Best-selling children’s author Beverly Cleary, who introduced young readers across three generations to the love of reading through such characters as Ramona Quimby and Henry Huggins, died on March 25. She was 104.
Publisher HarperCollins confirmed the news in a press release Friday.
“We are saddened by the passing of Beverly Cleary, one of the most beloved children’s authors of all time. Looking back, she’d often say, ‘I’ve had a lucky life,’ and generations of children count themselves lucky too. Her timeless books are an affirmation of her everlasting connection to the pleasures, challenges, and triumphs that are part of every childhood,” said Suzanne Murphy, president and publisher of HarperCollins Children’s Books, in the release.
“I believe my books age so well because childhood is universal,” Cleary told People magazine in a 1988 interview. The Newbery Award winner and two-time honoree proved over her long career that her work not only endures but inspires.
“She was a pioneer in writing chapter books with humor and situations that real children could relate to,” said Cynthia Richey, past president of the Association for Library Service to Children. “I think her language and writing style is simple but not simplistic and very accessible and emotionally charged, and her humor is unparalleled.”
Who could forget Ramona, the star of Cleary’s popular book series, which began with “Beezus and Ramona,” about a rebellious rugrat who struggles with her father’s unemployment, sleeping alone in a new room and her seemingly perfect friend Susan?
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In 2010, the big-screen feature “Ramona and Beezus,” based on Cleary’s book characters and starring Selena Gomez, was released. The character was also memorialized in bronze: a sculpture of a joyous Ramona stands in the Beverly Cleary Sculpture Garden in Portland, Oregon, also home to statues of little boy Henry Huggins and his dog, Ribsy.
Nobody would have predicted that Cleary, born Beverly Bunn in McMinnville, Oregon, in 1916, would become a visionary author. The tiny town of Yamhill, Oregon, where she spent her early childhood, didn’t even have a library.
In a 2016 interview with Oregon Public Broadcasting for the special “Discovering Beverly Cleary,” the author said she had so little interest in reading when she was a child, she at first refused to learn. “I had resisted learning to read,” Cleary said. “My mother wanted to teach me, but I felt, well, why should I when she can read to me?” When Cleary started school, she was placed in the lowest-level reading group.
Cleary’s eventual passion for literature overcame her small-town roots and she attended the University of California, Berkeley, where she met future husband, Clarence Cleary, and the School of Librarianship at the University of Washington, Seattle.
During her time as a librarian, Cleary was inspired to write for the kids who frequented her library in Yakima, Washington. “That’s where I learned to write for children, standing up and telling the story,” Cleary said in her 2016 OPB interview. “I didn’t read the story, I told it.”
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She was later inspired by her own children, twins Malcolm and Marianne. The idea for “The Mouse and the Motorccyle” – about house mouse Ralph S. Mouse and his motorcycle adventures – came to Cleary after watching Malcolm play with model cars while sick in bed on a trip. When she got back home, a neighbor showed her a mouse that had fallen into garden bucket. “It crossed my mind that mouse was just the right size to ride that little motorcycle,” Cleary said to PBS. “That’s the kind of messy mind I have.”
The big award came in 1984, when Cleary won the Newbery Medal for her poignant novel “Dear Mr. Henshaw,” about lonely Leigh Botts, the new kid who writes to his favorite author as his parents go through a divorce. When asked about her inspiration for the book, Cleary said, “Two little boys who didn’t know one another asked me to write about a boy whose parents were divorced. And I had never thought about it, but I said I’d – give it a try.”
Cleary even has her own day of commemoration: April 12, Cleary’s birthday, is also known as D.E.A.R. (Drop Everything and Read) Day, an annual celebration of reading that encourages families, and especially children, to put aside distractions to enjoy books for half an hour together.
It was a cause dear to Cleary, once a little girl who refused to read. “Reading made a great difference in the quality of my childhood,” Cleary told People. “I’m happy to learn that my books do the same for children today.”