The young-adult novelist discusses her childhood, the Internet, and the enduring appeal of her books
In this month's Atlantic magazine, literary editor Benjamin Schwarz delves into the work of children's book author Beverly Cleary, whose books have sold more than 91 million copies since her first, Henry Huggins, was published in 1950. Best known for her stories about Ramona Quimby, her sister Beezus, and their friend Henry, Cleary has written more than 40 books, creating what Schwarz calls "one of the most enduring and influential bodies of work in American fiction."
Cleary, who turned 95 in April, recently answered some of our questions, including her thoughts about writing as a young mother, how she feels about the Internet, and why her midcentury characters appeal to modern children.
Your books are notable for their realistic depictions of ordinary children, of "kids like us," as one boy once put it. Why do you think your work has remained so popular, even as recent children's and young-adult books are increasingly driven by fantasy?
I think it is because I have stayed true to my own memories of childhood, which are not different in many ways from those of children today. Although their circumstances have changed, I don't think children's inner feelings have changed.
Do you read much contemporary children's literature? Have you read the Harry Potter series, for example?
No, I haven't. I rarely read children's books.
Do you think that your success as an author, and becoming a national figure in children's literature and publishing, influenced your writing?
I don't think it has, because I am so surprised by it all. I just wrote about childhood as I had known it.
Benjamin Schwarz, The Atlantic's literary editor, observed that over time your books seemed to grow more topical, sometimes in ways that seemed to contrast your initial efforts to avoid message-y stories. Was this intentional?
I don't agree with the interpretation. I simply have written about a little girl growing up, and so her life is different at different stages.
In the new World of Beverly Cleary collection, the illustrations have been updated from Louis Darling's originals to reflect more 21st-century-looking children who wear backpacks and bicycle helmets. Why try to contemporize them?
I was always very happy with the Louis Darling and Alan Tiegreen illustrations, but my publisher felt it was time for a change.
Did you see the recent Ramona and Beezus movie? What were your thoughts?
I thought Joey King, the actress who played Ramona, was very good. She had loved the books and was eager to play the part. Although there were scenes left out that I would have liked to see, on the whole I think it was a movie that parents could take their children to without worry.
While I read many of your books as a child, I've continued to re-read your two memoirs, A Girl From Yamhill and My Own Two Feet, throughout adulthood. I've often wondered what happened to your best friend, Claudine? Did you ever hear again from the boyfriend you called Gerhart? And how did your parents react to your professional success as a writer?
Claudine and I were friends all of her life; she died a couple of years ago, and I still miss her. We didn't see each other often but we had a long telephone friendship. I never did hear from the man I called Gerhart, but he did go see my mother once in a while. My parents were very proud and happy for me. And I suspect my mother felt a tinge of envy, because she always wanted to write. I don't know why she didn't.