A Century of Beverly Cleary
April 7, 2016 2:07 PM   Subscribe

“I owe my literacy learning and appreciation to a mother who loved reading, read aloud, and believed in the use of the public library, and to my teachers who were strict in teaching the tools of writing.” Beverly Cleary celebrates her hundredth birthday next week. She recently spoke to the Oregonian about her long career.

Born on a farm in Oregon, Cleary's mother was a school teacher and her father was a farmer. Early in her education she was classified as a struggling reader. A librarian at her school introduced her to books that she enjoyed, and not only did she catch up in her reading, but she developed a lifelong love of books and libraries. The interaction had a profound effect on her and shaped what she strove to inspire in her young readers:
The feeling that reading is pleasure that can be enjoyed alone, that the written word has something to say that is worth discovering, and most of all, the feeling that now the reader is free to go on as far as he wants to go. This is the feeling given me by the first book I was able to read for pleasure. That discovery was one of the most exciting moments of my life and one that I hope to pass on to children.
Eventually Cleary graduated with a degree in Library and Information Science from the University of Washington, where there is now an endowed seat in children's librarianship named for her. She fell in love with Clarence Cleary but as he was Catholic, her parents did not approve of the match and so they eloped. She worked as a children's librarian, and ended up with her husband in the Bay Area during WWII, where she worked in a bookstore and as an army librarian.

As she told the New York Times, it was dissatisfaction with the style of children's books that prompted a change in career:
What ultimately drove her to write for children, she recalled, was a book she noticed when she had a job in a children’s bookstore in the 1940s. In it, a puppy said: "Bow-wow. I like the green grass."

"No dog I had ever known could talk like that," Cleary said. She wondered once again, as she frequently had while working as a children’s librarian, "What was the matter with authors?"

Her conclusion: "I knew I could write a better book."
She ended up writing dozens of books and winning many awards for her work, including the National Medal of Arts, the William Allen White Children's Book award, the Catholic Library Association's Regina Medal, and the Children's Book Council's Every Child Award. The American Library Association gave her the Laura Ingalls Wilder Award for "substantial and lasting contributions to children's literature" as well as the Newberry Award which is given to "the most distinguished contribution to American literature for children."

After returning to Oregon, Cleary created a world of interconnected children who live in the same neighborhood and appear in multiple books. She chose Klickitat Street, a few blocks from where she grew up on 37th street, as the heart of her fictional world because she liked the sound of the name. Among her many characters:
  • Ramona Quimby Originally introduced as a younger sibling to Beezus, as Cleary was concerned that she had written too many only children, Ramona went on to appear in many more books. Cleary speculated that children like Ramona because
    "she does not learn to be a better girl. I was so annoyed with the books in my childhood, because children always learned to be better children, and in my experience, they didn't. They just grew, and so I started Ramona, and — and she has never reformed. And she — she's really not a naughty child, in spite of the title of Ramona the Pest. Her intentions are good, but she has a lot of imagination, and things sometimes don't turn out the way she had expected."
    (In the late 80s, Ramona's story was adapted as a short-lived tv series starring a young Sarah Polley; full episodes are available online: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10 - warning: extreme 80s-ness in the opening credits)
  • Henry Huggins Along with his faithful companion, Ribsy the dog, Henry represents the kind of ordinary child that Cleary knew from her time as a school librarian. Henry Huggins was Cleary's first book, and she wanted to present a realistic portrayal of the everyday lives of children from their perspective. This book was in response to a child who asked her "Where are the books about kids like us?"

  • Ralph S. Mouse When Ralph, a mouse living in a hotel in California, comes across a toy motorcycle, he befriends the toy's owner, a boy called Keith. Ralph is a mouse who can speak, but only with certain people who "tend to be loners".

  • Otis Spofford Published in 1953, it was unusual at the time for depicting a child of divorced parents. Otis Spofford is a fourth grader with glow in the dark shoelaces who is often left at home alone. He likes nothing better than "stirring up a little excitement".
She also wrote picture books for younger readers, and a four-part series called "First Love" to keep up with her readers as they grew into high school.

