A GIRL FROM YAMHILL

A Memoir

By Beverly Cleary

Illustrated with photographs

Morrow. 320 pp. $14.95

BEVERLY CLEARY has done something generous and useful for her many admirers: she has written the story of her own childhood. Here she is on the book's jacket, 6 years old but nevertheless entirely recognizable, her expression watchful, intelligent and a little reserved, with the guarded smile of a junior Mona Lisa. The photograph could be of her own Ramona Quimby, if Ramona Quimby were real.

It doesn't take long to see that Ramona Quimby's high level of reality comes directly from Beverly Cleary's remarkably sharp and complete memories of her own self as a child. Cleary's voice, in this memoir, is as candid and free of sentimentality as the voice she uses in her fiction; it is a unique voice in children's literature in that it accepts the fact of childhood's deep ambivalences. Cleary's growing up was bittersweet, like the growing up of all of us, but too many of us seem to feel we must pretend to children that it was otherwise. In fact, children know well that their own lives are bittersweet, and this is at least a part of the reason why they love Cleary's stories. It is harder to fool children than we might wish; they know when we are telling the truth.

Beverly Cleary was born Beverly Bunn in Oregon in April 1916, an interesting time in this nation's history, but her memoir begins before that with brief sketches of her immediate ancestors, pioneers of the kind that built America out of sheer force of determination. She inherited their strength, and she would need it, as her mother and father certainly did.

After six years on the beloved farm at Yamhill -- idyllic for Beverly but endless toil for her parents -- the family moved to Portland and city life in the 1920s. Growing up in that era sounds glamorous if you believe only Scott Fitzgerald and Singin' in the Rain. In reality, it was a difficult time for many Americans. But never mind the history lesson. A Girl From Yamhill will tell you more about the life of everyday Americans from 1916 to 1934 than any history lesson could. Hard times, but at least there was plenty of company for misery. The Bunn family had the same money problems as everyone else, the same searches for work, the same painful economies. But for Beverly there were happy times, too, normal for children in any era.

It is not so much her childhood that stays in the reader's thoughts, however, as it is her adolesence and her relationship with her parents, particularly her mother. I wonder that Cleary has confined her novels to the pre-teen audience. Her father -- handsome, silent, his support and love for her always tacit -- is heart-breaking in his efforts to provide for his family. And her mother is as memorable a character as any in a fictional account: strong, vocal, over-protective, relentless and never, ever, affectionate. Mrs. Bunn is a type of woman I understand perfectly from some of my memories of my own mother. There was in her day no outlet for women who were filled with "wanting," so they lived their lives through their daughters, tireless in their efforts to force those daughters into paths that suited them, not necessarily their offspring. When Beverly gave in, which was most of the time for the sake of a little peace -- her mother was pleased, even sometimes jubilant. When things didn't go her way: " 'Mother,' " says Beverly at one of these times, " 'it does seem as if no matter what I do, you make me feel guilty.'

" Her mother replies that this is "ridiculous." But it isn't.

Cleary doesn't spend a lot of time in this memoir on the roots of her development into a writer. There are reports on stories and essays well-received in school, there is talk of books, her mother's almost single-handed creation of a library at Yamhill, and later in Portland there are her own visits to a branch library, even her own brush with "reader's block." But A Girl From Yamhill is not, thank goodness, another self-serving piece in which a writer writes about her writing. It is about growing up, all the parts of that process from the Camp Fire Girls to braces to best friends to boys to the first silk stockings and the first kiss. And the photographs that illustrate the process are fascinating.

I HAVE SAID that this memoir is generous and useful. It is generous in its unfailing directness and honesty about the formative years of a special woman. It is useful in the understanding it provides of the times it pictures, but even more so as a handbook for understanding the resonance of Beverly Cleary's characters in her many books for children. Her heroes and heroines are not, as so many other writers' are, the child she would like to have been. They are the child she was: brave, strong, loving, often puzzled, sometimes unhappy, but always full of hope. This is the kind of heroism we need to hear about, to be reminded of. Beverly Cleary would probably protest here, "But that's just the way things were! That's not heroism." Yes, it is. And we owe her a debt of gratitude for sharing it with us.

Natalie Babbitt is the author of many children's books, among them "The Search for Delicious," "Goody Hall," and "Tuck Everlasting."