Newbery and National Book Award–winning author Beverly Cleary, named a Living Legend in 2000 by the Library of Congress and the voice behind such beloved children’s books as Henry and Ribsy, Beezus and Ramona, Ralph S. Mouse, and Dear Mr. Henshaw, will turn 100 on April 12. PW recently chatted with Cleary by telephone from her retirement community in California.
Anticipation for Cleary’s birthday celebration has been building, and the run-up has already included reissues of several of her books and an appearance on the Today show. But what are her thoughts on the big day? “Well, it sounds like fun,” Cleary says. “Someone told me, ‘You don’t look a day over 80,’ and I took it as a compliment. I’m surprised that I’m almost 100. I sometimes write the figures down on paper to make sure.”
The nearing of Cleary’s century milestone has stirred up many vivid memories for her, some of which she recorded in her two memoirs, A Girl from Yamhill and On My Own Two Feet. “I told someone the other day that I’m so old I can remember the end of the First World War,” she recalled. “The three church bells in Yamhill [Cleary’s hometown in Oregon] were ringing, and I was running across the barnyard with my mother. I tripped and ripped my long cotton stockings. She told me I must never forget that day.” Then Cleary adds, “Years later when I was in high school, I asked my mother, ‘What was that day you told me to remember?’ She was astonished that I didn’t forget.”
As the conversation continued, Cleary recounted her path to becoming a writer. “When I was young, I told my mother I wanted to write, and she said, ‘That’s fine, but you must have a way of earning a living. Work for one year before you try to write.’ It was sound advice, so I went to library school and became a librarian.” She worked for about a year as a children’s librarian before moving to California with her husband, Clarence Cleary, whom she married in 1940. “Then the war [World War II] came along and upset everything,” Cleary says. “I went to the employment office thinking I’d be Rosie the Riveter. But no. They were looking for a librarian!”
Cleary accepted a position at the Oakland Army base. “It was interesting meeting the male population of the United States,” she says. “It was as good as travel, but I didn’t have to go very far. I would like to have gone overseas, but I was married, and we expected that my husband would be drafted any minute. My instructions from the commanding officer at the base were, ‘Talking to the men is more important than the actual library work.’ ”
But Cleary wasn’t on her own in the job. “There were two librarians at the same post,” she says. “The other woman was older, so she was junior librarian and I was junior hostess, which sounds kind of racy, but I catalogued the whole library.” After a time Cleary was offered a new position at a military hospital, also in Oakland. “They were much better to me there than the army base,” she notes. “Of course the readers were captive; they were in bed.” The hospital was set up in a place she knew well. “It was in an old ballroom in a hotel in Oakland. That’s where we went dancing in college.”
Following the war, in 1949, the Clearys moved to Berkeley, where she would begin a fateful new chapter in her personal story, sparked by her work years earlier as a children’s librarian in Yakima, Wash. “It was a little boy who changed my life,” she says. She has often shared the story of the boy who “marched right up to my desk and demanded, ‘Where are the books about kids like us?’ ” In our interview Cleary elaborated further, saying, “I couldn’t find any books about kids who played on the sidewalk in front of their houses. Authors back then thought their characters needed to go to sea or have big adventures. Well, most kids don’t have adventures, but they still lead interesting lives. My life is interesting to me, but I’m surprised it’s interesting to anyone else. I haven’t had any spectacular adventures or gone to sea,” she says with a laugh. “Finally, when I sat down to write, I thought about that little boy.”
And that was her inspiration for creating eight-year-old Henry and the tale of his misadventures with a stray dog, which became her first published novel, Henry Huggins (Morrow, 1950). Throughout the 1950s and ’60s she worked at a feverish pace, publishing at least one book per year, and introducing a memorable cast of characters that includes Otis Spofford, Ellen Tebbits, and Beezus and Ramona Quimby. “I usually started a book the day after New Year’s Day,” she says. “I kept at it until I was done, probably in May or June, and then I wouldn’t write a word until the next year.” Cleary likens her schedule to farm life, where the “crops need to lie fallow” for a period of time.
For Cleary, the most rewarding thing about her writing career has been “the children who have discovered the pleasure of reading with my books,” she says. “I remember when I made the same discovery in third grade, and it was a turning point in my life.” The many children who were fans of her books often wrote to her letting her know how much they enjoyed them. “I can’t keep up answering letters now,” she says. “It troubles me. I did hang in with answering letters for a long time even though my publisher said not to. It kept me in touch with childhood. I made up for it by having twins,” she jokes. Her books are still treasured by fans all ages—even some who live in her building. “I’ve been very touched by residents who have spoken another language their whole lives and can read my books a little easier,” she says.
All these years later, does she ever imagine what her characters might have done with their lives? “Beezus,” Cleary surmises, “would be a nurse, or a teacher, and would marry and have maybe two children. She would struggle in today’s world to bring them up properly.” As for Henry, “he would be a building contractor, because he built a clubhouse. And Ramona—I really don’t know,” she says. “I think she would probably try several different jobs and maybe go backpacking around Europe with some friends.”
Today, Cleary spends much of her time on some of her greatest passions. “I read,” she says, “and work word puzzles.” Asked what kinds of books she prefers, Cleary notes, “I like autobiographies. When I read fiction, I’m always looking for what the author is up to. But I don’t care for footnotes. I was footnoted out in college.” Most recently, she says, “I just finished Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight, and now I’m reading Cocktail Hour Under the Tree of Forgetfulness. My daughter sent them to me because she thought I’d like them.” Cleary often makes selections from the “very nice” library where she lives. “I hate to admit that I reached the point where I need large-print books. I was very amazed to discover them. They should make a large-print edition of all books!” she says, laughing. Cleary’s on-site library has a full set of her signed books in its collection. “At least I think they still do,” she says. “I know that sometimes there are residents’ grandchildren who come to visit and can’t bear to part with them.”
On April 12, Cleary’s “whole family is going to come and get together” at her home, where a festive celebration is planned. She says she may even indulge in a bit of a treat that day. “They make a divine chocolate mousse cake here,” she says. “It’s probably very fattening and full of cholesterol, but they asked me what I wanted.” In general, she says, “I have a very pleasant life. My window looks out on a courtyard full of flowering trees. I have no complaints about this time of my life.”