On her 90th birthday, Cleary was interviewed at her home in Carmel, California (transcript). And more recently, Jenna Bush Hager (herself the daughter of a children's librarian) spoke with Cleary, asking her whether she was excited about turning one hundred. Cleary replied, "well, I didn't do it on purpose!"

Why not take some advice from Ramona Quimby, age 8, and drop everything and read to celebrate? Or if you prefer, you can call it Sustained Silent Reading. Every year, Cleary's birthday is celebrated as "Drop Everything and Read Day", an event which encourages families to clear some time and read together. There's a color flyer you can print (pdf), or some bookmarks (pdf) or stickers (pdf). Many more resources are available on the D.E.A.R. website.

If you're in the Portland, OR area, you can take a self-guided walking tour of where the events in the books took place (pdf map available) or visit the Beverly Cleary Sculpture Garden in Grant Park. On Saturday there will be a celebration at the Beverly Cleary Children's Library where you can enjoy interactive live readings, crafts, games and activities, as well as multiple screenings of Oregon Public Broadcasting’s Oregon Art Beat Special "featuring an exclusive interview with Mrs. Cleary, which takes a look at both her life and award-winning work. It explores her strong connection to Oregon, from her time growing up in Yamhill and Northeast Portland, her legacy and the impact of her writing on both the field of children’s literature and on young readers worldwide". If you can't make it to a screening, you can watch it online at the Oregon Public Broadcasting website where there's much more Clearyania, including a quiz, photos, and information about her life in Oregon.

More on her centenary here ("people tell me I don't look a day over 80"), and here ("I’m surprised that I’m almost 100. I sometimes write the figures down on paper to make sure"), and here ("No, I haven't [read Harry Potter]. I rarely read children's books.") and a timeline of her life here.
posted by tractorfeed (34 comments total) 105 users marked this as a favorite
Excellent post, tractorfeed. Beverly Cleary was one of my favorite authors when I was growing up, and I'm trying to get my daughter into her as well. Thanks for posting!
posted by KillaSeal at 2:09 PM on April 7, 2016 [1 favorite]

As a kid, I was IN Henry Huggins' clubhouse. And I briefly had a (weekly) paper route, which I wouldn't have thought to do if it weren't for him. He and Otis are the most realistic boys in children's literature, IMO. Fantastic post, thank you so much!
posted by Melismata at 2:16 PM on April 7, 2016 [3 favorites]

The First Love collection is 4 unrelated books...and Shelley at the beginning of The Luckiest Girl is dating a guy she doesn't like; she had previously gone to a dance with someone she did, but later heard her mother mocking hIm to a friend.
posted by brujita at 2:28 PM on April 7, 2016

There was no way that you could make me happier as a kid than to slip me a new Beverly Cleary book. Or an old one, because her books were endlessly re-readable. (Shout out to Henry Huggins and that lifetime supply of cinnamon gumballs.) It's been nearly 30 years since then, but I still think about Ramona's relationship with her father now that I am a father myself. (Nosmo King?)

Knowing that Beverly Cleary is 100 and still enjoying herself is going to have me in a good mood a while to come.
posted by chimpsonfilm at 2:34 PM on April 7, 2016 [7 favorites]

One of my favorite scenes in all of literature is Ramona sitting on the floor eating just the first bite of the apple, tossing the rest away because the first bite is always the best, then reaching for another one - and Beezus having to admit that she's right, it is the best part of the apple. It makes me laugh just thinking about it. Also the scene with the toothpaste in the sink and Ramona's crown of cockle-burrs. Austine Allen and Ellen Tebbits giving Otis his comeuppance. Henry Higgins and his girl's bike. Beezus running out of real tears and having to manufacture her own fake ones. . . .so great. I could go on and on with these scenes that make me laugh.

No other character taught me more that it was okay to be myself as a child, as imperfect as I was (and am), than Ramona Quimby did. I realized that at the time, too, and it helped a lot towards building my self-confidence.

