Interview: Beverly Cleary at 95
The novelist discusses her childhood, the Internet, and the enduring appeal of her books
A Beverly Cleary Pilgrimage
Following the writer’s life trail from her childhood home in the Oregon countryside to her adult stomping grounds in Portland
On a shimmering day in the Berkeley Hills in 1949—a day hopeful as only those in post-war California could be—a young author of a children’s book walked down the winding street from her house to deposit her first check from her publisher. Although her career had just begun, she was sure it would be fruitful, because she knew she could spend her writing life deploying, as she later recalled, “all the bits of knowledge about children, reading, and writing that had clung to me like burrs or dandelion fluff.” For decades, beginning with her first book, Henry Huggins, Beverly Cleary would develop those memories and observations to create one of the most enduring and influential bodies of work in American fiction.
Cleary, who turned 95 in April and whose books have so far sold more than 91 million copies, has won it all: obviously, if belatedly, the Newbery and the Laura Ingalls Wilder medals, but also the National Medal of Arts and the Library of Congress’s Living Legend award. Her college (UC Berkeley) named a dorm for her; her graduate school (the University of Washington library school) named a professorship. This spring, the Los Angeles Times bestowed on Cleary the Robert Kirsch Award, an honor given to “a living author with a substantial connection to the American West, whose contribution to American letters deserves special recognition.” She is the first children’s author to have won it. Although she has written 41 books, her 14 novels devoted to Henry, his dog, Ribsy, his friend Beezus, and her little sister Ramona are of course her most celebrated and adored, so it’s unsurprising that Cleary’s publisher has joined the beatification process with a 15-volume boxed set, The World of Beverly Cleary Collection—an assemblage that, in addition to Ellen Tebbits and the three Ralph S. Mouse books, includes all the Beezus and Ramona novels, save one, and all the Henry Huggins novels, with the dismaying exceptions of Henry and the Clubhouse and Henry and the Paper Route.
Cleary was inspired to write her novels while working as a young librarian in Yakima, Washington, when a neighborhood scamp asked her: “Where are the books about kids like us?” And Cleary’s appeal—even in this age, when fantasy dominates children’s fiction—is largely rooted in her intense absorption in the quotidian emotions and non-events of kid life (in this way she resembles that great, underappreciated chronicler of childhood, Jean Shepherd). Cleary lived and remembered her own childhood with a preternatural intensity, as attested by her memoirs, A Girl From Yamhill and My Own Two Feet—books of extraordinary elegance and candor that deserve far greater acclaim than the blandly warm accolades they’ve received. Her magic partly consists of her ability to transfer episodes from her own childhood with photographic and psychological exactitude. She had her characters simply inhabit the Portland, Oregon, neighborhood around Klickitat Street (a name she had always liked because it reminded her of “the sound of knitting needles”), where she spent part of her childhood—her friend’s house, for instance, became Henry Huggins’s house.
The greatness of Cleary’s achievement highlights the unevenness of her body of work—an inconsistency that this collection, intended to crystallize her fictional world, underscores. On that walk in 1949, Cleary made two resolutions: to “ignore all trends,” and to “not let money influence any decisions” she would make about her books. She adhered heroically to the second, but not wholly to the first. Cleary’s imperishable triumph is her Henry Huggins books (published between 1950 and 1964) and her classic Beezus and Ramona books (from the first, Beezus and Ramona, 1955, through Ramona the Pest, 1968). These depict a childhood world now outwardly vanished: not only are the Klickitat kids just fascinated by Buck Rogers–style robots, they have the run of their humble middle-class neighborhood, unsupervised by adults; kindergartners walk themselves to school, followed by dogs unencumbered by leash laws. (It’s a world, of course, made possible only by the unobtrusive, in fact usually un-noted, presence of the neighborhood’s stay-at-home mothers.) This world was true to Cleary’s childhood experience in the 1920s and ’30s in Portland, where she moved after her family lost their farm in Yamhill—and for that matter to my childhood, in the 1960s and early ’70s, in Upper Arlington, Ohio, and Eugene, Oregon.
It’s certainly an innocent world, but not without its sadness and difficulties. In the long afternoon escapades of Henry, her greatest protagonist, Cleary—herself an only child—poignantly captures the leisurely loneliness of a singlet who must always make his own fun. And although Cleary refrained in these early books from any mention of the state of the economy (the kind of social background that wormed its way into some of her later books), even a bicycle is beyond the means of a modestly middle-class family. While the kids around Klickitat Street aren’t deprived as were Cleary and her friends (her memoirs are a moving chronicle of lives derailed and ambitions thwarted by the Depression), the small treats on offer (two weeks’ summer vacation at a borrowed cabin, a low-key 11th-birthday party consisting of an at-home tamale lunch and a trip to the neighborhood cinema for a cartoon matinee) remind adult readers that Baby Boom families, headed by Depression-scarred parents, led lives we would define as mean.