Happy Birthday, Beverly Cleary

The author Beverly Cleary—whose fiction for children introduced the world to Ramona Quimby, Henry Huggins, Ralph S. Mouse, and many other well-loved characters—celebrates her hundredth birthday today. The milestone has been an excuse for me to reread a number of her forty-some books and share a few with my oldest son. I wrote about that for my next column (update: read it here), but I did not get a chance there to recommend Cleary’s terrific memoirs.

A Girl from Yamhill and My Own Two Feet are a compelling chronicle of childhood and young adulthood in the Depression-era Pacific Northwest: the story of how Beverly Bunn, Oregon farm girl, moved to Portland, developed her keen sense of children’s character and perspective through her own childhood adventures, worked her way through college in California, became a children’s librarian, worked in a children’s bookstore, served in army libraries during the war, and eventually became a successful author under her married name. (When she first started writing home from college about her beau Clarence, her pioneer-stock parents guessed from his surname that he must be a Catholic. Break it off, her mother told her, you know you can’t marry a Catholic. They were truly dismayed when she went ahead and did so.)

Cleary’s mother is a fascinating, frustrating character, intellectual and ambitious, possessive and controlling. “Some mothers kiss their little girls,” Beverly tells her after witnessing a friend’s mother cuddle her children. Her mother responds with a laugh and an embrace—“a sweet, isolated moment. It was never repeated.” Through adolescence, Cleary’s mother is overly invested in her only child’s social life. She says she wants Beverly to be popular but seems more to crave attention for herself, and so she encourages an older suitor to continue to call on her daughter and coerces Beverly into going out with him despite her obvious discomfort. When Beverly leaves for college in California (where the tuition was free) at the end of A Girl from Yamhill, she is exhilarated at having escaped her parents’ supervision. But even from a distance, Mother looms, a destabilizing rather than supportive presence—she seems anxious for Beverly to earn good grades that could lead to a steady career, but when Beverly writes home to say she needs eyeglasses to do her schoolwork, her mother advises her to drop out rather than mar her appearance by wearing them.

On this subject Cleary is gentle, honest but fair. She writes simply of the hurtful things her mother said and did, and also what she suspects lay behind it all—the stresses of the Depression, the sense of potential thwarted (her mother, too, was an ambitious reader and a fine writer), the strain of caring for an elderly mother with dementia, and simple loneliness. It is a compassionate portrait, one of many things about those books that has remained in my memory since I first read them when I was a teenager.

Cleary’s big birthday was the subject of a feature on the Today show a few weeks ago, and of a writeup in the Washington Post books section. Like the title character in her Newbery winner Dear Mr. Henshaw (a staple of middle school reading lists in my day), Cleary does not seem like an easy interview—“Don’t expect me to analyze my books!”—but then the questions she is asked and the way she is written about are often childish, whether that is because she is elderly, because she is a children’s author, or a combination of both. Still, the books do speak for themselves very well. And, thank goodness, they remain very easy to come by.

I haven't been very enthusiastic about the commercialization of children's literature,” Cleary told an interviewer for the San Francisco Chronicle in 2006. “Kids should borrow books from the library and not necessarily be buying them.”

You heard the lady. Get yourself to a library and celebrate.

Mollie Wilson O'Reilly is an editor at large and columnist at Commonweal.

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