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.
ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
Author Beverly Cleary celebrates her 100th birthday tomorrow. It's easy to say that a hundred years ago, the world was a very different place. But Beverly Cleary experienced a childhood not too different from one you'd recognize today. It's why her books have remained hugely popular with kids.
She has written 41 of them, and they've sold 85 million copies. If you haven't read at least one of them yourself, chances are you know a child who has - "The Mouse And The Motorcycle," "Henry Huggins," "Beezus And Ramona." Melissa Jaeger-Miller read many of them, and she sends Mrs. Cleary this birthday card.
MELISSA JAEGER-MILLER, BYLINE: Beverly Cleary was in her early 30s, working part time in a bookstore, when she sat down at a typewriter to see if just maybe she could write a children's book, the kind she wished she had to offer when she was a children's librarian before World War II. Her first book - that was "Henry Huggins" - came out in 1950. That's also where her favorite character made her debut.
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STOCKARD CHANNING: (Reading) Come on, mama, urged Ramona. We don't want to be late for school.
Don't pester, Ramona, said Mrs. Quimby. I'll get you there in plenty of time.
I'm not pestering, protested Ramona, who never meant to pester. She was not a slowpoke grownup. She was a girl who could not wait. Life was so interesting. She had to find out what happened next.
JAEGER-MILLER: That's actress Stockard Channing reading "Ramona The Pest." That came out in 1968. Getting Ramona from nursery school to fourth grade took five decades and through each one, some things did change. Mrs. Quimby went from stay-at-home mom to the working world, for one. But Beverly Cleary has always said the world changes, but deep down inside children stay the same. And that's who she wrote for, as she told NPR in 1999.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)
BEVERLY CLEARY: Well, I think children want to read about normal, everyday kids. 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.
JAEGER-MILLER: Beverly Cleary spent her earliest years on a farm in Oregon before moving to the big city of Portland, and her daughter, Marianne, says that has a lot to do with her mom making it to 100.
MARIANNE CLEARY: My ancestors crossed the plains in covered wagons. They came to Oregon. And so my mother is from, you know, pioneer stock. And, you know, in part, she's very disciplined. You know, when she would write every morning, she would sit down after breakfast - you know, and my brother and I would go to school - she would write until noon or so. And she never really waited for inspiration. She just got to it.
JAEGER-MILLER: And her books just keep hooking readers like 11-year-old Simone Listiak.
SIMONE LISTIAK: Beverly Cleary is really good because she just tells the story in a way that grownups don't usually understand. I think my favorite Beverly Cleary book is when Ramona goes to fourth grade.
JAEGER-MILLER: That book, "Ramona's World," was published, if you can believe it, when Beverly Cleary was 83 years old.
SIMONE: I did not know that, and I cannot believe that (laughter). Like, how on earth did she manage to get all of that information on, like, how kids can act? How does she know that?
JAEGER-MILLER: Cleary has said she just thought like a kid. She's done writing now and, living a quiet life near Monterey, Calif., rarely gives interviews. But Jeff Kinney is happy for what she did write.
JEFF KINNEY: I must have been about 8 or 9 years old when I first read Beverly Cleary. The book that really grabbed me was "Ramona Quimby, Age 8." Ramona, this little girl, looked sort of feral. I felt like I really needed to get to know this character.
JAEGER-MILLER: Kinney's the author of the "Diary Of A Wimpy Kid" series. With 165 million books in print, he knows a thing or two about writing for children.
KINNEY: Most kids have parents, teachers, bullies, (laughter) you know? We all experience these things, and Beverly Cleary certainly tapped into that. And her work is still as relevant today as it was when it first came out.
JAEGER-MILLER: So thanks, Beverly Cleary, and happy birthday. For NPR News, I'm Melissa Jaeger-Miller. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.