The writings of Beverly Cleary (born 1916) include realistic and humorous portraits of American children. They have gained critical acclaim as "classics" of children's literature.
Born Beverly Bunn on April 12, 1916 in McMinnville, Oregon, Cleary was the only daughter of Chester Lloyd and Mable Atlee Bunn and a descendant of Oregon pioneers. She grew up on an 80-acre farm in Yamhill, Oregon, where her uncle was mayor and her father was on the town council. In her autobiography A Girl from Yamhill, she wrote that living there taught her "that the world was a safe and beautiful place, where children were treated with kindness, patience, and tolerance." All of these qualities would later be apparent in her books.
Yamhill had no library; her mother arranged for the State Library to send books to Yamhill, and created a small lending area in a lodge room over the Yamhill Bank. Cleary later recalled in an article in Top of the News that this was "a dingy room filled with shabby leather-covered chairs and smelling of stale cigar smoke," but that she was amazed at the variety of books available for children.
Became Interested in Reading
When she was six, low income forced her father out of farming, and the family moved to Portland, Oregon. Beverly was excited about the move, and looked forward to playing with other children. Although she was excited by the big city and by the immense children's room in the Portland Library, Cleary felt out of place in school, particularly after a bout of chicken pox left her behind the other students. By the time she got back to school after her illness, the class had been divided into good readers, next-best readers, and worst readers, and Cleary was in the bottom group. Bored and discouraged, she decided reading and school were miserable experiences. At the same time, she became consumed with fears that an earthquake would hit, that her father would be hurt, or that she would die. These fears receded somewhat between first and second grade, but she still refused to read except while in school. When she was eight years old, she finally found a book that aroused her interest, Lucy Fitch Perkins's The Dutch Twins. In this story about two ordinary children and their adventures, Cleary found release and happiness. She told a writer for Publishers Weekly, "With rising elation, I read on, I read all afternoon and evening, and by bedtime I had read not only The Dutch Twins but The Swiss Twins as well. It was one of the most exciting days of my life." The book opened the door for her to read more books for pleasure. Soon she was reading all the books for children in the library.
When Cleary was in seventh grade, a teacher suggested that she write books for children. This suggestion struck home. She vowed to write "the kind of books I wanted to read," she wrote in Top of the News. When her mother reminded her that she needed a steady job too, Cleary decided that she would become a librarian.
Cleary earned a BA in English at the University of California-Berkeley in 1938. The following year she earned a BA in librarianship from the University of Washington-Seattle. She then got a job as children's librarian in Yakima, Washington, where she learned to tell stories to children and found out what stories children liked to read and hear.
Wrote Her First Book
In 1940 she married Clarence T. Cleary, whom she had met in college. They moved to Oakland, California, where they had twins, Marianne Elisabeth and Malcolm James. During World War II she worked as post librarian at the Oakland Army Hospital. After the war, she worked in the children's department of a Berkeley bookstore. David Reuther noted in Horn Book, "Surrounded by books, she was sure she could write a better book than some she saw there, and after the Christmas rush was over, she said, 'I decided if I was ever going to write, I'd better get started"' According to Pat Pflieger in Beverly Cleary, she said to her husband, "I'll have to write a book!" He replied, "Why don't you?" She said, "Because we never have any sharp pencils," so the next day he brought home a pencil sharpener. "I realized that if I was ever going to write a book, this was the time to do it," she later wrote. She began writing on January 2. Since then she has begun all her books on that same date. Although she had planned to write a book about a little girl who wanted to write, the story turned out to be that of a boy who would be allowed to keep a stray dog if he could find a way to get it home on the bus. She wrote in Top of the News, "When I finished the chapter I found I had ideas for another chapter and at the end of two months I had a whole book about Henry Huggins and his dog Ribsy."
The book was accepted six weeks later and was published in 1950 by William Morrow and Company, which has published almost all of her books since then. Henry Huggins was different from many other books of the time, which either presented an idealized version of "goody-goody" children, or told unrealistic tales of children who solved crimes or found long-lost wealthy relatives. As a People Weekly writer commented, "Cleary had written a story that was simply a delightful slice of life."
Cleary went on to write many more books about Henry and other children in his neighborhood, including Ellen Tebbits, Otis Spofford, and Ramona and her older sister Beezus. She also wrote books for older, teenaged readers about teen romance, but these were not as well loved as her books for younger readers. In Twentieth-Century Authors, Cathryn M. Mercier commented about her young adult novels, "[They] do not possess the timeless qualities of the Ramona and Henry books … [and] do not speak to contemporary young adults." However, in Bookpage.com, Cleary defended these books, saying to Miriam Drennan, "Some people have said that those books are dated, but they're not. They're true to the period [the 1950s]."
