Beverly Cleary began her life in Oregon and went on to become one of the most well-known figures to emerge from Portland. Born in McMinnville, Oregon on April 12, 1916, Cleary moved as a young child to Portland, Oregon where she lived until she graduated from high school. As an author, Beverly Cleary has written over thirty-five children’s books, published in fourteen languages and sold in more than twenty countries. Many an adult can remember reading these books as children and many children today are re-discovering these same enduring tales. Beverly Cleary has sold over 90 million books, and none of her books have gone out of print during the fifty-nine years since she began writing.
Born on her family’s farm near McMinnville, Oregon, Beverly Atlee Bunn was the only child of Chester and Mable Bunn. For the first few years of her life Cleary lived with her parents in a large farmhouse situated on the eighty-acre farm, and her earliest memories were of life there. During the First World War the United States experienced an increased demand for crops, and many farmers borrowed money to buy more land for farming; so did the Bunns. After the war, the demand dropped, leaving many farmers debt-ridden, the agriculture market flooded, and crop prices fell drastically. Although the Bunn farm had been passed down from Cleary’s grandfather, to her father, the Bunns had to sell the farm. The Bunns moved to Portland when Cleary was six years old; her first encounter with the city in which many of her characters would come to life.
The family moved into a residential neighborhood where Cleary found life was very different than on the farm. Where she had been heppy before to entertain herself on the acres of farmland, she now had many children to play with who lived near her. Cleary’s father began work as a night guard at the Federal Reserve Bank and Beverly Cleary started school at Fernwood Grammar School. Cleary did not immediately take to reading, although she loved for her mother to read to her. She did not have undue difficulties learning how to read, but found her school books to be dull and uninteresting. During Cleary’s first year of school she contracted a series of illnesses-first chicken pox, then smallpox, and she fell behind at school. It was perhaps due to this that Cleary’s first years as a student were undistinguished.
After her second year of school, Beverly Cleary’s family moved to a house on 77th Avenue, less than two blocks from Klickitat Street where one of Cleary’s most well-known characters, Ramona Quimby, would live. There Cleary enrolled in the third grade at Gregory Heights Grammar School. During a period of boredom, Beverly Cleary picked up The Dutch Twins by Lucy Fitch Perkins, and was amazed to find she was enjoying herself, and her love of books began. Shortly after this revelation her writing career began as well. With the encouragement of her mother, Cleary wrote reviews of the books she read for the Oregon Journal, which offered children a free book in exchange for their reviews.
During that winter the Bunns moved back to the neighborhood they had lived in when they first arrived in Portland. First on on Hancock Street, and later in 1928 to NE 37th Avenue. Cleary returned to Fernwood Grammar School, and began to receive attention from teachers for her writing. One evening, when she wrote a short story about her favorite character from a book, Cleary found herself writing on and on, losing herself in the story. After she gave the story to her teacher, the teacher read it aloud to the class and stated that Cleary should write childrens books when she grew up. The words resonated with the young girl and from then on she knew the direction she wanted her life to take. What was more, she decided that she would become a librarian to support herself as she wrote.
When Beverly Cleary was fourteen she started attending Ulysses S. Grant High School. Cleary continued honing her skills as a writer. At the end of the four years she graduated and was eager to get away from the financial problems and the difficult relationship with her mother that had dominated her life. When her aunt and uncle in Ontario, California offered to let her live with them so she could attend Chaffey Junior College, Cleary leaped at the chance. During the summer of 1934 Beverly Cleary left Oregon for the first time and moved to Southern California.
Cleary attended Chaffey Junior College for two years and then enrolled in the University of California at Berkeley. She majored in English, further developed herself as a writer, and graduated from UC Berkeley in 1938 with a B.A. in English. When Cleary inquired at UC Berkeley about their Librarian School, a member of the staff treated her with condescension. This influenced her decision to attend the School of Librarianship at the University of Washington in Seattle, where she earned a degree in librarianship in 1939 specializing in children’s librarianship.
