Beverly Cleary has spent her life surrounded by books, but her love of reading had a rocky start.
The Oregon farm girl moved to the city — nearby Portland — as she began first grade. Being in the crowded classroom was a shock.
“The teacher was very strict. She had to be because none of us had gone to kindergarten,” Cleary said recently by phone from her home in Carmel Valley, California. “I was frightened. It was a bad year.”
At the end of the year, she was promoted “on trial,” or with the possibility of repeating the grade if things didn’t go well. Luckily, the mood changed in the fall.
“My second-grade teacher was so lovely, so kind and so gentle I wasn’t afraid of her. I still wasn’t very enthusiastic about reading.”
Cleary still remembers the day in third grade when she became hooked.
“My mother continued to bring library books for my level at home,” she said. “One Sunday . . . I picked up one. It was ‘The Dutch Twins’ by Lucy Fitch Perkins.”
She flipped through the story about a boy and girl living in Holland, looking at the pictures, and Cleary had a revelation.
“I discovered I was reading . . . and enjoying it,” she said.
Cleary soon became enthusiastic about books, especially Grimm’s fairy tales. Later, a school librarian suggested she might someday write children’s books, and the idea was appealing. After college, she became a librarian, a job that kept her in touch with young readers. A boy who wasn’t impressed with the books on the shelves sparked an idea for a story.
“He said, ‘Where are the books about kids like us?’ ” Cleary said.
At the time, she was trying to write a book about “a sensitive girl.” “No ideas would come. So I started a book about a boy.”
She thought back to the boys in her Portland neighborhood, “where everybody had a small lawn and there wasn’t much traffic.” The character Henry Huggins was born. The book, published in 1950, was to be the first of more than 40 that Cleary would write. Many were about Henry’s friends — Ribsy the dog, Beezus Quimby and Beezus’s little sister, Ramona.
Cleary said she has tried not to play favorites.
“I like all of them, or I wouldn’t have written about them,” she said. “But I supposed Ramona was [my favorite] because I was a little girl.”
Ramona was a little girl who commanded a lot of attention. She had strong opinions, a terrific imagination and a habit of getting into trouble. Like a young Cleary, Ramona enjoyed reading. Her favorite part of third grade was when students could pull out a book and read silently. Cleary called it D.E.A.R., or Drop Everything and Read.
That idea caught on in schools, and for the past 10 years the author’s birthday has been celebrated as Drop Everything and Read Day.
Cleary stopped writing in 1999, but her titles continue to line bookstore and library shelves. She said she thinks that’s because kids can relate to the characters.
“I think that in many places, children’s lives haven’t changed that much,” she said, noting that some of the outdoor games of her childhood are still popular.
But more important, she said, are the feelings she wrote about — embarrassment at school, loyalty toward a best friend, exasperation at a little sister. Those haven’t gone away.
And one of the great rewards of Cleary’s career has been reaching struggling readers, she said.
“I always told them if they kept trying they would discover something that they would really enjoy.”