise P. Mailloux called the story “a very funny book; its situations are credible, and it has a perceptive handling of family relationships that is unfortunately rare in easily read books.” Ramona also drew praise from reviewers. Writing in Horn Book, Ethel L. Heins called Ramona “one of the most endearing protagonists of children’s fiction,” while Publishers Weekly contributor Heather Vogel Frederick described her as “an indelible figure in the children’s book world since she burst on the scene.”
In Henry and the Paper Route (1957), Henry works doggedly to land a paper route, despite being under the age limit (all paper boys must be 11, and Henry’s ten-and-a-half). He eventually suceeds. But then he must contend with Ramona’s acts of sabotage. (She picks up the papers and throws them on other lawns because she, too, wants to be a “paper boy”.) Henry outsmarts her and continues with his route.
Henry dislikes Ramona, whom he sees as a pest. In Henry and the Clubhouse, however, Ramona follows Henry into a snowstorm when he is delivering papers. He feels sorry for her, so he loads Ramona on his sled and takes her home before going back into the storm to finish his route. Henry is commended for his kindness and responsibility and, at the end of the story, is given five dollars by his dad so he can buy the new sleeping bag he wanted.
As her children grew, Cleary wrote books around their lives and interests. According to the Educational Book Media Association, “she wrote four picture books–The Real Hole, Two Dog Biscuits, Janet’s Thingamajigs, and The Growing-up Feet–about four-year-old twins Janet and Jimmy, who are modeled on her children.” Her son Malcolm was fascinated with motorcycles and had trouble learning to read, so Cleary wrote a book that would hold his interest. The result: The Mouse and the Motorcyle (1965).
Ms. Cleary introduced the new character of Ralph S. Mouse (the S stands for “smart”), a mouse who lives in the Mountain View Inn. He befriends a young boy named Keith, whose parents Mr. and Mrs. Gridley are renting the room. Keith teaches Ralph how to ride his toy motorcycle. That puts Ralph on a series of wild adventures (he’s nearly vacuumed up, gets tossed out a window, and even ends up in a pile of sheets headed for the laundry). But when Keith gets sick, it is Ralph who brings up some aspirin and becomes the story’s hero. Writing in Young Readers Review, Phyllis Cohen commented, “This fantasy is so realistic that it is almost plausible” before concluding, “Even boys who do not care for fantasy may find this fantasy much to their liking.”
In Ramona the Pest (1968), Ramona Quimby at last became the star of her own story. It was the first book to feature her as the protagonist. In it, she begins kindergarten and tries to escape the “pest” label from her sister Beezus. As the series continued, Ramona slowly matures, and so does the subject matter.
In Ramona the Brave (1975), Mrs. Quimby goes from being a stay-at-home mom to being a part-time bookkeeper. In Ramona and her Father (1977), Ramona goes on a campaign to stop her father from smoking, which he does after losing his job. In Ramona and her Mother (1979), Ramona’s mother goes to work full-time so that Mr. Quimby can go back to school. After hearing their parents fight, Ramona and Beezus become convinced that their parents are headed for divorce. But the next morning, her parents have breakfast at the table, as if nothing has happened. They assure their daughters that they are sometimes short-tempered, but still love each other.
Cleary broke from her typical style with Dear Mr. Henshaw (1983). It centers on Leigh Botts, a sixth-grader distraught by his parents’ divorce. He misses his father, who works as a cross-country trucker. He seeks solace by writing to his favorite author; in the process, he reveals a lot about himself. He misses his father (and his dog Bandit, who travels with Dad); he’s often alone while his mother works part-time and studies nursing; he’s made no new friends. The author suggests he keep a diary, which he does; he eventually wins an honorable mention in a short-story contest.
The book earned praise from reviewers, who noted its sensitivity and depth. Natalie Babbitt of the New York Times Book Review, said that Cleary “has written many very good books over the years. This one is the best. It is a first-rate, poignant story in the forms of letters and a diary–a new construction for a Cleary book–and there is so much in it, all presented so simply, that it’s hard to find a way to do it justice.” According to the EBM Association, Babbitt concluded, “What a lovely, well-crafted, three-dimensional book this is.” Dear Mr. Henshaw won the Newbery Medal in 1984, one of the most prestigious prizes for children’s literature.
Cleary continued to write and receive honors throughout the 1980s. Britannica notes that Cleary published the memoirs A Girl from Yamhill (1988) and My Own Two Feet (1995). She concluded the Ramona series — and her career — with Ramona’s World (1999), written 15 years after its predecessor Ramona Forever. In that book, Ramona finds herself nine years old, with a new baby sister and a potential new crush. It was to be Cleary’s last book.
In a March 2016 interview, the author explained why she’d hung up her typewriter, saying that “it’s important for writers to know when to quit.”
Cleary’s husband died in 2004. She is survived by her children, three grandchildren, and one great-grandchild. And her books, read by many (I devoured the Ramona series as a child) will live on forever.