Beverly Cleary began her first job as a librarian in Yakima, Washington that same year. A group of school boys visited the library, but could find little there to interest them and asked for books about children like them. This memory stayed with Cleary and from her first book, Henry Huggins, written in 1949, throughout the rest of her career, she would try to write books children could relate to. In addition to her librarian work, Cleary frequently read to children in the park and became familiar with what would keep children enraptured. For the next few years, Beverly Cleary had little time for writing. She was too busy with work. Her ambitions would have to wait.
In 1940, Beverly Cleary married Clarence Cleary, an accountant she had met at Berkeley. She moved to Oakland, California to live with him, and she remained in the area for the rest of her life. As the country became involved in World War II the couple found themselves very busy. Cleary worked as a librarian, first at Camp John T. Knight, and then at the Oakland Area Station Hospital. After the war ended the military no longer needed a librarian for the hospital, and Cleary became a housewife. She finally had the time she had needed to begin writing. She started her first book in 1949 and kept writing for fifty years until, in 1999, she announced her retirement. In her memoir, My Own Two Feet, Cleary wrote that after publishing her first book, she was walking to the bank with her advance check, and she picked up a nickel. She decided that she would never follow trends in writing and that she would never let money influence her career. She kept the nickel as a reminder to herself.
Many of Beverly Cleary’s books are about children who, like most children, aspire to grow up. These children find themselves in situations that are sometimes embarrassing, often humorous, and almost always realistic. While it can be argued that Cleary accomplished what she set out to, in appealing to children through stories they could relate to, there are also criticisms of her writing. Her books do not examine ethnic issues to any depth. In Checking Out America, Meghan Sweeney argues that the character, Fong Quock, in Emily’s Runaway Imagination, while not outwardly an object of racism, is left flat and undeveloped. He sacrificed for the community and then left, unable to become fully engaged in the community. The issues that surround this ethnic alienation were not further developed or really discussed in the book. In addition, Linda Benson examines the Ramona series in “The Hidden Curriculum and the Child’s New Discourse: Beverly Cleary’s Ramona Goes to School.” Throughout the series the irrepressible Ramona is socialized into a more docile and unassertive person. While conforming to Cleary’s goal of writing stories that children can relate to, gender issues og molding of young girls into quiet and acquiescent people go wholly unexamined.
For her work, Beverly Cleary has been honored in many ways. She received the Newbery Medal in 1984 for Dear Mr. Henshaw, the Laura Ingalls Wilder Award in 1975, and in 2000 the Library of Congress bestowed her with a Living Legends award for her significant contributions to America’s cultural heritage. Her alma maters of UC Berkley and the University of Washington have honored her by naming a residential hall and an endowed chair, respectively. Cleary has also been the recipient of countless letters of thanks from generations of fans.
Beverly Cleary is particularly special to Portland, Oregon. In 1995, a sculpture garden containing the statues of Ramona Quimby, Henry Huggins, and Ribsy the dog was dedicated in Grant Park, next to her alma mater, Grant High School. It was a fitting gesture that the characters who immortalized the experience of growing up in Portland were themselves immortalized.
Cleary, Beverly. A Girl from Yamhill: A Memoir. New York, NY: Dell Publishing, 1988.
Cleary, Beverly. My Own Two Feet: A Memoir. New York, NY: Avon Books, Inc., 1995.
Schwantes, Carlos. The Pacific Northwest: An Interpretive History. Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 1996.
Benson, Linda. “The Hidden Curriculum and the Child’s New Discourse: Beverly Cleary’s Ramona Goes to School.” In Children’s Literature in Education, 1999.
Sweeney, Meghan M. “Checking Out America: Libraries as Agents of Acculturation in Three Mid-Century Girls’ Books.” In Children’s Literature, 2005.
Author: Nicole Campbell, PSU Monumental Women Senior Capstone, Winter 2008
[Postscript: In June 2008, Fernwood School was renamed Beverly Cleary School.]