But what I didn't pick up on, even though I internalized it, is a lot of what happens in her books involve being a kid whose parents aren't that well off and struggle a little, but who as a family love each other despite their imperfections and those struggles. It was really important to read about a family that seemed so similar to my own. It was real in a way that I didn't find in very much other literature (that was accessible at the time. Like when the Quimby family went to that restaurant that was definitely not fancy but was a huge deal to them - that was an experience straight from my life, and that was necessary as a kid, to find other people in other places had the same kind of experiences. It made my life feel normal.

Cleary is such a treasure.
posted by barchan at 2:45 PM on April 7, 2016 [15 favorites]

Everyone should read her two autobiographies, because they are wonderful.
posted by skycrashesdown at 2:48 PM on April 7, 2016 [2 favorites]

I'm going to a birthday celebration for her at the Central Library in Portland this weekend. So excited!
posted by terooot at 2:49 PM on April 7, 2016 [5 favorites]

I adore Ramona. I think so many kids relate to her because she's a smart kid, but her plans always end up falling short of her expectations, because she's still a kid and doesn't have all the pieces yet. She's the kid version of that Ira Glass quote about how creative beginners' taste often outpaces their talent. Like when she tries to make pants for her stuffed elephant, or when she decides to imitate the funny kids in commercials and just ends up pissing everyone off. My own childhood is chock full of screwups like that.

I also like how she's just a little bit pretentious, in that smart-kid way. Preferring the phrase "Sustained Silent Reading" because it sounds grown-up, even though she doesn't quite know what it means? That is also very much childhood me.
posted by Metroid Baby at 2:55 PM on April 7, 2016 [7 favorites]

Great post, loved all her books about Henry Huggins and the gang. When I was a little kid I named my pet mouse Ralph after the the titular character in The Mouse and the Motorcycle.
posted by marxchivist at 3:11 PM on April 7, 2016 [1 favorite]

This is great.

I loved all of her books as a kid, but especially the Henry Huggins books and Dear Mr. Henshaw. I had a box set of the Ramona books, and yearling paperbacks of all the rest.

I was also a devoted fan of the Ramona TV show, and Beezus (Lori Chodos) might have be the earliest "celebrity" crush I can recall (which lasted until HBO made the Encylopedia Brown specials and it switched from Beatrix to Sally Kimball).
posted by namewithoutwords at 3:49 PM on April 7, 2016 [1 favorite]

Socks was the first book I took out of the library, and I chose it because I remembered my older brother reading it to me years before.

Ramona was my favorite, though, and Strider. God, Strider. I remember being allowed to rent the Ramona TV series as a kid and being so disappointed that it didn't look like my imagination.
posted by dinty_moore at 4:21 PM on April 7, 2016

“I owe my literacy learning and appreciation to a mother who loved reading, read aloud, and believed in the use of the public library, and to my teachers who were strict in teaching the tools of writing.”

Coincidentally, I owe my literacy to Beverly Cleary.

(Awesome post -- thank you.)
posted by mudpuppie at 4:41 PM on April 7, 2016 [1 favorite]

If you like audiobooks, Stockard Channing narrating Ramona's adventures is exactly as awesome as you imagine.
posted by Flannery Culp at 4:50 PM on April 7, 2016 [5 favorites]

My word, I ate up the Ramon Quimby books when I was a wee lad in elementary school; I still remember a very poignant bit to this day - Ramona's dad had just had an incredibly bad day(s), put on an old rainjacket, found an old cigarette in it, and proceeds to smoke it after having had quit for years(?). I still have strange feels for that scene.

Also, Sal Monella.
posted by porpoise at 4:52 PM on April 7, 2016 [1 favorite]

She's a national treasure.

So I just burned my last two audible credits getting all the Ramona Quimby and Henry Huggins audiobooks for my kids to listen to on long car rides. They don't even ASK for ipads on a 4-hour trip when Cleary is on the speakers.

In the intro to the Henry Huggins audiobooks (narrated by Neil Patrick Harris!) Cleary reads the introduction in which she explains the origin for the character and story of Henry Huggins. It's really wonderful to hear her speak about it. I got a little teared up, just considering the great empathy and love she has for young readers.

