Beverly Cleary: Inspiring Children For Generations

American Icons, Featured Article, History, Kids, People
on August 7, 2013
David Mudd The author of 41 books, Beverly Cleary has devoted her career to young readers.

While her stories amuse today’s young readers, it was in 1950 that Beverly Cleary, a librarian-turned-children’s author, began introducing the world to Beezus, Ramona, Henry Huggins, Ellen Tebbits and other colorful fictional characters who live on Klickitat Street, a real-life thoroughfare near the neighborhood where Cleary grew up in Portland, Ore.

More than six decades and 41 books later, Cleary appreciates that her funny plots about the imaginative antics of children continue to resonate with young readers at their most impressionable age.

“I think I was inspired to write children’s books when I discovered, in third grade, that reading and writing could be for pleasure—and not just a labor in school,” says Cleary, 97, who lives in Carmel, Calif.

One of America’s most beloved children’s authors, Cleary has sold more than 75 million copies of her books worldwide in 25 languages. Her stories also have been told on stage and television and in the 2010 movie “Ramona and Beezus.” And her characters inspired the opening of the Beverly Cleary Sculpture Garden in 1995 in Portland’s Grant Park, which features statues of Ramona and her friends just a few blocks from Klickitat Street.

While she no longer writes books, Cleary actively oversees her literary creations, approving costumes and scripts as her stories are told in new formats, including stage presentations to Chicago-area schoolchildren last April 12—on her 97th birthday—by the Story Pirates acting troupe, based in New York City.

“I’m happy to have my work honored in this way,” Cleary says.

Once upon a time

Born in McMinnville, Ore., Cleary spent her earliest years on a farm in nearby Yamhill (pop. 1,024), which had no town library until Cleary’s mother, a former teacher, organized one in a local bank building and sparked her daughter’s interest in books. “My mother read aloud to my father and me. Travel books for my father; myths and legends for me,” she recalls.

At age 6, Cleary moved with her family to Portland, where she was the only girl placed in “the Blackbirds,” the lowest-level reading group of her first-grade class.

She eventually learned to read—and enjoy the process—by the third grade, unlocking new possibilities for the shy youngster through books and the written word. Noticing Cleary’s gift for writing, a teacher began to read her stories aloud in class and encouraged her to pursue her talent.

“[She] told me that when I grew up, I should write children’s books,” Cleary recalls. “So I did.”

First, however, Cleary graduated from college with degrees in English and library science, and worked as a children’s librarian in Yakima, Wash. (pop. 91,067). The dearth of books that children could relate to—real-life stories about kids growing up in neighborhoods like her own—convinced her to try writing one herself, beginning in 1950 with “Henry Huggins,” a book about a boy, his dog and their friends.

Cleary’s ideas came from her own life experiences and observations, and her characters resemble many of her childhood neighbors. Growing up an only child, she made her earliest characters without siblings too, beginning with Henry Huggins and Ellen Tebbits, the title character of her second book in 1951. That changed with Ramona, Cleary’s most celebrated character, who appeared in a brief scene in her first book and became a central character in her sixth book, “Beezus and Ramona,” about two sisters.

“People often tell me that I must’ve been Ramona,” Cleary muses about the stubborn little girl with a big imagination. “Well, I was and I wasn’t. I behaved much more like Ellen Tebbits . . . but I thought like Ramona.”

The amusing but convincing stories—about skinned knees and mischievous neighborhood dogs and kids who go on strike against school—are key to Cleary’s timeless connection with young readers.

“Cleary’s books are universal and present children who are very real—not idealized adult versions of children,” says Rosemary Brosnan, Cleary’s editor at HarperCollins Children’s Books in New York City.

Joanna Simmons, 30, the Story Pirates actress who portrays Beezus, says Cleary writes honestly about what it’s like to be a kid. “The way [she] writes about your first days of school, and how big those things feel, is something I could relate to,” she says.

Cleary has received dozens of awards, including the Newbery Medal in 1984 for “Dear Mr. Henshaw.” Her most important rewards today, however, are letters from readers.

“Recently, I’ve received several letters from young men telling me that my books gave them hope as children,” she says. “Hope is a wonderful thing to give a child. I’m happy my books can do that.”