Don’t stop now. Go ahead! Be readers all of your lives. — Beverly Cleary
Ramona Quimby. Henry Huggins. Ralph S. Mouse. Ribsy. The creator of all these memorable characters—book author Beverly Cleary—shared hilarious and often poignant memories of her Oregon childhood with millions in her children’s novels. Cleary passed into eternity last week. She was 104 years old.
Cleary’s publisher, HarperCollins, announced that the author died Thursday in Carmel Valley, California. She had lived there since the 1960s. No cause of death was given.
Cleary was born Beverly Bunn on April 12, 1916, in McMinnville, Oregon. She lived on a farm 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 pointer across the backs of her hands.
“I had chicken pox, smallpox, and tonsillitis in the first grade and nobody seemed to think that had anything to do with my reading trouble,” Cleary said. By sixth or seventh grade, “I decided that I was going to write children’s stories.”
Cleary graduated from junior college in Ontario, California, and the University of California at Berkeley. She studied library science at the University of Washington and worked as the children’s librarian at Yakima, Washington, and post librarian at the Oakland Army Hospital during World War II.
Cleary didn’t start writing books until her early 30s. She wrote Henry Huggins, published in 1950. Children worldwide 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, Oregon, the city where Cleary spent much of her youth.
Ramona, perhaps her best-known character, made her debut in Henry Huggins with only a brief mention.
“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,” Cleary said in a March 2016 telephone interview from her California home.
Cleary herself was an only child. She says Ramona’s character wasn’t very much like her. “I was a well-behaved little girl, not that I wanted to be,” she once quipped.
Cleary wrote eight books starring Ramona between 1955 and 1999, including Ramona the Pest. She ventured into fantasy with The Mouse and the Motorcycle in 1965.
Cleary hadn’t been writing in recent years because she said she felt “it’s important for writers to know when to quit.”
However, Cleary did re-release 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; author Kate DiCamillo wrote the opening for The Mouse and the Motorcycle; and author Judy Blume wrote the foreword for Henry Huggins.
Cleary, a self-described “fuddy-duddy,” said there was a simple reason she began writing children’s books. “As a librarian, children were always asking for books about ‘kids like us.’ Well, there weren’t any books about kids like them. So when I sat down to write, I found myself writing about the sort of children I had grown up with,” Cleary said in a 1993 interview.
Ramona and Her Father in 1978 and Ramona Quimby, Age 8, in 1982 were Newbery Honor Books. Cleary’s Dear Mr. Henshaw, the touching story of a lonely boy who corresponds with a children’s book author, won the 1984 Newbery Medal for the most distinguished contribution to American literature for children.
The U.S. Library of Congress named Cleary a Living Legend in 2000. In 2003, she was a winner of the National Medal of Arts.
Cleary’s books exist in more than a dozen languages. They have inspired Japanese, Danish, and Swedish television programs, a 10-part PBS series, and a 2010 film.
Someone once asked Cleary about her favorite among her many fictional characters. She responded, “Does your mother have a favorite child?”
(Author Beverly Cleary signs books at the Monterey Bay Book Festival in Monterey, California, on April 19, 1998. Vern Fisher/The Monterey County Herald via AP)