Beverly Cleary was inadvertently doing market research for her books before she wrote them, as a young children’s librarian in Yakima, Washington. Cleary heard a lot about what kids were and weren’t responding to in literature, and she thought of her library patrons when she later sat down to write her first book.
Henry Huggins, published in 1950, was an effort to represent kids like the ones in Yakima and like the ones in her childhood neighborhood in Oregon. The bunch from Klickitat Street live in modest houses in a quiet neighborhood, but they’re busy: busy with rambunctious dogs (one Ribsy, to be precise), paper routes, robot building, school, bicycle acquisitions, and other projects. Cleary was particularly sensitive to the boys from her library days who complained that they could find nothing of interest to read – and Ralph and the Motorcycle was inspired by her son, who in fourth grade said he wanted to read about motorcycles. Fifteen years after her Henry books, Cleary would concoct the delightful story of a boy who teaches Ralph to ride his red toy motorcycle.
Cleary’s best known character, however, is a girl: Ramona Quimby, the sometimes difficult but always entertaining little sister whom Cleary follows from kindergarten to fourth grade in a series of books. Ramona is a Henry Huggins neighbor who, with her sister, got her first proper introduction in Beezus and Ramona, adding a dimension of sibling dynamics to the adventures on Klickitat Street. Cleary’s stories, so simple and so true, deftly portrayed the exasperation and exuberance of being a kid. Finally, an author seemed to understand perfectly about bossy/pesty siblings, unfair teachers, playmate politics, the joys of clubhouses and the perils of sub-mattress monsters.
Cleary is one of the rare children’s authors who has been able to engage both boys and girls on their own terms, mostly through either Henry Huggins or Ramona and Beezus. She has not limited herself to those characters, though. In 1983, she won the Newbery Medal with Dear Mr. Henshaw, the story of a boy coping with his parents’ divorce, as told through his journal entries and correspondence with his favorite author. She has also written a few books for older girls (Fifteen, The Luckiest Girl, Sister of the Bride, and Jean and Johnny) mostly focusing on first love and family relationships. A set of books for beginning readers stars four-year-old twins Jimmy and Janet.
Some of Cleary’s books – particularly her titles for young adults – may seem somewhat alien to kids whose daily lives don’t feature soda fountains, bottles of ink, or even learning cursive. Still, the author’s stories and characters stand the test of time; and she nails the basic concerns of childhood and adolescence. Her books (particularly the more modern Ramona series, which touches on the repercussions of a father’s job loss and a mother’s return to work) remain relevant classics.
Cleary has said in an essay that she wrote her two autobiographical books, A Girl from Yamhill and My Own Two Feet, "because I wanted to tell young readers what life was like in safer, simpler, less-prosperous times, so different from today." She has conveyed that safer, simpler era -- still fraught with its own timeless concerns -- to children in her fiction as well, more than half a century after her first books were released.
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Word processing is not Cleary's style. She writes, "I write in longhand on yellow legal pads. Some pages turn out right the first time (hooray!), some pages I revise once or twice and some I revise half-a-dozen times. I then attack my enemy the typewriter and produce a badly typed manuscript which I take to a typist whose fingers somehow hit the right keys. No, I do not use a computer. Everybody asks."
Cleary usually starts her books on January 2.
Up until she was six, Cleary lived in Yamhill, Oregon -- a town so small it had no library. Cleary's mother took up the job of librarian, asking for books to be sent from the state branch and lending them out from a lodge room over a bank. It was, Clearly remembers, "a dingy room filled with shabby leather-covered chairs and smelling of stale cigar smoke. The books were shelved in a donated china cabinet. It was there I made the most magical discovery: There were books written especially for children!"
Cleary authored a series of tie-in books in the early 1960s for classic TV show Leave It to Beaver.
Cleary's books appear in over 20 countries in 14 languages.
Cleary's book The Luckiest Girl is based in part on her own young adulthood, when a cousin of her mother's offered to take Beverly for the summer and have her attend Chaffey Junior College in Ontario, California. Cleary went from there to the University of California at Berkeley.