Henry Huggins and Cleary's other most-loved characters all live on or near Klickitat Street in Portland, Oregon; one of the best-loved is Ramona, who first appeared as a minor character ("a nuisance," Cleary told Miriam Drennan in Bookpage.com) in Henry Huggins. Cleary told Drennan, [Ramona] was an accidental character. It occurred to me that as I wrote, all of these children appeared to be only children, so I tossed in a little sister, and at that time, we had a neighbor named Ramona. I heard somebody call out, 'Ramona!' so I just named her Ramona." Ramona came into her own in the 1968 Ramona the Pest, where she was the star character. Of all of Cleary's characters, Ramona would become a favorite of readers.
Cleary drew on some of her own experiences to create Ramona, but said she often used people she knew to create other characters. Otis Spofford was based on a "lively" boy who sat across the aisle from her in sixth grade, she told Drennan, and her best friend "appears in assorted books in various disguises." She said of her friend, "She's a very warm and friendly person; the sort of person everybody likes. I've known her since we were in the first grade. I don't think we've ever exchanged a cross word."
Pflieger wrote, "Material for Cleary's books has come from her own life, from the nostalgic glow of Yamhill … and the dark fears of her early years in Portland … to her [adolescent romances], which inform the difficult relationships in some of her works for adolescents." She also noted that Cleary wrote the books that she would have wanted to read as a child, and that she had very clear ideas about what she did not want to read: "Any book in which a child accepted the wisdom of an adult and reformed, any book in which a child reformed at all. … [and] any book in which education was disguised like a pill in a spoonful of jelly." In her Regina Medal acceptance speech, she spoke bitterly about a book that she thought was a "real" story, but which turned out to be a phonics lesson in the end. She said the author had "cheated" her. "He had used a story to try to teach me. I bitterly resented this intrusion into my life."
Cleary has occasionally been criticized because her books don't address contemporary problems or social ills. She told Drennan, "I feel sometimes that [in children's books] there are more and more grim problems, but I don't know that I want to burden third-and fourth-graders with them. I feel it's important to get [children] to enjoy writing." She also said, in her Regina Medal acceptance speech, "I feel that children who must endure such problems want to read about children who do not have such problems." In Horn Book, Barbara Chatton noted that "A third-grader whose family was going through a painful divorce read and reread the Ramona books because they were stories about the way her family used to be, and she could laugh and remember; and, she said wisely, 'They comfort me."'
Cleary writes in longhand on yellow legal pads, and often begins books by writing scenes at the middle or the end of the story. She does not outline them before writing; she simply dives in and plays with the characters.
"Reading is a Pleasure"
In 1999, Cleary presented a new Ramona story in Ramona's World. She didn't warn her editor that she was working on a new Ramona book, but simply handed the manuscript to her when the editor visited her at home. The editor, Barbara Lalicki, told Heather Vogel Frederick in Publishers Weekly, "I had no idea what it was, and the curiosity was killing me. "I was driving back to my hotel and got caught in a traffic jam, so I opened it up and read the first few lines and thought, 'Wow!' Ramona was back with all the immediacy—it was just as if 15 years hadn't gone by."
Cleary told Drennan, "Children should learn that reading is pleasure, not just something that teachers make you do in school. If her readers' response is any indication, she has succeeded admirably in showing them just that. She still receives hundreds of letters each week from fans, mostly schoolchildren. An article in People Weekly quoted one, which sums up the impact of Cleary's work on children: "I read everything you ever wrote. When I feel sad, I pick up one of your books and it makes me feel better." And another one, which commented, "You're my number one author in the universe."
Pflieger, Pat, Beverly Cleary: Twayne's United States Authors Series, G.K. Hall and Co., 1999.
Twentieth-Century Children's Writers, edited by Laura Standley Berger, 1995.
Catholic Library World, July-August, 1981.
Horn Book, Vol. 60, 1984; May-June, 1995; November-December, 1995.
People Weekly, October 3, 1988.
Publishers Weekly, October 11, 1993; February 20, 1995; July 17, 1995; September 16, 1996; November 22, 1999.
Top of the News, December, 1957.
Drennan, Miriam, "I Can See Cleary Now," Bookpage, http://www.bookpage.com/ (November 14, 2001).
"The World of Beverly Cleary," Beverlycleary.com, http://www.beverlycleary.com/ (November 14, 2001).