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Author profile by Jim Trelease
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(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

"S"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.

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Beverly Cleary*

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 even more.

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.

cover of "The Dutch Twins"

  And 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 series, 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."

Her 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 thick.

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.

"T"he schoolteacher's 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.

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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 guard.

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 Forever. Cleary's popular young fantasy novels include: The Mouse and the Motorcycle; Runaway Ralph; and Ralph S. Mouse.

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 sequel, Strider.

Some people were disappointed that Beverly Cleary did not follow the usual Ramona formula in writing Dear Mr. Henshaw. 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.

* Cleary photo above by Margaret Miller

Author profiles here by Jim Trelease:

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Gary Paulsen author profile, by Jim Trelease
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Wilson Rawls
author profile, by
Jim Trelease

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