My grandfather Ralph died in 1983. I was 4 at the time, and I vividly remember being in a bookstore somewhere with an adult who was probably trying to keep my cousins and I out from underfoot of the hospital staff. I have a flashbulb memory of standing in front of a shelf of chapter books, seeing the name “Ralph,” and choosing it immediately. It wasn’t my first chapter book, but it was close; I slept with that book for a year while my family processed the grief of losing our 64-year-old patriarch. Ralph S. Mouse and his motorcycle are indelibly linked to the memory of my grandfather’s booming laugh, and while that was the first time Ms. Cleary touched my life, it wouldn’t be the last by a long shot.
Beverly Atlee Bunn was born in McMinnville, Oregon, on April 12, 1916. She earned a Bachelor’s of Art in English from the University of California, Berkeley, in 1938, and a Master’s in Library Science from the University of Washington in 1939. She worked as a youth librarian in Yakima, Washington, and as the post librarian at the U.S. Army Hospital in Oakland, California. She married her husband, Clarence Cleary, in 1940, and became a full-time writer in 1942.
Cleary’s first book, Henry Huggins, was published in 1950; she would go on to publish 42 complete works over the course of a 57-year career, including two memoirs. Her goal was to take experiences from her own life and those around her, translate them into fiction, and thereby provide children with the very books she couldn’t find when she herself was a child: funny, heartwarming books about regular kids (and some fantastic animals) navigating the world.
Beverly Cleary was one of those authors who knew what she was about from the beginning, and as a very sporadic writer who has never successfully finished a short story, much less a book, I am deeply respectful of that. She held Henry and Ramona and Ralph in her heart, and let their stories be intimate portraits of childhood in a way we do not often see in children’s literature.
“[Beverly Cleary] has the rare gift of being able to reveal us to ourselves while keeping an arm around our shoulder…Cleary is able to sketch clearly with a few perfect strokes the inexplicable adult world as seen through a child’s eyes,” said Katherine Paterson of Washington Post Book World.
She earned many awards throughout her storied career, including the Laura Ingalls Wilder award from the American Library Association in 1975, the National Book Award in 1981 for Ramona and Her Mother, Newbery Honors in 1978 for Ramona and Her Father and 1982 for Ramona Quimby, Age 8, and the Newbery Medal in 1984 for Dear Mr. Henshaw. There is a Beverly Cleary School in Portland, Oregon, and a Beverly Cleary Sculpture Garden for Children, where statues of Ramona Quimby, Henry Huggins, and Henry’s dog Ribsy all stand. In 2008, Cleary was the recipient of the University of Washington’s next Alumnus Summa Laude Dignatus award, the University’s highest honor for a graduate. The University of California, Berkeley, has a 220-student Beverly Cleary Residence Hall.
And perhaps most importantly to Cleary herself, she earned more than 35 state awards for her work, directly voted upon by her young readers (including yours truly as a library kid!).
Some of my earliest memories of chapter books include Ramona and Beezus, and Ramona’s struggles to be heard and taken seriously as a young child have made an indelible mark on my memory. I’ve always wanted to “boing” someone’s curls, and I know am not alone in that because when I gave myself Shirley Temple curls for my office holiday party a couple of years ago, my two best work friends expressed the same desire (I let them, of course). My family called table lamps “dawnzers” for years, and it gives me great joy to secretly sing the national anthem like Ramona did. I remember thinking that Beezus was so old and annoying, and at the same time wishing I had an older sister to plague and love.
Beverly Cleary’s 105th birthday would have been this upcoming April 12; schools and libraries have often celebrated it as Drop Everything and Read Day; if you’d like to participate, I strongly encourage it!
Ms. Cleary’s work touched at least four generations of children during her lifetime, and will continue to do so long after her passing. I can’t wait to see what my niephlets will make of Ramona, Ralph, Ribsy, and the whole Klickitat Street crew.