Thank you, Beverly Cleary. Thank you, so very much, for me and for my children.
posted by Doleful Creature at 4:54 PM on April 7, 2016 [4 favorites]

I loved all of Beverly Cleary's books while I was growing up, and I was astonished and delighted to learn on a visit to Oregon that Klickitat Street is REAL.

My favourite Ramona moment: when she can't resist pulling the curls of the little girl in her kindergarten class and making a "boing" noise as she does so.

Runner up: when she names her doll "Chevrolet" because she thinks it's a beautiful name. I thought of this when a little girl of my acquaintance named her doll "Celica" because of the family car.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 5:26 PM on April 7, 2016 [8 favorites]

I LOVE this post!

I devoured the Beverly Cleary books when I was a kid - I read them over and over and over again. I'm pretty sure I bought most of them through the Weekly Reader (which I think had a book ordering section, does anyone remember?) and still have all of them because my mom wisely saved them. The ones with the 80s covers.

I was an extreme bookworm as a kid. I wasn't in extracurriculars, I was really shy, I hated outdoors, so I read all. the. time. Like, I actually got in trouble more than once for always reading (e.g. during class when I was supposed to be listening to the teacher). There's no way to express how certain books and authors shaped my childhood and life. Beverly Clearly was one of the main ones (along with Judy Blume, Stephen King and, uh... V.C Andrews).

I'm the oldest child with a sister 3 1/2 years younger than me so I identified a lot with Beezus. And what barchan said above about the real-life problems they had - these really resonated with me and kind of comforted me. The one where they come home and the house is dark and cold and they can't smell dinner because their mom forgot to turn the crockpot on. Or how they had to scrimp and save because dad lost his job. Or when Ramona was going to run away and her mother helped her pack a suitcase. And remember how much Henry loved Ribsy? And how another boy showed up and claimed he was his dog, named Dizzy, and they let Ribsy decide who to go with? Or when Henry wrote a letter to Sheriff Bud on TV asking him to tell Ramona to be nice?

And I learned about things from the books too. I learned: how to make applesauce, the secret to a light and flaky pie crust (Emily's Runaway Imagination), who Dorothy Hamill was (remember Beezus' haircut?) and that salmon swim upstream (Henry's fishing trip with his dad) amongst other things. My (very brief) foray into ballet when I was 8 or so was directly because of Ellen Tebbits. I have so many good memories of these books.

Also, on preview, I always agreed with Ramona - Chevrolet is a beautiful-sounding name.
posted by triggerfinger at 5:37 PM on April 7, 2016 [11 favorites]

Another Ramona lover. Ramona and Anne were the two girls who were *me* when other kids thought I was a weirdo. When she gets stuck in the mud? The best. I never liked Henry tho.
posted by dame at 6:58 PM on April 7, 2016 [1 favorite]

I think the mouse and the motorcycle was the first real book I read all by myself. Not so coincidentally, it was the first one my son did. He's now 25... when I was a kid, and when my children were kids, Beverly Cleary was always a favorite. So happy to hear she's still around.

I agree with flannery, Stockard Channing is a great reader. Loved her reading the Ramona books.
posted by dougfelt at 7:39 PM on April 7, 2016

I loved Beverly Clearly's books; I think though that I mostly read them to my younger siblings/kids I babysat.
HOWEVER, I am happy to say that my fabulous cats are named Ramona and Beatrice, because those are perfect cat sister names!
posted by maryrussell at 7:56 PM on April 7, 2016 [5 favorites]

As a child, I was greedy for Cleary's books, read them cover to cover without stopping to eat.

I have so much love for her writing. I still remember Ramona's adventures. Chevrolet. The toothpaste. The fact all of this occurred within the context of a family with money woes. I am so grateful that Cleary portrayed the fact the Quimbys, like many families, struggled to make ends meet. But most of all I cherished Ramona's tomboyish personality and feeling like she was the only girl in fiction I ever completely related to, and ever understood.

