Beverly Cleary Wrote About Real Life, and Her Readers Loved Her for It
The creator of Ramona Quimby and Henry Huggins constructed a world that children recognized — one that changed with the times.,
“Today the letters that fill an author’s mailbox often begin, ‘Our class is studying live authors,'” wrote Beverly Cleary in “Why Are Children Writing to Me Instead of Reading?,” an essay published in The New York Times Book Review in 1985. “Why only living authors, I wondered. Then I caught on that the answer was the expectation of a reply or what children refer to as ‘free stuff.'”
To borrow a response from Cleary’s most famous character, Ramona Quimby: “Guts! Guts! Guts!” What else is there to say?
Cleary’s novels — “The Mouse and the Motorcycle,” “Henry and Ribsy” and “Ralph S. Mouse,” just to name a few — are now in the hands of a third generation of readers. Her books are a cornerstone of modern children’s literature, front and center in the bedtime canon, and among the first that many young children enjoy on their own. She was the recipient of every accolade available to authors of books for young readers — from the Newbery Medal to the National Book Award — and will remain alive in the imagination of every child who met Ramona and Beezus Quimby, Henry Huggins, Otis Spofford, Ellen Tebbits or any one of her dear, flawed, funny characters, and thought: “That’s me.”
Beverly Bunn Cleary was a descendant of pioneers, an only child who spent her early years in Yamhill, Ore. Her parents sold the family farm during the Depression, and the Bunns moved to the northeast Portland neighborhood that would become the backdrop of Cleary’s novels. Her childhood home was on 37th Street, which she renamed Klickitat Street after a real-life city block — and because “it reminded me of the sound of knitting needles,” she told The Times in 1995.
In her second memoir, “My Own Two Feet,” Cleary recalled her mother’s parting words before she left home by Greyhound bus to attend Chaffey Junior College in Ontario, Calif.: “We want to leave you prepared to take care of yourself and any children you might have. Widows so often have to run boardinghouses.”
The author wrote: “Although I was a conscientious girl, a good student more interested in the high school paper, the literary club and sewing than in boys, Mother worried about my ‘going bad,’ as if I were an apple.”
Cleary graduated from the University of California, Berkeley, where she took a class called The Novel, taught by a professor who said: “The proper subject of the novel is universal human experience.” Cleary held onto this wisdom when she became a children’s librarian in Yakima, Wash. — and, later, when she became an author. “A phrase that has also stayed with me,” she wrote, “is ‘the minutiae of life,’ those details that give reality to fiction.”
That minutiae was the backbone of her novels, which are jam-packed with realistic, timeless stories about the small but important moments that make up a childhood: first snowfalls and school plays, disagreements with classmates and misunderstandings with teachers, spontaneous fast-food meals and humdrum trips to the grocery store. Cleary had an eye for the roller coaster rhythms of family life, and for little creatures. The pets she conjured — Ribsy, Picky-Picky, Socks and Bandit, among others — are as indelible as the humans who served their kibble.
Like real people, Cleary’s characters make messes, slam doors, leave nasty notes on the kitchen counter and bicker at the dinner table. Who can forget the time Ramona refused to eat the “yucky” beef tongue her parents bought on sale and tried to pass off as a prime cut?
Although Cleary never shied away from issues such as unemployment and divorce, she will be remembered for her sly, intelligent wit, which managed to be wicked and kind at the same time. She elevated misunderstandings and near misses into an art form, subtly demonstrating how to turn embarrassment into a funny story without making anyone a punching bag.
“Beverly Cleary is funny,” Judy Blume, the author of “Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret” and “Blubber,” told The Times in 2011. “There’s both gentle humor and laugh-out-loud humor.” When Blume’s children were young, she’d come home from the library with armloads of books: “Most of them went into the ‘I don’t want to write books like these, they bore me’ pile,” she recalled. “Then I came to Beverly Cleary and I fell off the sofa, I was laughing so hard. I thought, oh my God, I want to write books like this.”
(In the early 1980s, Cleary’s and Blume’s boxes of fan mail were accidentally switched by their publisher, and Cleary was horrified to learn that Blume’s admirers had asked her to send items from her garbage as mementos. “This is ridiculous,” she wrote to Blume after the mix-up. “You must be firm with them and not do these things.”)
Cleary didn’t start writing until she was in her early 30s. She’d talked about it for years and, in “My Own Two Feet,” describes an epiphany she had while working at Sather Gate Book Shop in Berkeley: “One morning during a lull, I picked up an easy-reading book and read, ‘Bow-wow. I like the green grass, said the puppy.’ How ridiculous, I thought. No puppy I had known talked like that.”
In 1948, Cleary moved into a new house and discovered a ream of typing paper in the linen closet. She told her husband, Clarence, “‘I guess I’ll have to write a book.’
