When Oregon-born author Beverly Clearly wrote Henry Huggins, an endearing tale of a young boy who lived on Portland’s Northeast Klickitat Street, the common attitude toward writers of such tales was similar to that of small children at the time: they should be seen and not heard. In the early 1950s, it was common for writers of books for children to shy away from the spotlight, avoiding the disappointed looks of children as it dawned on them that an adult had written the fantastical stories they so closely related to. Beverly Cleary felt similarly then.
In her 1985 New York Times archive article titled Children’s Books; Why Are Children Writing to Me Instead of Reading?, Cleary wrote, “When I was growing up, I felt that authors should stay out of sight. I decided this because their pictures appeared on cards in that educational game called Authors. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow with his long gray hair did not look like a grown-up Hiawatha… the biggest disappointment was Louisa May Alcott with her hair in a snood. She should have had short dark curls like Jo in Little Women after she sold her beautiful long hair.”
“A writer should be writing…” she continued, “To me, writing involves my imagination, a handful of 29-cent ballpoint pens, a stack of paper, and time free from interruption. I often begin books in the middle or at the end and play about with my characters in my poor handwriting until I am satisfied with their behavior, which is often a surprise to me. That is the fun of writing…. telling stories quietly and privately with pen on paper is my joy.”
Over a span of 71 years, Beverly Clearly’s personal joy has translated into the hearts of many. Cleary, who passed away last Thursday evening in her California home at the age of 104, has become one of the most beloved children’s book authors in the country, penning more than 40 books including favorites like Beezus and Ramona, Ramona the Pest, Henry Huggins, Ribsy, and The Mouse and the Motorcycle.
Upon graduating from the University of California in Berkeley, Beverly Cleary became a trained children’s librarian working in Yakima, Washington, where she recalls a child once asking her, “Where are all the books about kids like me?” Though she did not begin writing until later in her life, publishing her first book at the age of 30, Beverly Cleary went on to create captivating children’s tales about pointedly relatable characters for all of the children who wanted desperately to feel seen.
Ramona Quimby, perhaps the most famous of all Cleary characters, captured the hearts of many for one simple reason: she was strikingly real. With skinned knees, a picky appetite, and the headstrong spirit of an adventurer, Ramona got into the sort of trouble that real kids did, and came to terms with some of the same real-life struggles. As a young girl, Ramona was expected to stay poised, calm, and quiet, which, to the dismay of her exasperated mother, she simply could not.
“She was not a slowpoke grownup,” said Cleary of Ramona, “She was a girl who could not wait. Life was so interesting she had to find out what happened next.”
Though common in today’s themes within children’s literature, a strong and rowdy female character was unheard of as the protagonist for any story at the time of Beezus and Ramona’s release in 1955, and later Ramona the Pest in 1968. By setting strong examples for girls in their youth through the lens of witty and lighthearted scenarios, Beverly Cleary has now inspired guts and fortitude in three generations of women, teaching us through literature that we all have the right to be loved for who we are.
It was not only confidence and perseverance that Cleary’s stories bestowed on the young readers of this country, but the importance of empathy for nature and all creatures. Her focus on animals and on learning from the outside world shed light on the beauty of mindfulness and the importance of listening. In The Mouse and the Motorcycle, a curious mouse named Ralph takes a joyride on a boy’s motorcycle, activating a story of understanding and friendship as they band together to solve a big problem. In Ribsy, Ribsy the dog journeys through a series of mishaps and near-misses to be reunited with his best pal Henry and the Huggins family, tugging on the heartstrings of anyone who has ever cherished a pet of their own.
The importance of Beverly Cleary’s work presents itself to us as two-fold. We see a willful author whose determination is bound to the purpose of helping children fall in love with reading; an author who believes that a writer’s work should speak through their pages and ignite from within the story. We also see a writer who, despite her feeling that authors should generally stay out of their own work, wrote a character so biographically based on her own girlhood.
“We used to have a big cherry tree in the backyard and I mention Henry falling out of the cherry tree,” remembers Cleary as she stands in front of her old Klickitat home during a walking tour for KGW news. “Ramona’s father had lost his job and tried to give up smoking,” she recalls, “Well, my father lost his job and tried to give up smoking in about 1929 or 1930.”
Through undertones of biographic non-fiction, Beverly Cleary introduces the dusk of life to her works with a sensitive lightness. A passage from her 1988 memoir, A Girl From Yamhill, reads, “One evening, when Mother and I were washing and wiping the supper dishes, she said, “You know, you are the type that will fade quickly.””
She later writes of her family dynamic during times of financial hardship, “I longed to tell my father I was sorry I had added to the unhappiness in his life, that I understood his irritation and weariness after a day at work, but my generation was never encouraged to talk openly with our parents about feelings. Whenever I tried, I was always judged wrong.”
It is in these moments that I find myself relating most to both Beverly and Ramona. From stories about disliking the taste of almond extract as the only cake sweetener available during the Great Depression and excerpts about a difficult relationship with her mother to anecdotes about Ramona pulling on her classmate’s curls because she cannot resist the temptation of watching them bounce, Cleary’s undiluted depictions of growing up, from girlhood to womanhood, come beautifully littered with the sting of personal experience.
Beverly Cleary credited her transparent and genuine philosophy on writing in part to a college professor, whose literary focus rested on two main phrases: “the minutiae of life” and “the proper subject of the novel is universal human experience.” Without a doubt, Cleary has honored the emphasis behind them both, reaching children and adults alike with her delightful characters; gifting to her readers a ragtag collection of extraordinary lifelong friends.
“Quite often somebody will say, what year do your books take place? And the only answer I can give is, in childhood.”