“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.”
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.