A Klickitat Street Imagination: Remembering Beverly Cleary
Updated: May 28
Beverly Cleary received many awards, but what did she consider her proudest achievement? In an interview with Today, she simply said, "the fact that children love my books."
The beloved children's book writer passed away on March 25th, 2021, just eighteen days before her 105th birthday.
I think it is very appropriate that Beverly Cleary was born in April, the same month that celebrates Encourage a Young Writer Day and National Library Week. These two themes changed her life, and she changed the lives of others as a result.
But how did a young girl who learned to hate reading become celebrated for writing books? Here are some answers from her eventful life:
After her birth on April 12, Beverly lived on a farm in Yamhill, Oregon. Her community was too small to have a library. But as Beverly grew older, her mother arranged for books to be brought in for the community. She acted as the librarian to give area children—and especially her daughter—the love of reading.
It is sad to hear of a child learning to hate reading. But that is what happened to Beverly after her family moved to Portland, Beverly had a difficult time at her new urban school, and books became associated with her unhappiness there.
But the magic of books didn't leave her for long.
"One rainy Sunday when I was in the third grade, I picked up a book to look at the pictures and discovered that even though I did not want to, I was reading. I have been a reader ever since.” (BeverlyCleary.com)
When she rediscovered the love of reading, she embraced it with enthusiasm. Later, she recalled that she "spent much of her childhood either with books or on her way to or from the public library."
I can relate to that!
Beverly's early troubles with reading gave her an advantage. She understood struggling readers and that became one of the turning points in her life, influencing the way she'd later write for children (BeverlyCleary.com).
A Librarian and a Dream
It was a school librarian who suggested to Beverly that she become a children's book writer when she grew up.
With that dream in mind, Beverly went on to graduate with a B.A. in English from the University of California at Berkeley in 1938. She became a children's librarian herself, earning a degree in library science from the University of Washington.
Before she began her writing career, she eloped with Clarence Cleary in 1940 after her parents disapproved of the match. They remained married until his death in 2004.
A Turn in the Road
As the couple began married life, Beverly wanted to start working on her delayed dream of writing books, but what to write?
In a 2015 interview, she remembered, “I expected to write about the maturing of a sensitive female. And I waited and waited and no ideas came. And I thought about the little boy in the Yakima Public Library where I had worked in the Children’s Department, who”— she laughed — “faced me rather ferociously once and said, 'where are the books about kids like us?' And it changed my whole attitude.” (Oregon Public Broadcasting)
Beverly published her first book, Henry Huggins, in 1950. Her stories have become an intrinsic part of childhood with their gentle humor, real-life situations, and sympathy for the struggles and joys of girls and boys everywhere.
Her books have sold over ninety-one million copies as of this writing. (Oregon Public Broadcasting).
Honors and Legacy
Her stories and life have been honored with the Newbery Medal, Newbery Honor Books, National Book Award, and the Children's Literature Legacy Award (known as the Laura Ingalls Wilder Award until 2018). In 2000, she was named a "Living Legend" by the Library of Congress.
She also wrote two books about her life, which I'm planning to read this month:
When I attended college in Portland, Oregon, I enjoyed knowing I lived in the same city where Klickitat Street and Beverly's characters came to life.
For the "ferocious" boy in the children's library, and many others, Beverly Cleary wrote about the real life she observed on Klickitat Street. But she also needed her strong imagination to create the original stories children love. Her timeless legacy—giving children the joy and wonder of reading—lives on.
“Quite often somebody will say, 'What year do your books take place?' and the only answer I can give is, 'in childhood.'”