Beverly Cleary, prolific author of children’s novels
By Tami Richards | On December 15, 2021 | Updated August 23, 2022 | Comments (0)
Beverly Cleary (April 12, 1916–March 25, 2021) was an American author of children’s and middle-grade fiction.
Extraordinarily prolific and beloved by young readers worldwide, sales of her books have exceeded 91 million copies, and many are still in print.
Starting with the series featuring Henry Huggins and his dog Ribsy in 1950, she went on to create many unforgettable characters, including Ramona Quimby and Ralph S. Mouse.
So, how does a person go from living on a humble little farm in an obscure town in the Pacific Northwest to someone who had an undeniable flair for creating books that generations of children have loved to read? Let’s start finding out.
Childhood and early education
Born Beverly Atlee Bunn in McMinnville, Oregon, until the age of six she lived on the family’s farm in Yamhill just a few miles from her birthplace.
An only child, Beverly loved roaming freely about on the farm, eating apples in the shade of the apple tree, watching her father milk the cow and the farmhands thresh the wheat, helping her mother bring in the cow, and gathering wildflowers.
Yamhill lacked a library. Mrs. Bunn took it upon herself to acquire some borrowed space in a building downtown, organize fundraisers, and procured children’s books from the state library in Salem in order to build Yamhill’s first, much-needed library.
Beverly loved listening to the books being read to her and the pictures in the stories. There were so many children’s books available at the Yamhill library now, Mrs. Bunn begged Beverly to let her teach her to read, but Beverly wanted to wait and learn to read in school with the other children, rather than in her mother’s kitchen.
By the time Beverly was six years old, the family farm fell deeply into debt. The Bunns moved to Portland, where Beverly’s father got a job at a federal reserve bank as a night guard. First grade was going along well for Beverly until she contracted chickenpox and missed more than a week of school.
Upon her return, not only did she fail to receive any more of the gold stars she was used to getting for her schoolwork, she began to fail miserably at reading. Her teacher was becoming mean enough to make her fear going to school.
Beverly caught smallpox from a neighbor, missed even more school, and grew hopeless at reading. Her mother continued to read aloud to her and encouraged Beverly to choose the stories she wanted to hear.
Beverly disliked reading and it wasn’t until the third grade when, according to her biography, A Girl from Yamhill, she:
“… picked up The Dutch Twins by Lucy Fitch Perkins planning to look at the pictures and I discovered that I was reading and enjoying what I read! It was a miracle. I was happy in a way I had not been happy since starting school. I read all afternoon until I had finished the book. Then I read The Swiss Twins. For once mother postponed bedtime, until I finished the book.”
From then on, Beverly Bunn read countless books for pleasure, to combat boredom, for escape, to kill time while waiting for the rain to cease, and to learn about all matter of things from animals to people and everything in between.
Over the next decade or so, some of her favorite stories would include Les Miserables as it was told to her seventh-grade healthy living class by a teacher apparently bored with the standard curriculum, along with Peter Pan, Tom Sawyer, and Jane Eyre.
In the seventh grade, Beverly had a reading teacher who would inspire her to become a librarian and a writer. Miss Smith was the first teacher to allow the students to read for enjoyment (without answering questions about the books, etc.) and a kind librarian who let Beverly into the library first on the days St. Nicholas Magazine³ was delivered.
A popular publication for children that launched in 1873 (Mary Mapes Dodge was its first editor), it was filled with stories, illustrations, and information of interest to children of all ages. To get an idea of what inspired Beverly Bunn, open the link below, click on the thumbnail, select “images” above Material Information.
The effects of the Great Depression were felt by the Bunn family in Portland, much like millions of other families at home and abroad.
Adjustments and sacrifices were made by all. Beverly’s father lost his job and her mother picked up work by cold calling from their living room. They had to sell their car, the tension was thick, and laughter was a memory, as she recalled in My Own Two Feet: A Memoir. Somehow, the family muddled through.
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Beverly in 1938, as a senior in college
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Becoming a librarian
Beverly turned eighteen in 1934 and moved to California to attend Chaffey Junior College. Eventually, she would go on to complete her master’s degree at the University of California at Berkeley. She had worked her way through college and began to date the man who would become her husband, Clarence Cleary.
Although it was a tradition, in that era, for women to attend college to catch a man, that wasn’t Beverly’s motivation for getting an education.
She wanted to be able to stand on her own two feet. She wanted to accomplish her dual goals; earning a librarianship degree and writing books. Catching a man was left to chance, as it were. She planned to work for a year after college before getting married.
Beverly attended the school of librarianship at the University of Washington in Seattle and upon graduation took a job as a children’s librarian in Yakima. She soon discovered the local boys weren’t interested in reading the books available to them, as they often asked her where to find the books about “kids like us.”
Beverly turned this into something of a personal quest. She spent hours memorizing stories from books for a lively retelling during story hour in the library and, during the summer, in the park.
All told, Beverly memorized a total of sixty-two stories during her time in Yakima, The Five Chinese Brothers by Claire Huchet Bishop being the most popular among them.
