Children's Author/Illustrator Biographies
1987 Ludington Award Winner
"Beverly (Atlee Bunn) Cleary." Major Authors and Illustrators for Children and Young Adults, 2nd ed., 8 vols. Gale Group, 2002. Reproduced in Biography Resource Center. Farmington Hills, Mich.: Thomson Gale. 2007.
Photograph provided by HarperCollins.
Acknowledged as one of the most beloved authors of children's literature, Beverly Cleary has been writing books for young people for more than fifty years, a period during which she has retained her popularity, critical acclaim, and relevance. A prolific writer with a wide range of interests who has sold over ten million hardcover books and many more paperbacks, she has written picture books, realistic fiction, historical fiction, fantasy, and nonfiction, and has written for audiences ranging from preschoolers through young adults. Cleary told MAICYA: "I write with a pen on yellow legal pads. The stories I write are stories I would like to have read as a child." She has received praise for her writing in all of the genres to which she has contributed; however, she is most highly regarded as the author of realistic fiction and fantasy, often humorous and in series form, that is directed to primary and middle graders.
Cleary is perhaps best known as the creator of child characters who live in and around Klickitat Street in Portland, Oregon, an area familiar to Cleary from her own childhood: Henry Huggins, a well-meaning middle grader who gets into scrapes with his dog, the lovable mutt Ribsy; and the Quimby sisters, Beatrice (nicknamed Beezus), a responsible girl who is Henry's friend, and her pesky younger sister, Ramona. Cleary's most popular creation, Ramona Quimby was first introduced as a peripheral character in the first "Henry Huggins" book, but soon took on a life--and prompted a series--of her own. Active, imaginative, independent, sometimes obnoxious, but never malicious, Ramona is generally considered a particularly well-rounded characterization.
Cleary is also well known as the creator of a fantasy series for middle graders featuring Ralph S. (for Smart) Mouse, an anthropomorphic rodent whose thirst for adventure and love for motorcycles leads him into exciting situations that take him far from home. In addition, the author has received praise for her young adult novels, pioneering works in the genre that center on young women who mature through their relationships with the opposite sex as well as their families and friends.
Characteristically, Cleary writes about the lives of ordinary middle-class children in works that are structured as collections of episodic stories and are set in Oregon and California, places in which she has lived. The problems faced by her child characters at home and school are generally those faced by most children as they face the challenges of growing up: making mistakes; feeling helpless, misunderstood, guilty, or left out; experiencing sibling rivalry; fearing a school-yard bully; mourning the death of a pet; and other tribulations. Cleary also focuses several of her works on the experiences and emotions of the only child and the children of divorced or single-parent families, and is often acknowledged as one of the first American authors to profile the latter group. Her works also feature children struggling to learn in school or to conform to society; several of her characters, including Ramona Quimby, have trouble adjusting.
Although she writes about the trials of the young, Cleary does not dwell on problems, but instead stresses the many joys of childhood in works that are filled with amusing situations and details. In addition, the author leaves her readers with hope. Her characters solve their problems through their own ingenuity or with the help of their family and friends and even their pets. Her works assure young readers that they can master their own situations and make successful transitions as they move closer to adulthood; in addition, Cleary promotes the pleasures of books and reading in her novels and stories.
Cleary is respected as an author of great perceptiveness and integrity, one who always gives her young readers something both to think about and laugh about. She is credited with turning the ordinary experiences of children into something extraordinary through her skill in translating the actions and feelings of childhood into books children can relate to easily. As a writer, she uses a flowing, conversational style often noted for its deftness, warmth, vitality, and readability as well as for its author's facility with dialogue and use of gentle satire. She is praised for the universality of her subjects, for her understanding of children and young people, for her accuracy in depicting their world, for blending her humor with sensitivity and compassion, and for speaking to her readers honestly and without condescension. Cleary has been criticized occasionally for stereotyping and for choosing not to use a multicultural approach in her works; in addition, she has been accused of some pedestrian writing and for creating some slight plots. However, most observers consider her a national treasure, an author who has greatly influenced juvenile literature by successfully appealing to both children and adults for nearly three generations.
Reviewers have special praise for Cleary and her work. Writing in The Beverly Cleary Handbook, Joanne Kelly called Cleary "by many accounts, the most popular children's author in the United States today" as well as "America's favorite author for children" before concluding: "Her sharp recollections of the complex feelings of childhood and her ability to relate those feelings in a way that is both humorous and comforting to the reader make her work ever popular with children and adults." Margaret Novinger of Southeastern Librarian dubbed Cleary "the Boswell of the average child." Writing in Horn Book Magazine, Caroline Feller Bauer asked, "Who is Beverly Cleary? She is the author who has made books exciting to children--hundreds and thousands and generations of children. How can you repay Beverly Cleary for such an outstanding contribution?" Katherine Paterson, writing in Washington Post Book World, added that Cleary "has the rare gift of being able to reveal us to ourselves while keeping an arm around our shoulder. We laugh . . . to recognize that funny, peculiar little self we were and then laugh . . . with relief that we've been understood at last. Cleary is able to sketch clearly with a few perfect strokes the inexplicable adult world as seen through a child's eyes." In Twentieth-Century Children's Writers, Cathryn M. Mercier concluded that Cleary's "impact as a children's book writer cannot be overestimated. . . . The appeal of Cleary's work can be attributed to her extraordinary talent in creating memorable young characters whose exuberant spirit and zest for life attract young and old readers alike. . . . Her sensitive, penetrating awareness of individual children and their needs endures." Ilene Cooper added in Booklist: "When it comes to writing books kids love, nobody does it better."
