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Beverly Cleary

Beverly Cleary in 1955

Photo: from the Cleary Family archives, Public Domain

Why current?


On March 25, 2021, Beverly Cleary – the creator of some of the most beloved and enduring characters in American children’s literature – died at the age of 104.  Cleary’s books have been translated into 29 languages and have sold more than 85 million copies around the world. 

Over the course of her long writing career, Cleary wrote 42 books, many of which received almost instant acclaim and popularity.  It seemed that children couldn’t get enough of the characters she created — characters whose stories have stood the test of time and continue to ring true to this day.  Cleary said that one of her motivations for becoming a writer of children’s books was to fill a gaping hole that used to exist in the genre; there was a lack of books that really spoke to children and their experiences.  She remembers reading books in primary school that described worlds that were remote and abstract.  The stories about children who lived in manor houses, learned from private governesses, and rode around their estates on ponies, bore no resemblance to her life.  She longed for characters to whom she could relate.

In 1950, when she was in her mid-thirties, Cleary wrote her first book, Henry Huggins.  It is the story of a third-grade boy who feels like nothing exciting ever happens to him.  The story – like most  of Cleary’s tales – takes the reader into the daily joys and tribulations of an ordinary child.  She had been working as a librarian and had heard from some school-age boys echoes of the same longing she had experienced as a child: “Where are the books about us?”  Henry Huggins was Cleary’s first of many responses to that question. 

“If you don’t see the book you want on the shelves, write it.”

-Beverly Cleary

More about Beverly Cleary

– Born Beverly Atlee Bunn on April 12, 1916, in the small town of McMinnville, Oregon. 

– Cleary spent her youngest years on a farm in nearby Yamhill, Oregon.  There was no library in her town, so her mother decided to get books from the State Library and make them available to people by setting up a kind of makeshift library in a room above a bank.  It was here that Cleary’s love of books was born.

– At the age of 6, Cleary’s father lost the family farm.  He got a job as a bank security guard in Portland, OR, where Cleary spent the remainder of her childhood.

– Despite her connection to books, Cleary was labeled as a “struggling reader, “when she entered elementary school and was put into the lowest reading group.  This experience enabled her to understand how children feel when they are stamped as “slow learners.”

– By third-grade, reading had clicked for Cleary.  She started gobbling up books voraciously but soon discovered that the books available to her did not contain characters or stories that she could identify with.  She has written: “I wanted to read funny stories about the sort of children I knew, and I decided that someday when I grew up I would write them.”

– After graduating from high school, Cleary spent two years at Chaffey Junior College in Ontario, California.  She continued her education at the University of California, Berkeley.  This is where she took a class on writing called, “The Novel.”  She remembers her professor telling the students to describe real experiences had by real people and to master the art of delineating the tiny details of life when writing stories.  Cleary graduated from Berkeley in 1938, and then decided to get a further degree at the University of Washington and become a librarian.

– Soon after finishing her studies, Cleary got a job in the children’s section of a library in Yakima, Washington.  There she witnessed children going through a similar frustration at the lack of relatable books that she had experienced growing up.  She became a storyteller herself during this time, creating realistic characters and plotlines, which she shared with the youngest visitors to the library.

– Beverly married Clarence Cleary in 1940.  The couple moved to San Francisco, where she again worked in a library, as well as in a book shop, selling children’s books.

Henry Huggins was her first book and quickly became a huge success.  She said in an interview that she had had no idea of how to write a book at the time.  So, she just put to paper the tales she had spun for children when she had worked as a librarian.  Cleary wrote numerous sequels to Henry Huggins, including Henry and Ribsy and Henry and the Paper Route.

– One of the characters who appeared in the Henry Huggins books would later become Cleary’s most popular creation.  In 1955, the character of Ramona Quimby, the little sister of Henry’s friend Beatrice, sparked the beloved Ramona series, which included Ramona the Pest, Ramona the Brave, and Ramona Forever, among others.  The feisty little girl – both exasperating and charming – won the hearts of generations of young readers.  Still to this day, the Ramona books occupy a central position in the canon of children’s literature

– Cleary’s twins – Malcolm and Marianne – were born in 1955.  They inspired many of the stories Cleary would later write.

The Mouse and the Motorcycle was published in 1965.  The main character is a mouse named Ralph S. Mouse, where S. stands for “smart.”  He goes on adventures on a tiny motorcycle and encounters challenges from the human world.  Cleary wrote this, as well as its two sequels, Runaway Ralph and Ralph S. Mouse, as a way of getting her son to love reading.

– In 1988, Cleary published A Girl from Yamhill, a memoir that not only describes her life growing up in Oregon but also provides insight into the experiences and observations that would later inspire her fictional work.  After all, Cleary herself has said that many of her best ideas come “…from my own experience and the world around me.”

– Over the years, Cleary won many literary awards, including the Newberry Medal in 1984, for Dear Mr. Henshaw, as well as Newberry Honors for Ramona and Her Father in 1978, and Ramona Quimby, Age 8 in 1982. 

– Cleary has said that she never lost touch with the girl she was long ago.  She allowed the voice of that girl to guide her in her writing and remind her to stay honest and true in her descriptions of childhood.

Sources: Grimes, William, The New York Times, “Beverly Cleary, Beloved Children’s Book Author, Dies at 104,” https://www.nytimes.com/beverly-cleary.html, March 26, 2021; Egan, Elisabeth, The New York Times, “Beverly Cleary Wrote About Real Life, and Her Readers Loved Her for It,” https://www.nytimes.com/review/beverly-cleary.html, March 26, 2021; beverlycleary.com, “About Beverly Cleary,” https://www.beverlycleary.com/about