Marriage to Clarence Cleary, and starting to write
On October 6, 1940, almost a year to the day after beginning her job in Yakima, Beverly Bunn headed to California to marry Clarence Cleary. When she left Yakima, the head librarian commented that she didn’t understand why the children liked her so much. But the secret was that she treated them with respect, just as she treated adults.
Beverly embraced her role as a housewife and spent the first holiday season working at a bookstore. With the murmur of war on everyone’s lips, the Cleary’s decided against starting a family, as Clarence could be drafted despite his high draft notice number. Beverly began working at a library position for the Army, a job she held until the end of the war.
Post-war, the Clearys moved to Berkeley and Beverly found herself staring at her typewriter with nothing to say. She’d always known she wanted to be a writer and, hoping that someday she’d have life’s necessities taken care of, the opportunity to write would finally present itself. The problem was she didn’t know what to write.
Thank goodness Beverly had a great imagination! After waiting and planning for the time to write for nearly twenty years, without ever having written a word of fiction, she recalled the children in the Yakima library who wanted to read stories about “kids like us.”
Now age thirty-three, she thought of the kids on her street in Portland riding skates and playing along Klickitat Street.
Though she was unsure of how to begin writing, once she did, she had a knack for telling an interesting story — and so, the world of Henry Huggins was born. Thanks to her imagination, dreams, and goals, when she finally did start to write, the stories poured from her with such ease that was able to skip the typical long rejection process.
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Beverly and friend, around 1955
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A prolific career
Beverly’s years as a children’s librarian proved useful in stepping into her writing career. She had a firm handle on what children enjoyed reading. Her first book, Henry Huggins, was published in 1950 and became the first in a long-running series about the boy and his dog, Ribsy.
Henry’s neighbor girls, Beezus and her younger sister Ramona, soon became stars in a series of their own. Beezus and Ramona was the title of the first of the books about the Quimby sisters, published in 1955. The last of her novels for children, Ramona’s World, was published in 1999.
In between, dozens of books were published, both as part of these series and outside of them. Some of the best known include several books about Ralph S. Mouse, starting with The Mouse and the Motorcycle, and the critically acclaimed Dear Mr. Henshaw, a stand-alone chapter book for middle grade.
Beverly Cleary also produced two memoirs. A Girl from Yamhill (1888) covered her childhood, and My Own Two Feet (1995) detailed her college years and young adulthood.
She was an author who very much enjoyed her career. In a 2011 interview with the Los Angeles Times, Beverly, then 95 years old said, “I’ve had an exceptionally happy career.” Beverly Cleary was just three weeks shy of her 105th birthday when she passed away in March 2021.
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Beverly Cleary’s legacy
Beverly Cleary’s books have been enjoyed by generations of children, with her gift for writing books that children wanted to read. Her books have been translated into twenty-nine languages, have sold, as mentioned, more than 91 million copies, and received numerous awards, including the prestigious John Newbery Award in 1984 for Dear Mr. Henshaw.
Her books are considered culturally significant for depicting everyday details of middle-class American childhood in a humorous yet respectful way. Here are some comments from literary critics:
“Cleary’s books have lasted because she understands her audience. She knows they’re sometimes confused or frightened by the world around them, and that they feel deeply about things that adults can dismiss.” (Pat Pfliger, professor of children’s literature)
“Cleary is funny in a very sophisticated way. She gets very close to satire, which I think is why adults like her, but she’s still deeply respectful of her characters—nobody gets a laugh at the expense of another. I think kids appreciate that they’re on a level playing field with adults.” (Roger Sutton, Horn Book magazine)
“Cleary’s books are addictive for young readers. Learn to read just well enough, and off you go, like Ralph S. Mouse going pb-pb-b-b-b and zooming down the hallway of the Mountain View Inn.” (Sarah Larson, The New Yorker)
“When you’re the right age to read Cleary’s books you’re likely at your most impressionable time in life as a reader. Her books both entertain children and give them courage and insight into what to expect from their lives.” (Leonard S. Marcus, children’s literature historian)
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More about Beverly Cleary
Selected books for children
This is a partial list of books by this very prolific writer. Link through for a complete bibliography.
Henry Huggins series (1950 – 1964)
- Henry Huggins (1950)
- Henry and Beezus (1952)
- Henry and Ribsy (1954)
- Henry and the Paper Route (1957)
- Henry and the Clubhouse (1962)
- Ribsy (1964)
Ramona series (1955–1999)
- Beezus and Ramona (1955)
- Ramona the Pest (1968)
- Ramona the Brave (1975)
- Ramona and Her Father (1977)
- Ramona and Her Mother (1979)
- Ramona Quimby, Age 8 (1981)
- Ramona Forever (1984)
- The Ramona Quimby Diary (1984)
- Ramona’s World (1999)
Other well-known books (selected)
- Ellen Tebbits (1951)
- Otis Spofford (1953)
- The Mouse and the Motorcycle (1965)
- Runaway Ralph (1970)
- Ralph S. Mouse (1982)
- Dear Mr. Henshaw (1983)
- A Girl from Yamhill (1988)
- My Own Two Feet (1995)
- Reader discussion on Goodreads
- 100 Things You Might Not Know About Beverly Cleary
- Beverly Cleary, Age 100 (The New Yorker)
- New York Times obituary