Born in McMinville, Oregon, Cleary was the only child of Lloyd and Mable Atlee Bunn. Her great-grandparents on the Bunn side, Jacob and Harriet Hawn, crossed the plains in 1843 on the first covered wagon to Oregon; after they settled, Jacob Hawn built the first mill in Oregon. Their son Frederick built a home in Yamhill, Oregon, that is now a state landmark; his son John Marion Bunn then built the first fine house there. As Cleary was growing up, her mother's admonishment "Remember your pioneer ancestors" became a familiar phrase. In her autobiography A Girl from Yamhill, Cleary described her mother as "a classic figure of the westward emigration movement, the little schoolmarm from the East who stepped off a train in the West to teach school." Mable Atlee Bunn was born in Michigan and came to Quincy, Washington, with two cousins in 1905. Two years later, she married Chester Lloyd Bunn, the son of a farmer. After their marriage, the couple moved to Yamhill, where Lloyd, as he preferred to be called, was working the family farm. In 1916 Cleary was born in the nearest hospital, in McMinnville. She noted in her autobiography, "McMinnville was my birthplace, but home was Yamhill."
Cleary has always been involved with paper and ink. When she was about two years old, she poured a bottle of blue ink on the tablecloth at Thanksgiving and made hand prints on it; she noted in her autobiography, "I do not recall what happened when aunts, uncles, and cousins arrived. All I recall is my satisfaction in marking with ink on that white surface." As an only child on a farm, she had plenty of freedom to explore. Her father had taught Cleary about safety, and she obeyed his rules, which seemed, in her words, "sensible and interesting." "The farm (was) my playground," she noted in A Girl from Yamhill, "a source of interest and delight."
From an early age, Cleary was taught by her mother, who had an interest in books and writing, that reading had power. Mable Bunn would tell Beverly, "Reading is to the mind as exercise is to the body." In an interview in People Weekly, Cleary once explained: "My mother had this enchanted world of reading, and I wanted in." Her mother taught Cleary scraps of literature from authors like Chaucer and Dickens and told her stories from her Michigan girlhood as well as folk and fairy tales; she also gave her daughter a list of life rules, such as to never be afraid to stand on your own two feet. Her grandmother read to Cleary from the animal stories by Thornton W. Burgess that were published in the local newspaper, and her father read her "The Katenjammer Kids" from the comics. Although she owned only two books, Mother Goose and The Story of the Three Bears, Cleary loved literature. Her mother organized a library in Yamhill that was located above a bank in a lodge hall, and soon crates of books began to arrive from the state library, including several that would become Cleary's particular favorites: Joseph Jacobs' More English Fairy Tales and the picture books of Beatrix Potter, most notably The Tailor of Gloucester.
When she was six, Cleary and her parents left the farm in Yamhill for Portland. She wrote in her autobiography, "Yamhill had taught me that the world was a safe and beautiful place, where children were treated with kindness, patience, and tolerance. Everyone loved little girls. I was sure of that." Cleary enjoyed life in the city, playing with neighborhood children and taking ballet. Then, in first grade, she got chicken pox, then smallpox. "By then," she recalled, "I was hopelessly lost in reading." Her teacher divided the class into three groups--Bluebirds, Redbirds, and Blackbirds--according to their reading ability; Cleary was placed in the lowest group, the Blackbirds. "From a country child who had never known fear, I became a city child consumed by fear." In second grade, Cleary's teacher helped her to read, but Beverly developed an aversion to reading outside of school. The family moved once again, this time to a house five blocks from Klickitat Street, a neighborhood near the city limit that Cleary would later use as the setting for many of her books. One day her mother found a case of books in the basement of the local Sunday School. One of these books was The Dutch Twins, a story by Lucy Fitch Perkins. Cleary recalled, "Suddenly, 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." Then, Cleary received a copy of Hugh Lofting's The Story of Doctor Dolittle, a book she enjoyed even more than The Dutch Twins; she wrote a review of Doctor Dolittle that was published in the Oregon Journal. When her family moved again, this time to Hancock Street in Portland, Cleary played with the neighborhood children and went to the movies; she especially enjoyed Hal Roach's "Our Gang" comedies, noting, "To me, these comedies were about neighborhood children playing together, something I wanted to read about in books. I longed for books about the children of Hancock Street." In school, she continued to win kudos for her writing. However, tensions in the family, many of which were caused by the Depression, increased: Lloyd Bunn wanted to go back to the farm, but Mable did not; tensions also started to grow between Cleary and her mother, whom she felt was manipulating her life. Beverly escaped by going to the library. As she recalled in More Junior Authors: "When I had learned to read, I made regular trips to the library. As I grew up, I read almost every book in the children's collection but I could rarely find what I wanted to read most of all. That was funny stories about American boys and girls. . . . I wanted to read about boys and girls who lived in the same kind of neighborhood I lived in and went to a school like the one I attended."
In 1928 Lloyd Bunn sold the family farm, and the family moved to a house two blocks south of Klickitat Street. In sixth grade Cleary wrote a story for a writing assignment about a little girl who goes to Bookland and talks with some of her favorite literary characters. She remembered in her autobiography: "(A) feeling of peace came over me as I wrote far beyond the required length of the essay. I had discovered the pleasure of writing." After her teacher, Miss Smith, read the story aloud, she exclaimed, "When Beverly grows up, she should write children's books." Miss Smith's praise gave "direction to my life," Cleary maintained, adding in More Junior Authors that the suggestion "seemed like such a good idea that I made up my mind that someday I would write books--the kind of books I wanted to read."
