The Oregon author, beloved by generations of young readers, wrote two memoirs that are forgotten Northwest gems.
Beverly Cleary, age 6. She’s sitting on a table, legs crossed, hands at her sides. Her dress has puffy sleeves and her socks are pulled high and rolled at the top. Her haircut is a pageboy — what used to be called a Prince Valiant — with bangs straight across her forehead.
But look at that face. The chin is level, the eyes are bright as a pair of sparklers, the lips are pulled back in a half-smile that says I’m Watching You. It’s there in every picture of Cleary, from her first-grade photo in 1922 to the ones from last year, when she celebrated her 100th birthday.
Cleary was nobody’s little princess then and she’s nobody’s sweet old great-grandmother now, no surprise to anyone who’s read “Beezus and Ramona” or “The Mouse on the Motorcycle” or any of her 40 children’s books.
The photo of 6-year-old Cleary appears on the front cover of “A Girl From Yamhill,” her 1988 memoir about growing up in Oregon as the only child of a farmer and a housewife who moved to Portland and struggled through the Depression. A second memoir, “My Own Two Feet” (1995), has Cleary’s graduation photo from the University of California, Berkeley, on the cover. Sixteen year later, her expression is the same: knowing smile, eyes that see beneath the surface to what’s funny and sad and true.
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Cleary’s ability to write stories that kids love was recognized early and celebrated often in a 50-year career that started with “Henry Huggins” in 1950 ended with “Ramona’s World” in 1999. She won every award in the book and was named a Living Legend by the Library of Congress. The elementary school she attended in Portland is named after her, and so is the children’s library where she checked out books. There are statues of her characters — Ramona and Henry and his dog, Ribsy — in Grant Park, next to her old high school.
All the accolades and honorary degrees are nice and Cleary accepted them like the polite Oregonian she is, but those who put her on a pedestal are missing something. There’s a sharpness to her writing, an edge that comes from her understanding of human nature and her absolute refusal to pander or condescend to her young readers.
The feistiness makes her books funnier and is a big reason why she’s so popular with middle-graders. They’re not angels all the time and they know it, even if their parents won’t admit it. In “Ramona the Pest,” Ramona lives up to the title by nagging her mother and sister, chasing a boy in short pants until he kisses her, and pulling the curls of the girl who sits in front of her. It’s a riot because it’s real.
The real Cleary is easy to find. “A Girl from Yamhill” and “My Own Two Feet” (both still in print, from HarperCollins) are forgotten gems that describe a world gone by, a Pacific Northwest that’s almost passed from living memory. Cleary remembers the celebration that marked the end of World War I and meeting a great-uncle who crossed the Plains in a covered wagon. Her great-grandparents came west in the first great wagon train to Oregon in 1843 and settled in the Willamette Valley, where she was born in 1916. Farm life was idyllic for a bright only child, less so for her overworked parents. The Clearys moved to Portland in 1922, part of a familiar 20th-century pattern, rural to urban, farm to city.
Cleary’s descriptions of Portland during the Depression are stark and so evocative that “A Girl from Yamhill” would be a regional classic whether it was written by an unknown or a world-famous children’s author.
I think Cleary’s popularity has caused these two books to be overlooked; those who remember her books from fourth grade don’t realize that she is dealing with some of the signature elements of a modern memoir — a fractured family, an overbearing mother, an abusive boyfriend, an independent young woman struggling to make a life for herself in a man’s world.
Mable Atlee Bunn is the dominant figure in these books and in her daughter’s life, the mother who was always saying stand on your own two feet, remember your pioneer ancestors, never be afraid. “So I was not afraid,” Cleary writes, and that settled that. Cleary’s mother controlled her life through her school years, choosing her clothes and boyfriends, keeping a diary not of her life but of her daughter’s.
“After that I began to keep a diary of my own in an effort to convince myself that everything was as it should be,” Cleary writes.
The sadness in that sentence is outweighed by the determination. Cleary started writing stories when she was a child and imagined seeing her books on the shelves of the libraries that were her refuge from a chilly home. “A Girl from Yamhill” ends on a hopeful note as Cleary breaks away from the mother who smothered her. “My Own Two Feet” begins where the previous book ends, with Cleary taking the bus away from home and family to a new life in California. It is warmer and more conventional writer’s memoir than “A Girl from Yamhill,” more about who Cleary was and who she became, and is as inspirational as a dream come true.
The girl in the puffy dress with the knowing smile grew up and wrote stories about kids like herself, kids like you and me.