Award-winning children’s book author Beverly Cleary was born Beverly Atlee Bunn on a farm in Yamhill, Oregon. She would become one of the most beloved authors of all time, writing 42 books that, like few others, encouraged young people to read.
Worldwide, families purchased over 85 million copies.
In Cleary’s books, kids felt seen and deeply understood as they followed relatable characters on adventures. Her engaging and elevating stories infused humor and optimism with stories of kids facing everyday problems.
Cleary’s career spanned half a century, from her first book in 1950, Henry Huggins, to 1999’s “Ramona’s World.” In 2000, the Library of Congress named her a “Living Legend,” which she remained until she passed away at 104 on March 25, 2021.
Although she didn’t start writing books until in her early 30s, she always knew what she wanted to write about.
“I wanted to read funny stories about the sort of children I knew,” she wrote, “and I decided that someday when I grew up, I would write them.”
Rather than writing unrealistic stories, she covered the details of kids’ everyday lives.
The Books Kids Wanted to Read
In her acceptance speech on receiving the Laura Ingalls Wilder Medal from the American Library Association in 1975, Beverly Cleary reflected on her thoughts as a schoolgirl.
“Why didn’t authors write books about everyday problems that children could solve by themselves?”
Furthermore, “why weren’t there more stories about children playing?”
Besides, “why couldn’t I find more books that would make me laugh? These were the books I wanted to read and the books I was eventually to write.”
After starting her writing career in her early 30s, she began, drawing on her experiences as a child and a children’s librarian. Her stories are filled with “the minutia of life,” small but invaluable childhood memories that give each story timeless realism.
The subjects span the wide array of circumstances kids find themselves in, both humorous and sometimes dramatic.
Average Childhood in America
Beverly Cleary publisher, Harper Collins, announced her passing:
“With ‘Henry Huggins,’ published in 1950, Ms. Cleary, a librarian by trade, introduced a contemporary note into children’s literature. In a humorous, lively style, she made compelling drama out of the everyday problems, small injustices, and perplexing mysteries — adults chief among them — that define middle-class American childhood.”
For Cleary, it was all about storytelling about children she deeply empathized with beyond most people.
“Even though I was uncertain about writing, I knew how to tell a story. What was writing for children but written storytelling?”
In her stories, she told sympathetic stories from the kids’ viewpoints. At the time, she was a trailblazer, depicting spirited girls like 9-year-old Ramona Geraldine Quimby, the forerunner of “girl power,” according to the Times.
“A littler person sometimes had to be a little bit noisier and a little bit more stubborn in order to be noticed at all,” Quimby says.
Resisting Reading as a Child
As a child, Beverly Cleary recalled that she didn’t want to learn to read at first. She almost failed the first grade and didn’t read on her own until the third grade.
“I had resisted learning how to read. My mother wanted to teach me, but I felt, “Well, why should I when she can read to me?”
Besides, the stories back then weren’t appealing to her.
“So many books in those days, back in the 1920s had been published in England and children had nannies and pony carts. They seemed like a bunch of sissies to me,” she said with a laugh.
If she wanted to see books that would appeal to average kids, she would have to write them herself.
Discovering Reading Was Fun
Later, her mother opened the first library in Yamhill, Oregon, where she grew up on a farm. However, Beverly most enjoyed playing on the farm but missed having other kids around.
By age six, the family moved north to the city of Portland. Then, she had plenty of friends to play with at Fernwood Grammar School, but it was terrifying initially.
“City life was a shock,” she told the Post.
After a couple of o years in school, she discovered a book that she found herself enjoying for the first time.
“The book was The Dutch Twins by Lucy Fitch Perkins. I was really just looking at the pictures, and I discovered I was reading it and enjoying what I read,” she said. “It was quite a revelation.”
Soon after, Cleary found herself excelling at school in creative writing, writing a story about giving her pet chicken “to feed the troops.” It was well-received by her teacher. Later, the school librarian suggested she consider becoming a writer; she knew she had found her true calling.
Learning to Write By Storytelling
Although she wanted to be a writer, the Wall Street Crash of 1929 and the ensuing Great Depression meant times were tough as she entered High School. So, her mother insisted she would need to support herself. Thus, she attended Chaffey Junior College and went on to earn degrees in English from UC Berkeley and librarianship from the University of Washington.
After graduation, Beverly Cleary had her choice of jobs as a children’s librarian in Yakima, Oregon, or at The L.A. Public Library. Since she didn’t have money for the bus, she started her work in Yakima. It would be a life-transforming choice that allowed her to learn to write for children.
“That’s where I learned to write for children, standing up and telling the story. I didn’t read the story; I told it,” she said.
Beverly Cleary Gets a Publishing Contract
A year later, in 1940, she married Clarence T. Cleary and moved to San Francisco, California. There was a spare room in their new home where she could dedicate herself to writing for the first time on January 2, 1949.
There, in the linen closet, she found a ream of typing paper and said, “I guess I’ll have to write a book.” Her husband always encouraged her career. He was her college sweetheart, and they were married over 60 years before he passed away in 2004.
“‘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.”
For inspiration, she drew on her storytelling days at the Yakima library.
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Books About ‘Kids Like Us’
One day as a librarian, a young boy approached her and “rather ferociously” asked, “Where are the books about kids like us? And it changed my whole attitude,” said Cleary.
With this moment in mind, she started writing about Henry Huggins, a fictitious third-grader who lived in a square, white house on Klickitat Street. (A real street in Oregon near where she lived on 37th Street.)
See Cleary discuss this moment from the Oregonian:
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The Kids on Klickitat Street
Both Huggins name and the story that followed “jumped onto the page,” though she wasn’t sure where his name originated. Huggins and his adopted stray dog Ribsy (whose ribs stuck out) led to stories of unique kids that feel real like Ramona Quimby, her older sister Beezus, and others on Klickitat Street.
“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.'”
Cleary mailed the manuscript to a publisher. Weeks later, the mailman came running with the long, white envelope that meant she had been accepted. A book editor at William Morrow bought Henry Huggins in 1949 for $500.
After some edits, Henry Huggins was published in 1950 and was immediately successful with iconic 50s illustrations by Louis Darling.
After that, she published “Henry and Beezus” two years later. In that story, Cleary introduced Beezus’ little sister Ramona Quimby who would become an iconic favorite.
“Ramona’s father had lost his job and tried to give up smoking. Well, my father lost his job and tried to give up smoking,” Clearly once said.
Ramona’s character was most like Cleary herself, though Ramona tended to get into more mischief.
“I thought like Ramona, but I was a very well-behaved little girl,” Cleary said in a 2016 interview with The Washington Post.
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See an interview from HarperCollins:
Cleary had just turned 100 years old that April 12. As a centenarian, she was as humble and full of wit as ever.
“I’m just lucky,” she said of her success.
Beverly Cleary and her dearly beloved books are and always will be American classics: Ramona and Cleary Forever.
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