Beverly Cleary doesn’t really want to talk about turning 100. “Go ahead and fuss,” she says of the big day, April 12. “Everyone else is.”
Across the country, people are delving into Cleary nostalgia, with celebrations and new editions of her books with introductions by the likes of Amy Poehler and Judy Blume. Kids and adults are being asked to “Drop Everything and Read” to commemorate Cleary’s contribution to children’s literature.
But the beloved children’s author has something far more low-key in mind for herself: a celebratory slice of carrot cake, she says, “because I like it.”
Cleary is as feisty and direct as her famously spirited character Ramona Quimby — an observation that she hears often and doesn’t care for. “I thought like Ramona,” she says in a phone interview, “but I was a very well-
behaved little girl.”
Today, Cleary lives a quiet, well-behaved life in a retirement home in Northern California. She gets up at 7:30 a.m. and spends the day reading the newspaper and books (on her night stand when we talked in mid-March: Alexandra Fuller’s “Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight”) and doing crossword puzzles. She watches “Doc Martin” and CNN and enjoys visits with her family. She doesn’t have a computer, and though she enjoys writing letters, she notes dryly that “when you get to be 99, there aren’t many people to write letters to.”
Cleary is both set in her ways — “I don’t think I joined this century” — and keenly aware of how times have changed. “I think children today have a tough time, because they don’t have the freedom to run around as I did — and they have so many scheduled activities.”
In her youth, she points out, “mothers did not work outside the home; they worked on the inside. And because all the mothers were home — 99 percent of them, anyway — all mothers kept their eyes on all the children.” This is part of the reason, she says, that the children in her books were so often out tromping through the neighborhood without adult chaperones.
Cleary’s last book was “Ramona’s World,” published in 1999. Her plucky heroine remains frozen at age 9; her sister, Beezus, is 14 and just entering high school. Who knows what Ramona might have been like when she hit puberty. Cleary, for one, is happy to leave her before that nightmare. “I think writers need to know when to retire,” she says.
Yet Cleary’s books live on. In January, HarperCollins published new editions of three of her most popular works: “Henry Huggins,” “Ramona Quimby, Age 8” and “The Mouse and the Motorcycle,” with introductions by Blume, Poehler and Kate DiCamillo, respectively. There are more than 40 Cleary titles in print, and you can even watch Selena Gomez and Joey King play her two most famous characters in the 2010 movie “Beezus and Ramona.”
Cleary has won a National Book Award, a Newbery Medal and a National Medal of Art from the National Endowment of the Arts, among other accolades. In 2000, the Library of Congress gave her a Living Legend Award.
Yet she wears her literary stardom lightly. “I’m just lucky,” she says. Throwing zingers — “People tell me I don’t look a day over 80”; “Don’t expect me to analyze my books!” — she’s both modest and outspoken.
Perhaps these qualities are a product of her upbringing. Born Beverly Bunn in rural Oregon, she spent much of her early life doing farm work. When her family moved to Portland, she says, “city life was a shock.”
Although her mother read to her regularly, she wasn’t always eager to read on her own. “I liked to have her read to me,” she says. “So I thought, what’s the point in my having to do it myself?”
She nearly failed first grade, she says, and didn’t read on her own until third grade. Even then, it happened organically: “I was looking through ‘The Dutch Twins’ by Lucy Fitch Perkins,” she recalls, “and I discovered I was reading — and enjoyed it.”
Cleary long yearned to be a writer — a passion she explains eloquently in her memoirs “A Girl from Yamhill” (1988) and “My Own Two Feet” (1995) — but she met resistance from her mother, who told her, “You must have some other way of earning a living,” Cleary recalls. “So I became a children’s librarian — the next best thing.”
During the Depression, Cleary attended Chaffey Junior College in Ontario, Calif., where tuition was free. To help pay for the rest of her education, at the University of California at Berkeley and the University of Washington, she worked a variety of jobs — including as a seamstress and a chambermaid.
She struggled through her classes with poor eyesight; her mother denied her money for glasses because she feared it would spoil her daughter’s appearance. Eventually, her mother relented — to no ill effect on Beverly’s love life. In 1940, she eloped, marrying her longtime sweetheart Clarence Cleary, who died in 2004.
Cleary’s first book, “Henry Huggins,” was published in 1950. Based loosely on a story she had overheard while working at a military hospital library, the book (originally titled “Spareribs and Henry”) came slowly. And it was, at first, rejected by her publisher. As Cleary reworked it, she added Beezus and Ramona — the latter a name she heard being called out by a neighbor — to the mix.
Her own children — twins Marianne and Malcolm — born five years later, inspired the book “Mitch and Amy” and even helped shape that story.
“My son pointed out that you cannot ride a bike with a banana in your hip pocket,” she says. “So I did take that out. I didn’t want my character to have a squashed banana in his pocket.”
As she approaches 100, Cleary still talks about her characters as if they are friends. Even if she doesn’t want to be compared to Ramona, she confesses that the spitfire is her favorite. The charming and better-behaved Ellen Tebbits is a close second. She would have both girls over to dinner, she says, “but not at the same time.”
Ramona, she says, has to some degree been misunderstood. It’s not that she’s naughty, Cleary says, it’s that “things just didn’t work out the way she thought they should.” But for her creator, things pretty much have.
“I live in a very pleasant place with a very nice room that looks out on trees and rabbits and birds,” she says. She has her books, her newspaper, her family and her memories. Bring on the carrot cake.