Beverly Cleary (1916-2021) was a much-loved children's author whose works (more than 40 titles) have sold over 90 million copies worldwide. Generations of children have grown up with Beezus (Beatrice) Quimby, her naughty little sister Ramona, their friend Henry Huggins, and his dog Ribsy. Her stories promote laughter, learning, and human insight.
Beverly's stories have inspired reading so much that her birthday, 12 April, is promoted as National Drop Everything and Read (DEAR) Day by publisher HarperCollins. They would, of course: publishers like people to read. Still, Beverly's down-to-earth, lovable, and adventurous kids have been a staple of fictional fun since 1950.
Beverly herself did a lot in her 104 years, but her educational beginnings weren't promising. Many things about her school in Portland, Oregon, puzzled her. For instance, the idea that she should always write with her right hand. She was ambidextrous, and used whichever hand was nearest to a task.
The business of right and left hands worried me all day. At home, I asked Mother how to tell one from the other. She happened to be sitting in front of the sewing machine, so she said, 'Face the sewing machine... Your right hand is the hand closer to the wall.' Oh. I went through the first grade mentally facing the sewing machine every time I picked up a pencil.
– Beverly Cleary, The Girl from Yamhill, 1988
It was memories of childhood reasoning like that which made Beverly such a successful children's writer. Her books think the way children think, with no 'talking down'. First grade didn't progress very well: the teacher was censorious and bullying, and Beverly didn't want to attend. Then she contracted smallpox from another child and had to be quarantined, putting her further behind academically. Reading came slowly.
Once she did learn to read well, Beverly was impatient with children's literature that didn't depict real people. By sixth grade1, she was writing her own stories. A more sympathetic teacher suggested she might want to become an author herself. But first, she decided to become a children's librarian.
Beverly attended Chaffey Junior College in Ontario, California, and the University of California at Berkeley. In 1940, Beverly eloped with Clarence Cleary because her parents didn't like it that he was a Catholic and they were Presbyterian. After working as a librarian in Yakima, Washington, she spent the Second World War years as an army camp librarian. Afterwards, she worked in a bookstore for a while before launching into full-time children's writing. Her first book, Henry Huggins, was published in 1950.
Beverly wrote her first book in answer to a child's question. A boy wanted to know: 'Where are the books about the kids like us?' The Oregon farm girl wasn't impressed with 'kiddie lit' when she was growing up.
Many of the children's books in the 1920s had been published in England, and the children had nannies and pony carts... they seemed like a bunch of sissies to me.
– Beverly Cleary, interview, 25 March, 2016
Henry Huggins is an ordinary boy with ordinary adventures, described in an extraordinary way – just as ordinary kids experience them. The first thing that happens to him is that he acquires a dog.
He wasn't any special kind of dog. He was too small to be a big dog but, on the other hand, he was much too big to be a little dog. He wasn't a white dog, because parts of him were brown and other parts were black and in between there were yellowish patches. His ears stood up and his tail was long and thin.
– Beverly Cleary, Henry Huggins
Ribsy the dog doesn't fly. He isn't a magical messenger from a mystic world where there are trolls and fairies. Henry isn't secretly the prince of a wizard-y world. He's a plain, ordinary kid with a stray dog he picked up – or that picked him up – in front of the drugstore while Henry was eating an ice cream cone. Henry tries to take Ribsy home on the bus (concealed in a shopping bag, though not for long). By the time the (friendly) local police deliver Henry and Ribsy to his parents' doorstep (yes, they use the siren, they were kids once), readers are hooked. No matter what country they're from or how young or old they are or how much money their parents have. That's why Henry Huggins has been translated into Bulgarian, Chinese, Danish, Dutch, Finnish, English, Hebrew, Japanese, Norwegian, Spanish and Swedish. Henry has been called 'the modern Tom Sawyer.'
Beverly Cleary made everyday life into magic. It was her gift, and she did it many times. Her hometown of Portland, Oregon, has named a school, a library, and a sculpture garden for her. She even gave a television interview at the age of 99. She got tons of mail and was beloved of generations. The Library of Congress conferred on her the status of 'Living Legend'. But best of all, she encouraged children who, like her, were slow starters to get into this reading business.
The librarian stamped the book on his card and Henry, proud to have a grown-up book stamped on his library card, ran home with it.
– Beverly Cleary, Henry Huggins