Beloved, award-winning children’s author Beverly Cleary, the self-described “Girl from Yamhill,” whose stories featuring such endearing and enduring characters as Ramona Quimby and Henry Huggins facing real-life issues with humor and aplomb elevated her to iconic status, died March 25 in Carmel, Calif. She was 104.
Born in McMinnville, Ore. in April 1916, Cleary was surrounded by books from her earliest days. Her mother had created the first lending library—which included some children’s books—in Yamhill, the small nearby town where the family lived on a farm until Cleary was about six years old. But Cleary’s early experiences with books and reading were a struggle, made more difficult by intimidating-looking primers at elementary school, after her family moved to Portland, and unrelatable stories of “wealthy English children who had nannies and pony carts or books about poor children whose problems were solved by a long-lost rich relative turning up in the last chapter,” she said in a speech published in Horn Book.
Cleary’s desire to read funny stories about kids like herself is something that drove her as she eventually became an avid reader, and later, a librarian, and author. She earned a B.A. from the University of California, Berkeley in 1938 and an additional B.A. in librarianship from University of Washington, Seattle in 1939. She worked first as a children’s librarian in Yakima, Wash., where she met young readers who had similar requests to her own—funny stories about real kids like them. Following her marriage to Clarence Cleary in 1940, she moved to California and took a position as a post librarian at a U.S. Army hospital in Oakland, Calif. during WWII.
Roughly 10 years after she left her Yakima job, Cleary “finally sat down to write the children’s book I had planned to write since childhood, a book that was to be a girls’ story about the maturing of a sensitive female who wanted to write,” she recalled in her Regina Medal award acceptance speech in 1981. But what she wrote instead was a story about an eight-year-old boy named Henry, who happened to live in Cleary’s childhood neighborhood in Portland.
“It was a little boy who changed my life,” she told PW in 2016, as she was about to celebrate her 100th birthday. Cleary often shared the story of the boy at the Yakima library who “marched right up to my desk and demanded, ‘Where are the books about kids like us?’ ” She went on to recall for PW, “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 big adventures, but they still lead interesting lives. Finally, when I sat down to write, I thought about that little boy.”
She quickly finished the tale and found a publisher, Morrow, who released Henry Huggins in 1950. More novels and a growing cast of favorite characters followed at a rapid pace, including Ellen Tebbits (Morrow, 1951), Henry and Beezus (Morrow, 1952) and Beezus and Ramona (Morrow, 1955), which introduced memorable, irrepressible, Ramona Quimby, who starred with her older sister Beezus in several other books as well. Ramona and Her Father was named a 1978 Newbery Honor Book and Ramona Quimby, Age 8 received the same distinction in 1982. The ever-popular series was later adapted for the 2009 feature film Ramona and Beezus.
Cleary went on to write more than 40 books for young readers, among them a trilogy about Ralph S. Mouse, a mouse-riding motorcycle, several titles for teens, and Dear Mr. Henshaw, a work that focused on a child dealing with his parents’ divorce and the letters he writes to his favorite author. Henshaw won Cleary the 1984 Newbery Medal. She additionally penned several picture books, and shared the story of her early life in two autobiographies: A Girl from Yamhill (Morrow, 1988) and My Own Two Feet (Morrow, 1995).
Her catalog of books garnered many other honors and awards as well. In 2000, she was named a “Living Legend” by the Library of Congress in recognition of her invaluable contributions to children’s literature, and in 2003 she was awarded the 2003 National Medal of Art from the National Endowment for the Arts.
Though she received many prestigious honors, Cleary told PW that the most rewarding part of her career as an author has been “the children who have discovered the pleasure of reading with my books,” she said. “I remember when I made the same discovery in third grade and it was a turning point in my life.” Cleary also said that the distinctions most meaningful to her were the statewide children’s book awards—which are determined directly by the votes of young readers. Her titles have received more than 35 of those.
On the occasion of her 100th birthday, Harper reissued three of her books with forewords by famous super-fans author Judy Blume, actor and comedian Amy Poehler, and author Kate DiCamillo. The following year her series starring Henry Huggins was reissued with original art from the late Louis Darling and included forewords by such award-winning authors and illustrators as Marla Frazee, Jeff Kinney, and Cece Bell. In 2016 she imagined what some of her beloved characters might have done with their lives. “Beezus,” Cleary surmised, “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.” Henry “would be a building contractor, because he built a clubhouse. And, Ramona—I really don’t know,” she said. “I think she would probably try several different jobs and maybe go backpacking around Europe with some friends.”
In all, Cleary’s books have sold more than 85 million copies and have been translated into 29 languages. Cleary’s passion for reading brought her joy throughout her life, and readers’ love for her books has remained strong. Both are honored annually on D.E.A.R. Day, or Drop Everything and Read Day, which is celebrated nationwide on Cleary’s birthday, April 12.
Suzanne Murphy, president and publisher of HarperCollins Children’s Books—home to Cleary’s catalog—shared these words of tribute in a statement. “We are saddened by the passing of Beverly Cleary, one of the most beloved children’s authors of all time. Looking back, she’d often say, ‘I’ve had a lucky life,’ and generations of children count themselves lucky too—lucky to have the very real characters Beverly Cleary created, including Henry Huggins, Ramona and Beezus Quimby, and Ralph S. Mouse, as true friends who helped shape their growing-up years. We at HarperCollins also feel extremely lucky to have worked with Beverly Cleary and to have enjoyed her sparkling wit. Her timeless books are an affirmation of her everlasting connection to the pleasures, challenges, and triumphs that are part of every childhood.”