The actress Sarah Polley got her start playing Ramona in the late ‘80s TV series. Says Cleary in a Q & A on her web site: “I won’t let go of the rights for television productions unless I have script approval. There have been companies that have wanted the movie rights to Ramona, but they won’t let me have script approval, and so I say no. I did have script approval for the television productions of the Ramona series…. I thought Sarah Polley was a good little actress, a real little professional.”
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In the fall of 2002, Beverly Clearly answered some of our questions.
What was the book that most influenced your life, and why?
The book that made the greatest impact on my life was The Dutch Twins by Lucy Fitch Perkins. Let me explain. When I was in the first grade I was afraid of the teacher and had a miserable time in the reading circle, a difficulty that was overcome by the loving patience of my second grade teacher. Even though I could read, I refused to do so. My despairing mother made sure that we had children’s books in our house. One rainy Sunday when I was in the third grade and in the days before TV I picked up a book to look at the pictures and discovered that even though I did not want to, I was reading and actually enjoying The Dutch Twins. I have been a reader ever since.
What are your ten favorite books, and why?
My favorite books are a constantly changing list, but one favorite has remained constant: the dictionary. Is the word I want to use spelled practice or practise? The dictionary knows. The dictionary also slows down my writing because it is such interesting reading that I am distracted.
My other favorites at this time fall into categories. Novels by British writers are among my favorites because our family has enjoyed travel in England and because they are written with an economy of words as if they were written with a pen instead of a computer. Penelope Fitzgerald is a favorite. Recently I have read Flight of the Maidens by Jane Gardam and Atonement by Ian McEwan and have recommended them to others. I also enjoy autobiographies because I am curious about the lives of others as seen by themselves. This House of Sky and Heart Earth by Ivan Doig, memories of hardscrabble ranching, were both enjoyable and enlightening to read about. I wouldn’t care to live such a life myself.
This is a tough one. In my grammar school years back in the 1920s I used my ten-cents-a-week allowance for Saturday matinees of Douglas Fairbanks movies. All that swashbuckling and leaping about in the midst of the sails of ships! In high school my favorite was It Happened One Night with Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert. Ah…romance. Then came Gone with the Wind, the original version, not the version shown on TV today which has cut most of the history of the South and left only the love story. A film we recently have seen twice is Mr. Holland’s Opus, a moving story of a composer’s struggle to reconcile his creativity with his family responsibilities, a familiar problem in our household. I also enjoyed it because it was filmed at my high school, U.S. Grant in Portland, Oregon.
I particularly enjoy cello music because our daughter plays the cello. I have listened to her practice for so many hours that I am familiar with the music written for that instrument. I am also fond of the popular music of the 1930s because my future husband and I danced to it so many Saturday nights when we were in college. He held me close and sang in my ear in his beautiful tenor voice: “You’re as sweet as a red rose in June, dear…” Ah...youth.
If you had a book club, what would it be reading, and why?
My book club would read and discuss The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, one of the great works of American fiction. I read it when I was about 12 years old and was so eager to find out what happened next that I am sure much of the novel’s meanings passed me by.
Who are your favorite writers, and what makes their writing special?
James Thurber is one of my favorites because of his wit and his view of American life. I have read all of the novels of Barbara Pym, tragic-comedies about women who live quiet English lives, the sort of women we have seen in villages when we have traveled in England. I always look forward to the next book by Anne Lamott who writes with self-mocking and brutal honesty about her own life in California. Although I do not read my own books, I have enjoyed writing them. Perhaps this makes me one of my favorite writers.
What else do you want your readers to know?
In the Works
I like to read, walk, cook, and travel to cities. We live in the country so we miss museums and the bustle of city life. I also enjoy needlework of any kind and have made many of my own clothes and those of our children, knit sweaters for the whole family, designed and made needlepoint tapestries and pieced two quilts which now hang on the walls of our son’s home. At present our daughter-in-law and I are working on an embroidered wall hanging with a crazy-quilt background. When I am writing a book I also enjoy ironing, an idiosyncrasy that probably makes me sound more domestic than I really am. Working with my hands frees my imagination.
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"I am not a writer who feels compelled to write every single day," Cleary says when asked about her next project. "At the moment I am mulling over ideas hoping one will seem more urgent than all the others. Readers often ask for another book about Ramona. Maybe, maybe not. At this time I don’t really know."
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