(The following author profile
is excerpted from Jim Trelease's anthology Hey!
Listen to This.
It is one of more than 40
profiles contained there.
See CONTENTS for a listing of all stories.)
by Jim Trelease
he would become one of this
century's most popular writers for children, but you
would never have guessed it to look at her sitting
in the row against the blackboard with all the boys.
She was the only girl assigned to the "blackbird" reading
group, the lowest in that Portland,
Oregon, first grade.
How could such
a thing happen? Why, her mother used to be a school
teacher and had been surrounding her with books and
reading since she'd been an infant. In fact, her mom
had opened the first library in the little farm community
they used to live in. She'd always told the girl that
school was wonderful and so were books and reading.
But not this
stuff, thought little Beverly Bunn (who would someday
become Beverly Cleary, right). She fingered her
olive-green reader and tried to decode the words while
her heart quickened with panic. She desperately wanted
to learn to read so her mother would be pleased, but
she just couldn't do it. Which made her fear another
switching with the teacher's bamboo pointer or banishment
to the empty, smelly cloak room.
And even when she could understand
the words, they didn't mean much. "See kitty. See
Mamma. I have a kitty." How could anyone think this
was fun? she wondered. A further complication was that
after six years of living outdoors on a farm, city-life
in Portland took its toll on Beverly's health that first-grade
year and she was sick a lot. That set back her schoolwork
Out of the
'blackbird group' and into The Dutch Twins
At the end of the year she was promoted—but
on trial, something her stunned mother made her promise
to keep a secret. But that probationary second-grader
would one day write stories that made the reading life
of all elementary school children so much happier and
exciting than hers had been.
Her second-grade teacher was kinder
than the first and slowly Beverly worked her way out
of the "blackbird" group. She knew how to read
but still found it so dreadfully dull that she never
did it outside school. And if you never read outside
school, you seldom get good at reading.
then one day in third grade, on a rainy Sunday afternoon
with nothing to do (and many years before television),
she picked up a copy of The Dutch
Twins—just to look
at the pictures. (The book was one in a series of books
about twins that is now long out of print.) But soon
she was intrigued enough to start reading, and keep
on reading. She thought to herself, 'Why, something
actually is happening in this story!' She had to find
out what happened next and read all afternoon until
she had finished it. Then she started another in the
Swiss Twins, and
finished that as well. It was the most exciting day in
her life, perhaps her birthday as a writer.
The Rose City Branch Library
became a home-away-from-home for her in the years that
followed. What she always looked for, but seldom found,
were books about herself—stories
about kids in a neighborhood like hers with parents and
friends and pets who had exciting things and funny things
happen to them. By now her teachers and mother began
to see the glimmer of talent and encouraged her. Her
seventh-grade teacher/librarian went so far as to tell
the class, "When Beverly grows
up, she should write children's books."
mother, who deeply missed teaching and saw Beverly as
her private student, advised her, "The best writing
is simple writing. And try to write something funny.
People enjoy reading anything that makes them laugh." The
recommendation was tucked away in her daughter's memory
bank and eventually became her style.
After college, her first job was as
a librarian, reading to children at story hours and helping
them find books. As you might expect, she saw herself
in their eyes—the little girl from the "blackbird" group,
trying to find a book that wasn't boring and wasn't too
The birth of Henry Huggins
Finally, after some prodding from
her husband, in 1950 she wrote a book about a boy and
his dog, and their friends—all of whom lived on
Klickitat Street in Portland, a real street that was
only a few blocks from where she lived as a child. Of
course, the boy and his friends were real too, because
they represented all the kids she grew up with and the
ones who sat in front of her in library story hours.
That first book was Henry Huggins.
daughter had remembered her lessons well. She remembered
to write simply and put in some humor. But Beverly never
forgot the little girl in the "Blackbird" group
and the boys around her. In Beverly's books, that little
girl is named Ramona Quimby—by far the most popular
of all the Cleary characters.
Cleary's Newbery-winner may be her most modern novel.
The best starting point for the Ramona series is Ramona
the Pest in which we follow her exploits through a kindergarten
year. She discovers that kindergarten and life are full
of misunderstandings. By the end of the first chapter,
she'll spend some time on the "time-out" bench,
as well as keep the class awake during rest period with
her fake snores In succeeding chapters, she: introduces
her doll Chevrolet in Show 'n' Tell, has a playground
crush on Davy, is introduced to seat work, boycotts the
substitute teacher, and proposes marriage to the crossing
The other Ramona
books include: Ramona the Brave;
Ramona and her Father (winner
of the Newbery-Honor medal); Ramona
and her Mother; Ramona Quimby, Age Eight; and Ramona
Cleary's popular young fantasy novels include: The
Mouse and the Motorcycle; Runaway Ralph; and Ralph
Dear Mr. Henshaw (winner of the Newbery medal as the finest children's
novel in 1984) is regarded by many to be her finest
and most modern novel. In it, she traces the personal
growth of a young boy from first grade through sixth,
using his letters and diary entries. His humorous exchanges
with an author he's been writing to are in sharp contrast
with the pain he experiences at home, caught between
his divorced parents.
Just as she
modeled Ramona on the children who visited her library,
she uses young Leigh Botts to mirror the thousands
of readers who have written to her through the decades.
Several years later she published the equally satisfying
were disappointed that Beverly Cleary did not follow
the usual Ramona formula in writing Dear
Others, myself included, were cheered by the fact that
even late in her career she was willing to try new ideas,
ones that were so original and fresh that she produced
the crowning work of her career.
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