“‘Why don’t you?’ asked Clarence.
“‘We never have any sharp pencils’ was my flippant answer.
“The next day he brought home a pencil sharpener.”
On Jan. 2, 1949, Cleary sat down at her kitchen table and got to work: “What was writing for children but written storytelling? So in my imagination I stood once more before Yakima’s story-hour crowd as I typed the first sentence: ‘Henry Huggins was in the third grade.'”
She remembered a boy at the library who complained that there weren’t any books about kids like him. She wrote with him in mind.
“Henry Huggins” was published in 1950, followed by “Henry and Beezus” two years later. At first, Ramona Geraldine Quimby was an incidental character — Beezus’s annoying little sister, who ruins an after-school art class, a game of checkers and a box of apples (she takes only one bite out of each piece of fruit because “the first bite tastes best”). Ramona eventually elbowed her way to center stage, commanding the attention of Generation X with “Ramona the Pest” (1968), “Ramona the Brave” and “Ramona and Her Father” (1975), “Ramona and Her Mother” (1979), “Ramona Quimby, Age 8” (1981), “Ramona Forever” (1985) and finally “Ramona’s World” (1999).
One could argue that Ramona was the forerunner of what is now known as “girl power.” Before Junie B. Jones and Ivy and Bean arrived on bookshelves, before words like “fierce” and “boss” migrated from zoos and office parks onto girls’ T-shirts, she was strutting around with her hands on her hips, signing her name with a flourish — whiskers, pointy ears and a tail on the Q. No heart over the “i” for this girl.
“She was not a slowpoke grown-up,” Cleary wrote in “Ramona and Her Mother.” “She was a girl who could not wait. Life was so interesting she had to find out what happened next.”
The members of the Quimby family reflect the time they live in. Mr. Quimby loses his job and has trouble finding a new one. He struggles to quit smoking. Mrs. Quimby goes back to work, and everyone worries about money, including Ramona and Beezus. Some reviewers criticized the later Ramona books for being dark, but Cleary told The Times in 1995, “I just think Ramona is more aware of the world beyond herself. She became aware that her parents had problems, and that’s part of growing up.”
To read Cleary’s books as a child in the 1980s was to feel not just seen, but noticed by a benevolent soul. The country was rebounding from a recession; divorce was on the rise; anti-bullying initiatives were as far in the future as the internet. If you grew up during this time, you may remember an every-kid-for-himself vibe (perfectly captured in “E.T.,” where a 10-year-old boy hides an extraterrestrial in his closet, and his parents are too distracted to notice). Yes, today’s helicopter and tiger parents were once latchkey kids, nuking solitary French bread pizza dinners in the microwave.
Beverly Cleary tackled the loneliness of the era in a way that helped readers find brightness and humor in their circumstances. In “Dear Mr. Henshaw,” she introduced Leigh Botts, a sixth grader who is struggling with his parents’ divorce and trying to get his bearings at a new school. The book is a collection of letters Leigh writes to his favorite author — first for an assignment, then at his mother’s behest and finally in the form of a journal that helps him make sense of what’s going on in his life.
It’s a wistful story punctuated by notes of optimism. In Leigh’s voice, Cleary writes, “‘You know,’ said Mom, ‘whenever I watch the waves, I always feel that no matter how bad things seem, life will still go on.’ That was how I felt too, only I wouldn’t have known how to say it, so I just said, ‘yeah.’ Then we drove home.”
Revisiting the book as an adult, you notice something you might not have noticed when your teacher read it aloud to your fifth-grade class (prompting two boys to put their heads down on their desks and sob): Leigh is never alone. There’s a cast of adults looking out for him — Mr. Fridley, the teacher who makes sure students don’t throw away their retainers after lunch; his mother’s boss, a caterer, who saves festive leftovers so Leigh can bring them to school (no wonder his lunch keeps getting stolen!); and, finally, the elusive author, Boyd Henshaw, who encourages the boy to keep reading and writing.
Henshaw also informs Leigh that his favorite animal is a purple monster that eats children who send authors long lists of questions for reports instead of using the library.
In 2011, at the age of 95, Cleary was still fielding missives from fans. She told The Times: “Sometimes I get very moving ones. One little girl wrote recently that she had to hurry home from school and lock herself in because her mother was working and the neighborhood wasn’t safe; reading helped her through many a long, lonely night.”
What did Cleary do? “I wrote her back,” she said.
“This emphasis on living authors may be partially responsible for so many excellent books going out of print. Their authors are no longer around to answer letters or make public appearances,” Cleary once wrote. “Celebrity is fleeting; good books should endure.”
To borrow from a favorite title: Beverly Cleary forever.