In eighth grade Cleary had an experience that affected her writing more negatively. After she submitted a paragraph of description for a class assignment, her teacher returned Cleary's work covered in red corrections. "For years," Cleary recalled, "I avoided writing description, and children told me they liked my books 'because there isn't any description in them.'" However, in high school Cleary went back to receiving praise from her teachers for her writing. One of her stories, "The Diary of a Tree-Sitter," was called very funny by a teacher, who told the budding author, "You show talent." Another story, "The Green Christmas," which describes how a boy is saved from playing the part of a Christmas angel in a school program after he falls into water containing green dye, later became a chapter in her first book, Henry Huggins. Cleary joined the Migwam, a school literary club, and later became its president; she also studied journalism, wrote stories for the school newspaper, and wrote a script for the Girls' League Show. At home, tensions increased between Cleary and her mother who, the author wrote in the second volume of her autobiography, My Own Two Feet, was struggling "to mold me into the perfect daughter." Her mother's cousin, a librarian at Chaffey Junior College in Ontario, California, offered Beverly the chance to stay with her while attending the school, which was free for California residents. Although her mother disapproved of the idea, her father stepped in, and Cleary went to California.
In her freshman English class at Chaffey Cleary wrote an autobiography about the early years of her life in Yamhill; the teacher, who did not give out good grades easily, awarded her with what she called in her autobiography "an unadorned, unqualified A." She received another A for an assignment, written in the third person, about her difficulties in learning to read in the first grade; she noted in My Own Two Feet, "Without knowing it, I had begun to write the story of my life." After finishing two happy years at Chaffey, Cleary went to the University of California at Berkeley. She had worked as a substitute librarian at the Ontario, California, public library; now she wanted to become a children's librarian and write children's books. At an assembly dance at the university she met Clarence Cleary, a student six years her senior who was studying economics and history. Clarence was Roman Catholic, while Beverly was Protestant; consequently, Mable Bunn did not approve of her daughter's relationship. At school Beverly studied English, languages, education, and the sciences as preparation to attend the School of Librarianship at the University of Washington in Seattle. In her senior year she realized that she wanted to marry Clarence Cleary; however, she intended to keep her Protestant faith. After graduating in 1938, Cleary went to the University of Washington, where she received her bachelor of arts degree in librarianship the next year.
After graduating from the University of Washington, Cleary went to Yakima, Washington, where she became a children's librarian. Of her experience there, she wrote in My Own Two Feet, "Most vividly of all I remember the group of grubby little boys, nonreaders, who came once a week during school hours. . . . Their teacher . . . said their textbooks did not interest them and perhaps library books would encourage them to read. 'Where are all the books about kids like us?,' they wanted to know. Where indeed. . . . As I listened to the boys talk about books, I recalled my own childhood reading, when I longed for funny stories about the sort of children who lived in my neighborhood. What was the matter with authors? I had often wondered and now wondered again."
Cleary enjoyed introducing children to books. She became a frequent storyteller, traveling to local schools and libraries and beginning a stint on her library's weekly radio broadcast. She told Shirley Fitzgibbons in Top of the News, "Although I told folk and fairy tales, I think I learned to write for children in those Saturday afternoon story hours. When I began Henry Huggins, I did not know how to write a book, so I mentally told the stories . . . and wrote them down as I told them. This is why my first book is a collection of stories about a group of characters rather than a novel." In 1940 Beverly married Clarence Cleary at a church in Reno, Nevada. The newlyweds moved to San Francisco, where Clarence worked for the U.S. Navy cost inspection office before being transferred to Alameda, California. The couple soon moved to Oakland so Clarence could avoid commuting across the San Francisco Bay Bridge.
Beverly began working part-time at the Sather Gate Book Shop in Berkeley, where she sold children's books. During World War II she became a librarian (with the title of junior hostess) at Camp John T. Knight, an Army camp in Oakland, and then became post librarian at an army library in a hospital. At the end of the war, Cleary tried to write a book about "the maturing of a sensitive girl who wanted to write," but was uninspired. After having a miscarriage she returned to work at the Sather Gate Book Shop; meanwhile the Clearys moved to Berkeley, where Clarence was auditing government contracts at the University of California, and bought a house in which the previous owners had left a ream of typing paper. In the bookstore Cleary picked up a particularly lame easy reader and read, disgustedly. "Suddenly," she wrote in My Own Two Feet, "I knew a could write a better book and, what was more, I intended to do it as soon as the Christmas rush was over."
On the second of January, 1948, Cleary sat down to write. She thought of the boys who had come into the library in Yakima wanting books about youngsters like themselves. "Why not write an easy-reading book for kids like them?" She thought about Hancock Street in Portland, where she had lived when she was the same age as the boys who came into the Yakima library. Hancock was a street where "boys teased girls even though they played with them, where boys built scooters out of roller skates and apple boxes, wooden in those days, and where dogs, before the advent of leash laws, followed the children to school." She also recalled an incident from her days in the hospital library, where some children brought their dog into the library: "On their way home," Cleary recalled in her autobiography, "they learned that a dog was not allowed on a streetcar unless it was in a box." With all of this in mind, Cleary prepared to take the plunge. "In my imagination, I stood once more before Yakima's story hour crowd as I typed the first sentence: 'Henry Huggins was in the third grade.'"
