On April 12, 2019, one of America’s most beloved children’s authors, Beverly Cleary, celebrates her 103rd birthday! The creator behind such literary classics as Henry Huggins, Beezus and Ramona, The Mouse and the Motorcycle and Dear Mr. Henshaw, Cleary has seen 91 million copies of her books sold worldwide since her publishing debut in 1950. But how did Cleary go from being placed in the Blackbirds group for struggling readers by her teacher to one of America's most successful living authors?
Born in McMinnville, Oregon in 1916, Cleary struggled with reading and writing as a child. Determined to overcome this hurdle, she spent much time at her public library with a kindly librarian who helped her catch up to the rest of her class by third grade. Her skills had greatly improved and by sixth grade, her school librarian was saying that she should become a children’s writer based on essays she had written for class. However, after entering Chaffey College in California, Cleary had aspirations of being a children’s librarian. After two years at Chaffey, she attended the University of California at Berkeley and earned a BA in English. During this time, she met her future husband, Clarence Cleary, whom she later married in 1940. In 1939, Cleary graduated from the School of Library and Information Science at the University of Washington with a Master’s degree in library science. She later accepted a year-long position as a children's librarian in Washington, before serving as the post librarian at the US Army Hospital in California.
While working as a librarian, Cleary empathized with her young patrons who struggled to find books with characters they could identify with. After a couple years of making recommendations and performing live storytelling, Cleary decided to start writing her own children’s books. She found inspiration for her funny stories in her own neighborhood experiences as well as the children she met while working as a librarian. Her first novel, Henry Huggins, was actually inspired by the boys in her library who asked for books “about boys like us.” Henry was a modern day Tom Sawyer, whose adventures as a paper boy on Klickitat Street spoke to a generation of readers. The Henry Huggins series eventually spawned five additional novels, and helped to introduce Ramona and Beezus Quimby. These later characters eventually launched their own series that ultimately surpassed the Henry Huggins series in popularity.
Her first book to revolve around the Quimby sisters, Beezus and Ramona, was published in 1955. This novel was told from the perspective of 9-year-old Beezus’, as she struggles to get along with her 4-year-old sister. Many of the stories told between Beezus and Ramona see the former perpetually infuriated by the imaginative antics of the latter. However, like most siblings, Beezus accepts that while she may not always like Ramona, she does love her. Upon its rerelease in 2012, one critic praised the novel by saying, “More than 50 years after its publication, Beezus and Ramona remains one of the best books for middle grade readers about the challenges and joys of sibling relationships… This candidness, as well as the genuine scrapes and squabbles that characterize daily life in the Quimby household, is still relevant and refreshing today.”
In 1968, having concluded the Henry Huggins series, Cleary returned her focus to the Quimby sisters with Ramona the Pest. Unlike Beezus and Ramona, this title is written from Ramona’s point of view and sees her enter kindergarten. The succeeding books, all of which are told from Ramona’s perspective, follow her as she grows up and advances through school. Subsequent titles include Ramona the Brave, Ramona and Her Father, Ramona and Her Mother, Ramona Quimby, Age 8, Ramona Forever, Ramona’s World and The Ramona Quimby Diary. Throughout the series, Cleary outlines Ramona's joys and sorrows and depicts her emotional development, without overwhelming young readers.
The Ramona series has been adapted twice, once into a Canadian television series starring Sarah Polley and Lori Chodos and again into an American film starring Joey King and Selena Gomez. Cleary’s masterful storytelling and ability to capture childlike humor, while also developing unique and complex characters, have made her a household name. Her work has earned her such prestigious awards as the 2003 National Medal of Art, the 1984 John Newbery Medal, two Newbery Honor Books, the 1975 Laura Ingalls Wilder Award, the 1980 Regina Medal, and the 1982 Silver Medallion. She was also named a “Living Legend” by the Library of Congress and penned two memoirs, A Girl from Yamhill and My Own Two Feet.
Cleary’s memorable characters have delighted both children and adult for generations, along with inspiring such children’s authors as Laurie Halse Anderson, Judy Blume, Lauren Myracle, and Jon Scieszka. Since publisher HarperCollins recognizes her birthday as National Drop Everything and Read Day, the perfect way to honor the many literary contributions of Beverly Cleary is to find a cozy spot to drop everything and read.
Not a bad way to spend a Friday.