Beverly Cleary has sold 85 million copies of 41 books and — if those numbers weren't impressive enough — she turns 100 on Tuesday. Though the world was a very different place when Cleary was a child, she has always maintained that kids pretty much stay the same — which explains the ongoing popularity of her beloved characters, like Ramona Quimby, Henry Huggins and Ralph S. Mouse.
Cleary was in her early 30s and working part time in a bookstore when she sat down at a typewriter to see if just maybe she could write a book for kids. She had worked as a librarian before World War II, and she wished she'd had books for young readers about children living everyday lives.
"I think children want to read about normal, everyday kids," she told NPR in 1999. "That's what I wanted to read about when I was growing up. I wanted to read about the sort of boys and girls that I knew in my neighborhood and in my school. ... I think children like to find themselves in books."
Her first book, Henry Huggins, came out in 1950. Henry had a friend named Beezus, and Beezus had a mischievous but lovable little sister named Ramona. Over the next five decades, Cleary took Ramona all the way from nursery school to the fourth grade. Cleary says when she was writing Ramona, she took inspiration from a little girl who lived in the house behind her as a child.
"She had been sent to the neighborhood store for a pound of butter," Cleary told NPR in 2010. "In those days, it was all in one piece, not in cubes. And she had opened the butter and was eating it."
Cleary spent her earliest years on a farm in Oregon before moving to the big city of Portland during the Depression. Her daughter says that her mom jokes that she's as surprised as anyone she's made it to 100 — but she has almost no health complaints besides a bit of arthritis. Cleary's daughter credits, in part, genetics.
"My ancestors crossed the plains in covered wagons ..." says Marianne Cleary. "And so my mother is from Pioneer stock. ... She's very disciplined. When she would write every morning, she would sit down after breakfast, my brother and I would go to school, and she'd write, till noon or so. She never waited for inspiration, she just got to it."
It worked. Her books have hooked generations of children, including a young Jeff Kinney, who grew up to become the author of the "Diary of a Wimpy Kid" series.
"I must have been about 8 or 9 years old when I first read Beverly Cleary," Kinney recalls. "The book that really grabbed me was Ramona Quimby, Age 8. She looked feral. I needed to get to know this character."
Kinney has 165 million books in print, and he knows a thing or two about writing for children.
"Most kids have parents, teachers, bullies — we all experience these things," he says. "And Beverly Cleary tapped into that. Her work is still as relevant today as when it first came out."
Cleary has said that she's always thought like a kid — and she has very clear memories of her own childhood. "I'm just lucky," she told NPR in 2006. "I do have very clear memories of childhood. I find that many people don't, but I'm just very fortunate that I have that kind of memory."
Now, generations of children have been fortunate enough to enjoy her stories of Klickitat Street. So thanks, Beverly Cleary. And happy birthday.
For more, visit Discovering Beverly Cleary from OPB.