Tuesday, 12 April 2016

Happy Birthday, Beverly Cleary

Today children's author Beverly Cleary turns 100. She was born Beverly Bunn on April 12 1916 in McMinnville, Oregon. Short of Dr. Seuss, it seems quite possible that she could be the most successful American children's writer of the 20th Century. Her books have been literally read by generations of children, starting with Henry Huggins in 1950. In her long career Mrs. Cleary has sold 91 million copies copies of her books worldwide.

Beverly Cleary spent her earliest years on a farm. She was six years old when her family moved to Portland, Oregon. Strangely enough for someone who would become a highly successful author, when Mrs. Cleary was in first grade she struggled with reading. It was a school librarian who helped her learn to read. By third grade she was not only caught up with other students, but she was very proficient at reading and spent much of her time in the library. It should then come no surprise that Beverly Cleary aspired to be a librarian. She attended  Chaffey Junior College  and then transferred to the University of California at Berkeley where she received a bachelor of arts in English. In 1939 she received a degree in library science at the University of Washington.

It was her career as a children's librarian that led to her career as a children's author. A boy complained to her that he couldn't find any books he related to. Beverly Cleary then decided to write a book that young boys could relate to. The end result was Henry Huggins, a typical boy in elementary school in Portland, Oregon. His best friend was his dog Ribsy. Henry Huggins proved successful enough that it would be followed by five more books centring on the character.

It would be the "Henry Huggins" books that led to the introduction of Beverly Cleary's next successful character. Among Henry's friends was a girl named Beezus Quimby. Since none of the children in the "Henry Huggins" books had siblings, Mrs. Cleary gave Beezus a little sister named Ramona. It was because of Ramona that Beezus got her nickname, the young Ramona being unable to pronounce "Beatrice". Ramona was a few years younger than Henry and Beezus and as a result was regarded as somewhat of a pest by the older children, particularly as she wanted to do what they did. Beezus took centre stage in the book Beezus and Ramona, published in 1955. It was followed by the first book in which Ramona was the star, Ramona the Pest, in 1968. This led to an entire series of Ramona books, eight in all.

Beverly Cleary's third highly successful character differed from Henry, Beezus, and Ramona in that he was not a child--not a human child, anyway. Ralph S. Mouse was a young mouse living in a colony in the Mountain View Inn. Much to the chagrin of the rest of the mouse colony, Ralph wanted to lead a life of adventure. He got his wish when a young boy with a toy motorcycle visited the inn. Ralph learned how to make the motorcycle go and how to ride it. Ralph first appeared in The Mouse and the Motorcycle in 1965. It proved successful enough to be followed by two more books, Runaway Ralph and Ralph S. Mouse.

Mrs. Cleary has as much a gift for writing about animals as she does children. Her 1964 book Ribsy centred on Henry Huggins's dog, with Henry making only a small appearance in the book. Her 1973 book Socks dealt with the cat of the title, who feels neglected when his humans have a new baby.

Socks was only one of many books Beverly Cleary wrote outside of those dealing with Henry Huggins, Beezus and Ramona, and Ralph S. Mouse. Among her other works are Fifteen (about a teenage girl experiencing her first romance), Emily's Runaway Imagination (a book set in the Twenties about a girl with an overactive imagination), Mitch and Amy (about a pair of fraternal twins), and Dear Mr. Henshaw (about a boy who writes his favourite author). Beverly Cleary even wrote three books based on the TV show Leave It to BeaverLeave It to Beaver, Here's Beaver!, and Beaver and Wally.

Beverly Cleary also wrote two autobiographies:  A Girl from Yamhill, published in 1988, and My Own Two Feet, published in 1995.

The phenomenal success of Beverly Cleary's books are due to a number of factors, not the least of which is that she apparently never forgot what it was like to be a child. In her books Mrs. Cleary addresses the sort of concerns common to most children. Beezus and Ramona worry about their father's smoking. Henry wants a new bicycle and has to figure out how to get one. Ramona finds herself constantly getting in trouble in kindergarten. Even her Ralph S. Mouse books touch upon the sort of things children worry about. Namely, Ralph wants a life of adventure beyond his mouse colony.

Not only do Beverly Cleary's books deal with children whose concerns reflect those of children in real life, but they are set in, for lack of a better term, the real world. Unlike many children's books at the time, Beverly Cleary's "Henry Huggins" and "Ramona" books were set in Portland, Oregon in the mid-20th Century. It is a world with which children are still somewhat familiar. What is more, unlike many books at the time, Beverly Cleary never sought to teach moral lessons in her books. This reflected her own tastes as a child. On the occasion of her 95th birthday she said, "If I suspected the author was trying to show me how to be a better behaved girl, I shut the book."

One more factor in Beverly Cleary's success is that her books could be enjoyed by children of both sexes. Girls could easily enjoy the "Henry Huggins" books while boys could enjoy the "Ramona" books. Quite simply, most girls probably knew a boy like Henry and most boys probably knew a girl like Ramona. This certainly sets Beverly Cleary's books apart from today's books, most of which seem to be written for only boys or only girls.

On her 100th birthday the extent of Beverly Cleary's impact on young lives is plain to see, with several news articles and opinion pieces discussing her career. On social media sites across the Web individuals have expressed how much they love her books. Indeed, the whole reason I wrote this blog post is to show my own appreciation of Mrs. Clearly. I read many of her books growing up. My favourite has always been the "Ralph S. Mouse" books. She is one of a number of writers who inspired a love of reading in me and one whose books I enjoyed a good deal. I am then very happy she has seen her 100th year and she has been able to see the impact she has had on literally generations of children.

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