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Beverly Cleary And Ramona Quimby Changed How Kids Read

Culture | April 12, 2021

Louis Darling's cover art for the 1968 hardcover edition of 'Ramona The Pest' by Beverly Cleary. Source: eBay,

Ramona Quimby, a creation of author Beverly Cleary, was a part of many young readers' childhoods in the 1970s and '80s. Though Ramona made an first appearance in Cleary's first book, published in 1950, she didn't get a starring role until 1955's Beezus And Ramona, though it's fair to say that Ramona mania didn't begin until Ramona The Pest, from 1968. Ramona The Brave, Ramona And Her Father, and Ramona And Her Mother all hit children's bookstores and libraries in the '70s, and a generation of readers made the transition from picture books to chapter books by following the adventures of an ordinary girl trying to cope with the challenges of school, friends and family.

Books Were Hard To Come By In Yamhill, Oregon

Source: (Cleary Family Archive/News-Register).

Beverly Cleary was born on March 12, 1916 in McMinnville Oregon, where she lived on a farm in Yamhill until she was old enough to go to school. The town where she spent those early years was so small it didn’t have a library, so her mother, Mabel Atlee Bunn, arranged for the State Library to send books to Yamhill. Cleary’s mother then acted as a librarian for the “library” which was in a lodge room above a bank.  

Cleary Struggled With Reading -- At First

Source: (Cleary Family Archive/OPB).

When Cleary was six, her father took a job as a bank security officer in Portland, where Cleary began school. She was placed in the grammar school’s low reading group, which taught her sympathy for struggling readers. She excelled however, and by third grade, had overcome her reading struggles. She spent so much time reading, the school librarian suggested that she become a children’s writer when she grew up. She ran with this idea and made her mind up that she would write the books that she could not find on the library shelves but longed to read. She had become bored with reading because the stories were too simple and boring. She wanted to read stories about the sort of kids she knew and she wanted stories that were written with humor.

From A Librarian To A Writer

Source: (Forever Young Adult).

Once she graduated from high school, she entered Chaffey Junior College in Ontario, California, where she was studying to become a children’s librarian. She was then accepted to the University of California, Berkeley, where she received her degree in English. She received a second bachelor’s degree, in library science, from the School of Librarianship at the University of Washington. She met her future husband, but her parents did not approve of their pairing, and so the couple eloped.

Before she began writing full time, she worked as a librarian in Yakima, Washington, and then she was a librarian at the U.S. Army Hospital Camp in Oakland, California. She also worked at Sather Gate Bookshop in Berkeley. As a librarian, she spent time recommending books to children and performing live storytelling, so eventually, as she decided to write children’s books, because, as she has said "I believe in that 'missionary spirit' among children's librarians. Kids deserve books of literary quality, and librarians are so important in encouraging them to read and selecting books that are appropriate.”

Henry Huggins Enters The World

Henry Huggins, Ribsy, and Ramona. Source: (Great Books For Children).

Cleary’s first novel, Henry Huggins (1950), featured the title character, and his dog Ribsy. When Cleary tried to publish it, the book was initially rejected, but Morrow decided to publish it after she made some revisions. Those revisions included the addition of Henry’s friend Beezus and her little sister Ramona, “the pest.” Cleary later published Beezus and Ramona, which spawned the Ramona series, eight books in total, ending with Ramona’s World (1999). In the first book to really focus on Ramona, Ramona the Pest, readers were able to see the world through her eyes. In the Ramona books, Ramona has to deal with the normal tribulations of childhood, including mean classmates, impatient teachers and parents who just don’t understand.  

Beverly Cleary's Characters Lived In The Real World

It was an actual street in Portland. Source: (Pinterest).

Cleary’s world is the ordinary world. Whenever children asked Mrs. Cleary about the source of her ideas, she always answered, “from my own experience and from the world around me.” Cleary even included a reference to the D.E.A.R. program (Drop Everything And Read) in Ramona Quimby Age 8 because children had mentioned it in their letters to her. Many of the characters inhabit Klickitat Street and surrounding Portland neighborhoods, a setting based on the neighborhood where Cleary grew up. And the characters were based on the kids she grew up with as well as kids she met as a librarian. 

Ramona attends public school and faces challenges that children and even adults can relate to. She deals with tribulations like her boots getting stuck in the mud and fighting the desire to squeeze all of the toothpaste out of the tube just because. Or squelching the urge to pull on a classmate’s curls to see them boing, but she recognizes that temptation may never go away. She endures the ordinary challenges of childhood, from being called Egg Head after mistakenly breaking a raw egg on her head (it was a class trend, and she thought it was hard-boiled), to misunderstanding her teacher’s command to "sit for the present" on the first day of kindergarten (she thought she was going to get a gift, but then missed out on the games and activities).  

The Very Real Problems Of Childhood

Source: (Pinterest).

Ramona had to contend with some very realistic anxieties as well. In Ramona and Her Mother (1981), for which Cleary won the National Book Award, Ramona’s mother forgot to turn on the crockpot to cook dinner, which leads to a fight between Ramona’s parents. Although the fight is minor, and a bit ridiculous, Ramona is truly concerned that they will be getting a divorce; because Ramona’s fears are written from Ramona’s perspective, they are truly devastating. 

Adults Just Don't Make Sense

Source: (Boing Boing).

Ramona has a clear sense of injustice (which is often trivialized by the adults) and it comes out in Ramona the Brave. They made owls in her first-grade class, and she was proud of her original design, which her enemy Susan copied. Her teacher saw it first and praised Susan, so Ramona, angry at the injustice, destroyed both owls. For Ramona, the rules in the adult world don’t make sense. She struggles to understand them, just like she struggles to understand the words to “The Star Spangled Banner,” which she interprets as “dawnzer lee light.” Or when she gets in trouble because she literally sticks her tongue out when a neighbor asks her if the cat got her tongue. As Katherine Paterson said in Washington Post Book World, “Cleary is able to sketch clearly with a few perfect strokes the inexplicable adult world as seen through a child’s eyes.” With regards to whether she was like Ramona as a child, Cleary told The New York Times, “I was a well-behaved girl,” she said, “but I often thought like Ramona.”

Recognition For The Woman Who Captured Childhood

Sculpture of Ramona in Portland. Source: (Introverted Reader).

Cleary won numerous awards, including the John Newberry Medal in 1984 for Dear Mr. Henshaw. Two other books were named Newbery Honor Books: Ramona and Her Father in 1978 and Ramona Quimby, Age 8 in 1982. In 2000, she was named a Living Legend by the Library of Congress, and in 2003, she was given the National Medal of Art by the National Endowment of the Arts. Over her 50-year career, she wrote more than 30 books and sold more than 85 million copies worldwide. In 2016, she celebrated her hundredth birthday. On March 27, 2021, Cleary passed away, and tributes poured in for the woman who made childhood enjoyable.

Tags: Books | Beverly Cleary | Children's Books | Authors

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Cyn Felthousen-Post

Writer

Cyn loves history, music, Irish dancing, college football and nature. Social media is also her thing, keeping up with trends and celebrities with positive news. She can be found outside walking or hiking with her son when she's not working. Carpe diem is her fave quote, get out there and seize the day!