I had a difficult childhood, and like my legos, Clear's books provided bright, joyful moments in an otherwise trying time.
posted by neeta at 1:46 AM on April 8, 2016 [1 favorite]

Oh and if anybody knows where to get those old editions of the Ramona series (the ones with the funky line drawings) I owe you a beer. Or a tube of toothpaste.
posted by neeta at 1:54 AM on April 8, 2016 [1 favorite]

Thanks to Ramona, I always demand that my french fries be "crisp on the outside and mealy on the inside". That was the first time anyone in a book had really bothered to describe something so banal yet so close to my heart and it perfectly encapsulated all that I ever asked of a french fry. 7-year-old me was completely struck and bedazzled by those words, and I can't believe that two decades on, it's still the way I describe my perfect fries!
posted by hellopanda at 5:33 AM on April 8, 2016 [1 favorite]

Beverly Cleary's books were my childhood. I read them, especially the Ramona books, over and over and over. I wanted to name my daughter Ramona but it got a hard veto from my partner. I recently tried to read my daughter Ramona the Pest since she will be starting kindergarten in the fall but she wasn't impressed. Yet. Poor kid not named Ramona has no idea how many times those books will be forced into her. She will love them, damnit, just like her mother.
posted by Burn.Don't.Freeze at 6:08 AM on April 8, 2016 [1 favorite]

It's been nearly 30 years since then, but I still think about Ramona's relationship with her father now that I am a father myself.

Now I realize why Bob and Louise Belcher pull such familiar heartstrings!
posted by that's how you get ants at 6:12 AM on April 8, 2016 [4 favorites]

Love this post. Thank you! I just put D.E.A.R day on my calendar. My middle school did a lock-in for DEAR day where we brought sleeping bags and stayed up late reading together until around midnight, when our parents took us home. One of my best memories of middle school. Thanks, Mrs. Cleary!
posted by areaperson at 7:19 AM on April 8, 2016

Burn.Dont.Freeze, I floated the name Beverly as a baby name! Still love it. I'm convinced our next dog will be named Ribsy.
posted by areaperson at 7:22 AM on April 8, 2016

Socks was the first book I took out of the library, and I chose it because I remembered my older brother reading it to me years before.

Oh, Socks. As with most Cleary, I read that one multiple times as a child, but didn't realize the poignancy of it until I read it with my stepdaughters and was brought to tears several times and had to hug our cats a lot. She nailed the depth of pet-human love as well as she nailed the inner life of children.
posted by dlugoczaj at 7:25 AM on April 8, 2016 [1 favorite]

It's strange reflecting on it how many things reading Beverly Cleary helped young me realize. Just off the top of my head:

Ramona and her Father: "Wait a second, I think we're poor too. Not like homeless poor, but Ramona's-family-poor."
Dear Mr. Henshaw: "Wait a second, other kids are super angry about stuff they don't understand too." (I did SO MUCH journaling because of that book.)
posted by MCMikeNamara at 8:23 AM on April 8, 2016

Oh and if anybody knows where to get those old editions of the Ramona series (the ones with the funky line drawings) I owe you a beer. Or a tube of toothpaste.

Do you mean the ones with illustrations by Louis Darling? They're the best, and easy to find on Alibris.
posted by Melismata at 12:59 PM on April 8, 2016

Louis Darling did the illustrations in the two earliest Ramona books (and most of the Henry Huggins series, in which Ramona made a number of appearances). Alan Tiegreen took over after Ramona the Pest (because Darling died in 1970, I just found out)--and I think of his drawings as funkier than Darling's.
posted by dlugoczaj at 2:04 PM on April 8, 2016 [3 favorites]

Do you mean the ones with illustrations by Louis Darling? They're the best, and easy to find on Alibris.

dlugoczaj is correct...it's the funkier Tiegreen ones I want! Darling's illustrations were great but Tiegreen was what I grew up with, and really captured Ramona's quirkiness for me.

All I could find was a book or two on ebay.
posted by neeta at 10:20 PM on April 8, 2016

(Oops, sorry to double post, but I did discover a few available through Alibris and similar book sellers. I actually had no idea these vendors even existed. Thank you so much Melismata! And I owe you a beer/toothpaste! Let me know which one you prefer! :))
posted by neeta at 11:02 PM on April 8, 2016 [1 favorite]

Today's Slate. Heh.
posted by Melismata at 12:49 PM on April 12, 2016

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