Henry Huggins was inspired by the boys on Hancock Street, who, the author recalled, "seemed eager to jump onto the page. Hancock Street became Klickitat Street because I had always liked the sound of the name when I had lived nearby." She named Henry's dog Spareribs, because she happened to have some spareribs in the refrigerator, and turned the streetcar into a bus. While writing her book, Cleary wrote to Siri Andrews, one of her former professors from library school who was now working as an editor and librarian in New Hampshire, to tell her about it. Andrews put Cleary in touch with an editor at Addison-Cokesbury publishers, who wrote back with interest. Cleary recalled in her autobiography, "I continued happily inventing stories about Henry from reality and imagination and, as I wrote, Mother's words, whenever I had to write a composition in high school, came back to me: 'Make it funny. People always like to read something funny,' and 'Keep it simple. The best writing is simple writing.'"
While continuing to write her first stories about Henry Huggins and his friends, it occurred to Cleary that all of the characters she had created thus far had no brothers or sisters. "Someone should have a sibling," she wrote in My Own Two Feet, "so I tossed in a little sister to explain Beezus's nickname. When it came time to name the sister, I overheard a neighbor call out to another whose name was Ramona. I wrote in 'Ramona,' made several references to her, gave her one brief scene, and thought that was the end of her. Little did I dream, to use a trite expression from books of my childhood, that she would take over books of her own, that she would grow and become a well-known and loved character."
When Cleary finished her book, she submitted it to an editor at the William Morrow publishing company, who suggested that the name of the dog be changed from Spareribs to Ribs or Ribsy because it sounded more like a name that a boy would use. Henry Huggins was published by Morrow in 1950. Cleary wrote in My Own Two Feet, "After all my years of ambition to write, of aiming both consciously and unconsciously toward writing, I had actually written. I was a real live author."
vIn Henry Huggins Henry is a third-grader who befriends a skinny stray dog he finds in a drug store. His mother, who cannot come to get him, suggests that Henry bring his new pet home on the bus. Lacking the requisite box in which to bring home the dog, which he names Ribsy, Henry uses a shopping bag to carry his new pet on the bus. Ribsy escapes from the shopping bag and wreaks havoc on the moving bus. The police arrive, looking for Henry; to his delight, they bring him and Ribsy home in a police car. Henry Huggins also introduces the Quimby sisters, Henry's neighbors on Klickitat Street. Henry gets along well with Beezus, whom he considers sensible, but he is irritated with Ramona, whom he considers an annoying pest.
Critics who initially reviewed Henry Huggins were generally appreciative of it. A Kirkus reviewer called the book "enchanting small-boy adventures--a grammar-school Odyssey. . . . Cleary must have had her ear to the door many times to catch the flavor of third grade manners and mores." Mary Gould Davis of the Saturday Review added, "It is hard to decide which of these incidents is the funniest," while Ellen Lewis Buell, writing in the New York Times Book Review, concluded that Henry Huggins presents "everyday life as children know it. Maybe Henry is a little luckier than the average boy, but he's not really any funnier. He just seems that way, which is fine."
Cleary has written five additional volumes in her series about Henry Huggins--Henry and Beezus, Henry and Ribsy, Henry and the Paper Route, Henry and the Clubhouse, and Ribsy. In these works, the author continues the exploits of her Everyboy and his faithful mongrel. Henry tries to earn a red bicycle, tries to keep Ribsy out of trouble, takes on a paper route, builds a clubhouse, and loses--and recovers--his dog, all the while trying to outwit his nemesis, Ramona. However, in Henry and the Clubhouse, Ramona follows Henry into a snowstorm when he is delivering papers. He feels sorry for her, so he loads Ramona on his sled and takes her home before going back into the storm to finish his route. Henry is commended for his kindness and responsibility and, at the end of the story, is given five dollars by his dad so he can buy the new sleeping bag he wanted. Reviewers favorably compared the "Henry Huggins" series to the "Little Eddie" books by Carolyn Haywood and to Homer Price by Robert McCloskey. They also praised the believability and unpretentiousness of the series and noted that its core is the love of a boy and his dog for each other. Writing in the New York Times Book Review, Ellen Lewis Buell called Henry "as typical of the present younger generation as (Booth Tarkington's) Penrod was of his. . . . It is part of Henry's charm that his experiences are just those that might happen to any boy you know." Writing in Children and Books, May Hill Abuthnot and Zena Sutherland dubbed the books about Henry and his friends "pure Americana," adding, "The characters are real boys and girls, convincingly alive." Margaret Novinger of Southeastern Librarian claimed that, with her "Henry Huggins" stories, Cleary "has created a world within the field of children's literature. . . . The world is bounded by childhood and humor and welcomes all children . . . to enter and enjoy. . . . The characters and the setting tie (the books in the series) together. Beverly Cleary maintains their individuality as books because of her ability as a writer. To each book she brings humor and an unusual ability to understand children . . . . In our judgment, the 'Henry Huggins' books represent Beverly Cleary's unique contribution to the world of children's literature."
In addition to the "Henry Huggins" books, Cleary wrote two more works about children who live in or near Henry's neighborhood, Ellen Tebbits and Otis Swofford. Cleary once called Ellen Tebbits "probably the most autobiographical of my books." The story features Ellen, a fourth-grader who has just lost her best friend. Ellen meets Austine Allen, a new girl from California; the girls are bonded when they discover that they both have to wear horrid woolen underwear. Ellen and Austine are tormented by Otis Spofford, a schoolmate who is the son of their dancing teacher and who likes to, in his own words, "stir up a little excitement"; Otis is often considered the forerunner of Ramona Quimby. Ellen and Austine stop speaking to each other when Austine is blamed for untying the sash of Ellen's new dress, a deed actually done by Otis. Their estrangement continues for weeks until the girls' teacher asks them to clean erasers together. After Ellen rips the sash on Austine's dress, they make up and become best friends again. Writing in the Christian Science Monitor, Ethel C. Ince claimed, "Ellen takes her place beside Henry as an original and endearing character--a welcome addition to children's bookshelves." A Kirkus reviewer added, "It seems obvious from thin entrancing successor to Henry Huggins that the author is well acquainted with the whisperings, weeps, and whoops of third grade distaff side as she is with the ways of young men like Henry." A reviewer in Publishers Weekly predicted, "The trials of an 8-year-old in school and out will be a favorite with many young readers."
