The Oregon author's tales of Ramona and Beezus Quimby and Henry Huggins sold millions and enthralled generations of young readers.
SAN FRANCISCO — As she turns 100 on April 12, the feisty and witty author Beverly Cleary remembers the Oregon childhood that inspired the likes of characters Ramona and Beezus Quimby and Henry Huggins in the children’s books that sold millions and enthralled generations of youngsters.
“I was a well-behaved little girl, not that I wanted to be,” she said. “At the age of Ramona, in those days, children played outside. We played hopscotch and jump rope and I loved them and always had scraped knees.”
Ramona, perhaps her best-known character, made her debut in “Henry Huggins” with only a brief mention. But that changed soon.
“All the children appeared to be only children so I tossed in a little sister and she didn’t go away. She kept appearing in every book,” she said in a telephone interview from her Carmel, Calif., home. Cleary herself was an only child.
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Her birthday will be marked with a slice of carrot cake at her retirement home, where they’ll show the movie “Discovering Beverly Cleary: An Oregon Art Beat.” The documentary not only marks her 100th birthday but it also examines her Oregon roots, and the impact of her work.
She hasn’t seen the film yet, but is quick to point out, “I think I’m much better looking in my photograph.”
She’s also been known to joke that she doesn’t look a day over 80.
Cleary, who started writing in her 30s, doesn’t write anymore because she feels “it’s important for writers to know when to quit.”
“I even got rid of my typewriter. It was a nice one but I hate to type. When I started writing I found that I was thinking more about my typing than what I was going to say, so I wrote it long hand.”
Although she hung up her pen, Cleary re-released three of her most cherished books with three famous fans writing forewords for the new editions.
Actress Amy Poehler penned the front section of “Ramona Quimby, Age 8;” Kate DiCamillo wrote the opening for “The Mouse and the Motorcycle;” and fellow author, Judy Blume, wrote the foreword for “Henry Huggins.”
Trained as a librarian, Clearly first wrote “Henry Huggins,” published in 1950. Millions came to love the adventures of Huggins and neighbors Ellen Tebbits, Otis Spofford, Beatrice “Beezus” Quimby and her younger sister, Ramona. They inhabit a down-home, wholesome setting on Klickitat Street — a real street in Portland, the city where Cleary spent much of her youth.
The Ramona character developed over time as Cleary thought of new stories for the young characters. In all, there were eight books on Ramona between “Beezus and Ramona” in 1955 and “Ramona’s World,” Cleary’s last book, in 1999. Others included “Ramona the Pest” and “Ramona and Her Father.”
In 2003, she was chosen as one of the winners of the National Medal of Arts and met President George W. Bush. She is lauded in literary circles far and wide.
“A career that spans two centuries. A voice that children adore, listen to, and are comforted by. An imagination that has been alive and well for 100 years. Bev Cleary is clearly an icon — not just to kids but to writers like me who love seeing the smiles on the faces of youngsters who read our books instead of burying those faces in digital dumpsters,” said children’s author Howard Eisenberg, 89.
At the New York Public Library, Anna Taylor, coordinator of Children’s Educational Programming, is collecting 100 stories from patrons and librarians about why they love Cleary.
Taylor has her own reason, too.
“One thing that is great about her books is they are a joy to read aloud. Every time I’ve read a Beverly Cleary aloud, (the youngsters) just don’t want me to stop. I think it’s because Ramona and her friends feel like your sister, or yourself or your friends. You can kind of see yourself in the story really easily,” Taylor said.
Cleary was born on April 12, 1916, in McMinnville, Ore., and lived on a farm in Yamhill until her family moved to Portland when she was school-age. She was a slow reader, which she blamed on illness and a mean-spirited first-grade teacher who disciplined her by snapping a steel-tipped pointer across the back of her hands.
But by sixth or seventh grade, “I decided that I was going to write children’s stories,” she said.
Cleary graduated from the University of California, Berkeley, where she met her husband, Clarence. They married in 1940; He died in 2004. They were the parents of twins, a boy and a girl born in 1955 who inspired her book “Mitch and Amy.”
Her days are quiet now, reading, doing crossword puzzles and visiting with family. “I don’t encourage visitors, my family is enough,” she said.
She said her health is good. “I’m hanging in there, a few aches and pains.”
Asked her secret to living to be 100, the dry wit is evident again.
“I didn’t do it on purpose,” she said.