Otis Spofford features the irascible title character, who lives with his mother, a single parent, in the apartment above her dance studio. A protagonist Cleary based on a sixth-grade classmate, Otis wishes for a full-time mother and a real house like the other children in his class. Otis, whose favorite person to harass is the demure Ellen Tebbits, likes to cause a scene: for example, as the front half in a bull costume in a mock bullfight staged in front of the PTA, he charges aggressively instead of falling down; he shoots spitballs; he chases Ellen; and he fills his classroom with garlic. The antihero's ultimate misdemeanor is actually an accident: playing cowboys and Indians in his classroom, Otis mistakenly cuts off a large chunk of Ellen's hair when he pretends to scalp her.
Although he gets off with a reprimand from the adults, Otis is ostracized by the other children. At the ice rink, Ellen and Austine tease him and steal his shoes and boots, leaving him to come home on his skates. Otis apologizes, and they make him promise never to tease them again. However, Otis triumphs in the end: he has crossed his fingers behind his back. At the time of its publication in 1955, Otis Spofford was considered controversial; some critics considered Otis an amoral character, and the book was banned from some school libraries because Otis threw spitballs and did not repent. However, other reviewers were more positive: a critic in Publishers Weekly called Otis Spofford a "really hilarious story of a mischievous, impudent boy who is a classroom comedian, a show-off, and a pain, but still very lovable. Young readers will understand Otis and recognize his type." A reviewer for Booklist commented, "Children who find most book heroes too good to be true will be immensely taken with Otis Spofford. . . . As always the author's writing is marked by a freshness and naturalness stemming from an understanding of children and the brand of humor that appeals to them." Ellen Lewis Buell of the New York Times Book Review concluded that she "couldn't help wishing that Otis's mother had more time for him. This in itself is proof of the strength of his personality--the brasher he is, the better you like him."
In 1955 Cleary published Beezus and Ramona, the first of her series of books about the Quimby family. In this work, Beezus is nine years old and Ramona is four. Ramona embarrasses Beezus by scribbling all over a library book she wants to keep, by disrupting her after-school art class and a checker game she is playing with Henry Huggins, and by giving her a hard time when she is baby-sitting. When Beezus turns ten, Ramona manages to ruin two birthday cakes. Beezus decides she does not love her sister; however, when her namesake, Aunt Beatrice, arrives, she and Mrs. Quimby laugh about the trouble they caused each other while growing up. After hearing her mother and aunt, Beezus concludes that it is okay to dislike your sister every now and then. Writing in the New York Times Book Review, Buell called Ramona "the most exasperating little sister since Tarkington created Jane Baxter," while Heloise P. Mailloux of Horn Book called Beezus and Ramona "a very funny book; its situations are credible, and it has a perceptive handling of family relationships that is unfortunately rare in easily read books." Louise S. Bechtel noted in the New York Herald Tribune Book Review that Beezus and Ramona is "just as funny and real as (books) about Henry. It will bring wonderful comfort to nine-year-old girls who suffer from characterful, bright, naughty little sisters."
Cleary has written seven other books about the Quimbys, all of which center on Ramona: Ramona the Pest; Ramona the Brave; Ramona and Her Father; Ramona and Her Mother; Ramona Quimby, Age 8; Ramona Forever; and Ramona's World. The most recent volume was published after a fifteen-year hiatus Cleary took from writing about her most popular character. In the remainder of the series, Ramona grows from age five to nine, and matures from a kindergartner to a fourth-grader. Cleary outlines Ramona's joys and sorrows in a manner considered both poignant and hilarious: she has misunderstandings with her teachers and with other children; becomes a kindergarten drop-out; has trouble with spelling; overcomes her fear of the dark; triumphantly finds a way to make the best of being a sheep in her Sunday school Christmas pageant; tries to run away from home; deals with Willa Jean, the bratty little sister of her friend Howie; overhears a neighbor compare Willa Jean to herself at that age; throws up in class and accidentally makes a face in her class picture; is praised for her writing ability and for her creativity in making up a skit around her book report; fights and makes up with Beezus; learns about death through the passing of the family cat; finds a lost wedding ring; learns to adjust to life as a big sister to baby Roberta; gains a best friend, Daisy; and experiences the first flowering of romance with her old pal Danny, whom she calls Yard Ape. Throughout the series, Cleary depicts Ramona's emotional development as well as her adventures and misadventures. Ramona feels alone, unwanted, humiliated, angry, jealous, and betrayed. She has a hard time sticking to the rules, throws tantrums, and is often stubborn and exasperating. However, Ramona is also bright, loving, sensitive, tenacious, and forgiving. In Ramona Forever she assesses her progress and realizes how far she has come, while in Ramona's World, published in 1999--fifteen years after the previous volume in the series--she learns to accept being imperfect. "It's been a long wait, but Miss Quimby is back, and she's as feisty as ever," declared Booklist's Ilene Cooper. In the fourth grade now, Ramona is getting used to her life with a baby sister, Roberta, and is also being introduced to all the wonder and difficulties which accompany a first best friend and a first crush. Cooper went on to praise Cleary for keeping Ramona amazingly up to date: "Considering that Ramona made her first title appearance in 1955, Cleary . . . has done a remarkable job of keeping her au currant." This is, Cooper concluded, "vintage Ramona."
Parents are an integral part of the "Beezus and Ramona" series; in fact, the changes within the Quimby family are often thought to reflect those within U.S. society during the period covered by the books. In Ramona the Brave, Mrs. Quimby goes from being a full-time mother to starting a job as a part-time bookkeeper; in Ramona and Her Father, Mr. Quimby loses his job, and the family goes through economic difficulties as well as tensions created by his constant smoking; in Ramona and Her Mother, Mrs. Quimby goes to work full time so her husband can attend college; in Ramona Quimby, Age 8, Mr. Quimby works part-time in a supermarket warehouse while attending college; and, in Ramona Forever, he hopes to begin teaching art in an elementary school after receiving his teaching credentials, but accepts a position as manager in the local supermarket instead so the family can stay in Portland. In Ramona and Her Mother Beezus and Ramona hear their parents argue, a situation that leads the children to think that they are going to get a divorce. However, Mr. and Mrs. Quimby assure their daughters that they are just sometimes short-tempered and are far from perfect. Reviewers have noted that Mr. and Mrs. Quimby are loving and supportive parents and that they are always there for their children. As Anita Trout said in Dictionary of Literary Biography, "An important message which Cleary makes through Ramona is how very real are the fears which children have about their parents and family situations. . . . Cleary knows that children need to hear (that problems don't change the love parents have for them) often."
The character of Ramona has been appreciated by critics and readers alike. Writing in Horn Book, Ethel L. Heins called Ramona "one of the most endearing protagonists of children's fiction," while Publishers Weekly contributor Heather Vogel Frederick described her as "an indelible figure in the children's book world since she burst on the scene." Mary M. Burns claimed in Horn Book that, with her books about the Quimbys, Cleary developed "as memorable a cast of characters as can be found in children's literature." In his The Marble in the Water, David Rees stated that the Ramona books work on different levels due to "the subtle shape of the narrative, and the distinction of the author's wit." Twentieth-Century Children's Writers essayist Cathryn M. Mercier added: "Through Ramona, Cleary touches young readers on an emotional level which engages and challenges, but does not overwhelm. Her ability to sustain their attention over time, from book to book, remains an accomplishment beyond evaluation."
In 1955, the year she began her "Beezus and Ramona" series, Cleary gave birth to twins, Malcolm and Marianne. Several of her subsequent books reflected the interests and experiences of her children. For example, she wrote four picture books--The Real Hole, Two Dog Biscuits, Janet's Thingamajigs, and The Growing-up Feet--about four-year-old twins Janet and Jimmy, who are modeled on her children. In Mitch and Amy, a story for primary graders, Cleary again bases her protagonists on Malcolm and Marianne. The book features twins who are preparing to enter fourth grade. Mitch is good with mechanical things but has trouble with reading and spelling, while Amy is a good reader but has problems with arithmetic. Although they bicker and squabble, the twins are ultimately supportive of each other. For example, when Mitch needs to do a book report, Amy finds a title that he can enjoy. Mitch also confronts a bully, Alan, and discovers that he can stand up for himself; after the confrontation with Alan, the twins realize that he, like Mitch, has a problem with reading and spelling. Writing in Saturday Review, Zena Sutherland stated, "It is a rare author who can describe a sibling relationship with all the authority of a case study and have it emerge as a smoothly written and entertaining story." Ethel L. Heins added in Horn Book, "Probably only a parent of twins could create so convincing a pair as nine-year-old Mitch and Amy and could write about them so realistically and so unsentimentally."
Son Malcolm's fascination with motorcycles and his difficulty with learning to read led Cleary to write one of her most popular series, the realistic fantasies about Ralph S. Mouse. Cleary wrote the first volume of the series, The Mouse and the Motorcycle, in an attempt to capture the interest of a reluctant reader. This volume introduces Ralph, who lives with his parents and siblings in an old hotel, the Mountain View Inn, which is located in the Sierra Nevada mountains east of San Francisco. The mouse family lives in the wall of a room rented by Mr. and Mrs. Gridley and their son Keith. Ralph, who is fascinated by Keith's collection of miniature cars and a tiny toy motorcycle, becomes friends with the boy. Keith lets Ralph use the motorcycle and teaches him to make it go; this leads Ralph into a series of adventures, such as nearly being sucked up by a vacuum cleaner, being trapped in a pile of sheets headed for the laundry, being pursued by a dog, and being tossed out a window by a hotel guest. When Keith falls ill with a fever, it is Ralph who brings him the aspirin that helps him sleep. Ralph becomes a hero, and is given the motorcycle by Keith. Writing in Young Readers Review, Phyllis Cohen commented, "This fantasy is so realistic that it is almost plausible" before concluding, "Even boys who do not care for fantasy may find this fantasy much to their liking." Margaret Sherwood Libby added in the New York Herald Tribune Book Week that Cleary "has ventured into the demanding realm of fantasy. Her foray . . . is a success."
In the next volume of the series, Runaway Ralph, the mouse takes his motorcycle to the Happy Acres summer camp, where he meets Garf, a boy who has been ostracized by the other campers. Ralph and Garf help each other, Garf by saving Ralph from a guard dog and restoring his freedom after he is caged, and Ralph by clearing Garf's name after he is accused of stealing a watch. In the third volume of the series, Ralph S. Mouse, Ralph leaves the Mountain View Inn after his rough-and-tumble cousins move in and disrupt his life. He turns to Ryan, the fifth-grade son of the inn's housekeeper. Ryan takes Ralph to school where his motorcycle is accidentally smashed, causing a rift between Ralph and Ryan. Wanting to leave the school, Ralph approaches Ryan's classmate, Brad; eventually, Ralph reconciles with Ryan, who works with Brad to come up with a successful plan to return Ralph to the inn. They also present him with a sports car to replace his motorcycle. At the end of the story, Ralph organizes his cousins into a group willing to share, and Ryan and Brad become stepbrothers. Writing about the character of Ralph in Who's Who in Children's Books, Margery Fisher stated, "The humanizing of Ralph is carried out in a spirit of gay and practical fantasy. . . . In fact he remains, engagingly, both mouse and boy." In a review of Ralph S. Mouse in Growing Point, Fisher added, "In all three of Ralph's encounters with people he is a vehicle for a Gulliver-scrutiny of Brobdingnag as well as a splendidly entertaining character in his own squeakily confident right."
In 1983 Cleary produced Dear Mr. Henshaw, a work often praised as one of her strongest works as well as a departure in form. Directed to middle-graders and structured through letters and diary entries, the novel features Leigh Botts, a sixth-grade boy of divorced parents who is living in a new town in California. Leigh has been writing to author Boyd Henshaw since second grade. Henshaw has included a response to Leigh's last letter with a list of questions for him, so Leigh outlines his situation: he misses his father, a cross-country trucker who has his own rig but is somewhat irresponsible, and his dog Bandit, who is accompanying Mr. Botts on his runs; he is often alone while his mother studies to be a nurse and works part-time for a caterer; at school, his lunch box is being burgled; and he has made no new friends. Henshaw suggests that Leigh keep a diary, which he does. Leigh is upset when his father tells him Bandit was lost in a snowstorm; while talking to his father on the phone, Leigh hears a boy's voice telling Mr. Botts that he and his mother are ready to go out for pizza. Leigh confides his feelings to his mother, who consoles him and explains the cause of the divorce. In school, Leigh rigs a burglar alarm for his lunch box. He is praised for his work, and several of his classmates ask him to help them build alarms for their lunch boxes. He makes a new friend, Barry, wins an honorable mention in a story contest, and meets the famous author Angela Badger, who tells him he is a writer. At the conclusion of the novel, Leigh's father, who has rescued Bandit, comes to the house to leave the dog with Leigh. However, Leigh decides to let his dad keep Bandit as company on his long trucking runs.
Reviewing Dear Mr. Henshaw in the Washington Post Book World, Colby Rodowsky stated, "Epistolary novels, by their very nature, are apt to limit a writer, but Beverly Cleary . . . has peopled her story with a group of fully realized characters. . . . The letters themselves are so real they make your teeth ache." Writing in Dictionary of Literary Biography, Anita Trout said, "In Leigh Botts, Cleary has brought together her years of writing experience and her ability to express the emotions, needs, and humor of a child. She has created a character that is deeper and fuller than her others because she goes further into the child's viewpoint than she has in her earlier books." Natalie Babbitt of the New York Times Book Review said that Cleary "has written many very good books over the years. This one is the best. It is a first-rate, poignant story in the forms of letters and a diary--a new construction for a Cleary book--and there is so much in it, all presented so simply, that it's hard to find a way to do it justice." Babbitt concluded, "What a lovely, well-crafted, three-dimensional book this is. And how reassuring to Mrs. Cleary's fellow writers to see that a 27th book can be so fresh and strong. Lots of adjectives here. She deserves them all." In 1984 Cleary received the Newbery Medal for Dear Mr. Henshaw.
Cleary published Strider, a sequel to Dear Mr. Henshaw, in 1991. Leigh, now an eighth-grader, begins his diary again. Leigh and Barry find an abandoned puppy on the beach that they name Strider. The boys agree to share Strider in a joint custody arrangement. However, Leigh and the dog form a special attachment to each other. Leigh's mother, who is now going to school to become a registered nurse, tells Leigh Strider is a Queensland Heeler, an Australian herding dog. Leigh's father, still out on the road, continues to forget to call Leigh and to send child support payments, but Leigh is now better able to deal with his father's failings. When Barry goes on vacation for a month Leigh takes care of Strider, and the two grow even closer, which causes a rift with Barry when he returns. After Leigh returns the dog to Barry, Strider escapes and returns to Leigh; finally, Barry decides to give Strider to his friend. At the conclusion of the novel, Leigh makes friends with Kevin, another boy from a divorced family, and with Geneva, a girl whom he admires. He also joins the school track team and wins the Rotary Invitational Track Meet. A reviewer in Publishers Weekly commented, "Although it lacks the emotional intensity that made (Dear Mr. Henshaw) an instant classic, this sequel offers further proof of the author's preeminence in children's fiction. . . . Once again Cleary demonstrates her ability to write from the heart." Mary M. Burns added in Horn Book, "Once again, Cleary proves that she is in complete harmony with the world view of children and adolescents."
Cleary has often included autobiographical elements in her works. Emily's Runaway Imagination, a book set in Oregon in the 1920s, was called "the most biographical of Cleary's work" by Joanne Kelly in The Beverly Cleary Handbook. Emily Bartlett lives in Pitchfork, Oregon, a thinly disguised version of Yamhill. Emily loves to read, but there are few books in Pitchfork, which does not have a library. Emily's mother requests that a library be built in the town, and the state librarians agree; consequently, Mrs. Bartlett begins preparations. Emily has a series of adventures: she feeds fallen apples to the family hogs, which then proceed to lurch around the yard, drunk on fermented juice, during her mother's elegant luncheon; she bleaches the family's plow horse to turn it into a snow-white steed; and she inadvertently wins second prize in a contest by dressing in a "costume" of an outgrown dress and her mother's high heels. At the end of the story, Emily is happy when her Chinese next-door neighbor, who is returning to China, presents his home to Mrs. Bartlett so that it can be used to house the new library. Writing in Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books, Zena Sutherland called Emily's Runaway Imagination "a truly delightful book" as well as a "pleasant story for girls, written in the artfully artless style that marks true craftsmanship." Writing in the New York Times Book Review, Ellen Lewis Buell added, "Friendly but shy, bumbling but sentient, (Emily) is a child other little girls will be glad to know." A reviewer in Publishers Weekly added, "Emily is one of Miss Cleary's most charming characters."
Cleary produced her autobiographies, A Girl from Yamhill and My Own Two Feet, in 1988 and 1995 respectively; both books are directed to middle and upper graders. The first volume describes the author's life from birth until she left for junior college in California; the second volume takes her from college to the publication of her first book. Reviewing A Girl from Yamhill in Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books, Zena Sutherland stated, "The author sees her child self with the same clarity and objectivity as she has seen her fictional characters," while Judith A. Sheriff of Voice of Youth Advocates added, "Cleary's memoir is every bit as delightful to read as her stories." A reviewer in Publishers Weekly concluded, "This is a slow, sometimes oblique story at the outset, but deeply moving by the end. A real gift to Cleary's many fans, young and old." Writing in Horn Book about My Own Two Feet, Mary M. Burns stated, "With each book, Beverly Cleary ensures her place as one of the classic writers of the twentieth century. . . . This remarkable book is written honestly without attempting to hide the difficulties that seemed to arise regularly from her parents'--particularly her mother's--attempts to control her life and the constant financial problems engendered by the Depression. Yet for all the sadness that sometimes lurks beneath the surface, it is a marvelously sensitive, often funny portrayal of a young woman's progress to adulthood and to independence. It is also the story of a writer-in-the making." Burns concludes that, after reading Cleary's memoir, those readers "who have always admired her books will . . . have an even greater admiration for the author." Cooper of Booklist concurred, noting, "Much of Cleary's success as a writer comes from her ability to write so honestly. She almost never makes a misstep, and that's as true here as in her fiction." Cooper concluded by suggesting that older children will find My Own Two Feet "a welcome change in the biography section. For one thing, it's so much better written than many titles found there; for another, the subject is much better loved."
In assessing her motivation as a author, Cleary once told Twentieth-Century Children's Writers, "The stories I write are the stories I wanted to read as a child, and the experience I hope to share with children is the discovery that reading is one of the pleasures of life and not just something one must do in school." Cleary wrote in the Oklahoma Librarian, "The writer for children must fuse memory and observation and go back into childhood as he writes. He must be the child he is writing about." She noted in Horn Book that, as she wrote her stories, "I discovered I had a collaborator, the child within myself--a rather odd, serious little girl, prone to colds, who sat in a child's rocking chair with her feet over the hot air outlet of the furnace, reading for hours, seeking laughter in the pages of books while her mother warned her she would ruin her eyes. That little girl, who has remained with me, prevents me from writing down to children, from poking fun at my characters, and from writing an adult reminiscence about childhood instead of a book to be enjoyed by children. And yet I do not write solely for that child; I am also writing my adult self. We are collaborators who must agree." In My Own Two Feet, Cleary recalled her beginnings as a writer. When walking to the bank to deposit her advance royalty check for Henry Huggins, she found a nickel under a leaf. She wrote, "I was confident that a satisfying life of writing lay ahead, that ideas would continue to flow. As I walked, I thought about all the bits of knowledge about children, reading, and writing that had clung to me like burrs or dandelion fluff all through childhood, college, the Yakima children's room, and the bookstore. As I mulled over my past, I made two resolutions: I would ignore all trends, and I would not let money influence any decisions I would make about my books." At the bank, she deposited her check and the worn nickel, as she wrote, "for luck." She concluded, "In my years of writing, I have often thought of that nickel and now see it as a talisman of all the good fortune that has come to me: friends, readers, awards, travel, children of my own, financial security that has allowed me to return the generosity extended to me when times were hard for everyone. It was indeed a lucky nickel."
November 12, 2003: Cleary is awarded the National Medal of Arts by President Bush at a ceremony in the Oval Office. Source: Associated Press, http://customwire.ap.org, November 13, 2003.
December 1, 2005: Cleary's Ramona books will be adapted for film by Fox 2000. In addition, HarperCollins will re-issue all of Cleary's books in honor of her 90th birthday in 2006. Source: Variety, www.variety.com, December 1, 2005.
Born April 12, 1916, in McMinnville, OR; daughter of Chester Lloyd (a fruit farmer) and Mable (a teacher and homemaker; maiden name, Atlee) Bunn; married Clarence T. Cleary (an accountant), October 6, 1940; children: Marianne Elizabeth Santiago, Malcolm James (twins). Avocation: Travel, walking, needlework, reading fiction and biographies. Education: Chaffey Junior College, Ontario, CA, A.A., 1936; University of California--Berkeley, B.A., 1938; University of Washington--Seattle, B.A. (librarianship), 1939. Religion: Protestant. Memberships: Authors Guild, Authors League of America. Addresses: Home--Carmel, CA. Agent--c/o William Morrow (New York, NY) & Co., 1350 Avenue of the Americas, New York, NY 10019.
Public Library, Yakima, WA, children's librarian, 1939-40; Camp Knight, Oakland, CA, junior hostess, 1942-3; U.S. Army Hospital, Oakland, CA, post librarian, 1942-45; writer for children and young people, 1950--.
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