Book lovers in Portland and beyond expressed their condolences and shared fond memories following the death of beloved author Beverly Cleary. The writer of over 40 bestselling children’s and young adult books died at age 104 on March 25 in Carmel, California, according to a press release from Cleary’s publisher, HarperCollins.
Cleary, a long-time Oregon resident, was born in McMinnville and spent her early years on a farm in Yamhill. Her family then moved to Northeast Portland, where she would live into adulthood. Her suburban neighborhood would eventually serve as the backdrop for the adventures of Henry Huggins, Ramona Quimby and dozens of other iconic figures in children’s literature.
“I think children want to read about normal, everyday kids,” Cleary said in a 1999 interview with NPR. “That’s what I wanted to read about when I was growing up.” She recounted how interactions with children while working as a librarian prompted her to become a writer. Cleary was bothered by the lack of light-hearted and realistic children’s stories on shelves—books about them doing ordinary activities such as attending school and playing games with friends. “Authors back then thought their characters needed to go to sea or have big adventures,” Cleary said in a 100th birthday interview with Publisher’s Weekly. “Well, most kids don’t have adventures, but they still lead interesting lives.” Children wanted fiction to be more grounded in reality, so Cleary decided she’d try to write it herself.
Her first book, Henry Huggins, is a slice-of-life novel about a third-grade boy and a mischievous stray puppy named Ribsy, who develop a close bond. The book debuted in 1950 and was warmly received by young readers, leading to five more installments being published. As popular as Henry was becoming, readers also showed strong interest in a side character in his universe: a bold, energetic girl named Ramona Quimby. Beezus and Ramona hit shelves in 1955 and the spin-off series soon took on a life of its own, spanning a total of eight books. It was later adapted into a TV series and film, garnering a large international following.
Ramona Quimby became arguably Cleary’s most recognizable literary protagonist. In centering coming-of-age stories around an exuberant girl doing ordinary things, Cleary struck particular resonance with readers, and taught them it was okay to stand out. She created a character who is often the loudest person in the room, and always ready for anything—to quote Ramona The Pest, “[Ramona] was not a slowpoke grownup. She was a girl who could not wait. Life was so interesting that she had to find out what happened next.”
Ramona marches to the beat of her own drum, but that doesn’t mean she’s indifferent to what other people think of her, and she still experiences insecurity. The reader witnesses her frustration over family and friends calling her a “pest” when expressing their annoyance with her. And we see Ramona learn to embrace aspects of her personality that aren’t always appreciated or understood. As stated in Ramona The Pest, “people who called her a pest did not understand that a littler person sometimes had to be a bit noisier and a little bit more stubborn in order to be noticed at all.”
The nuance Cleary portrayed in her stories was what the students in her library were looking for. Among the books that followed both Henry and Ramona’s series were a trilogy starring a talking, motorcycle-riding rodent named Ralph S. Mouse, several young adult novels and two memoirs, A Girl From Yamhill and My Own Two Feet, documenting Cleary’s life from childhood through young adulthood as well as the beginning of her writing career. Cleary’s works have sold over 85 million copies worldwide, according to HarperCollins, and have been translated into 29 languages.
For decades, Cleary’s influence on “kidlit” has been recognized and celebrated. Her alma mater, the University of California at Berkeley, named a residential hall after her. The University of Washington, where Cleary received a second bachelor’s degree in library science, created the Beverly Cleary Endowed Chair for Children and Youth Services in honor of her work as a writer and librarian. She also received the university’s most esteemed honor given to graduates, the Alumna Summa Laude Dignatus Award.
In 2000, she was named a Library of Congress Living Legend. 11 years later, HarperCollins launched Drop Everything And Read (DEAR) Day on April 12, Cleary’s birthday, to encourage silent sustained reading initiatives in schools. She has also, unsurprisingly, encouraged generations of authors to pursue storytelling, including Judy Blume and Kate DiCamillo among the writers who have cited Cleary and her work as inspiration for their own careers.
Cleary’s books were effective in bringing Portland to life for kids who didn’t live here and perhaps haven’t ever visited. Conversely, Cleary’s books also had a big impact on generations of children who grew up in Portland, particularly the city’s Northeast quadrant. Bronze statues of Henry Huggins, Henry’s dog Ribsy and Ramona Quimby have stood in the Beverly Cleary Sculpture Garden for Children in Grant Park since the monument’s dedication in 1995.
A few blocks away, the Hollywood Library displays the Beverly Cleary Neighborhood Map, where all of the real-life places featured in her books are laid out. The pinpointed locations readers can tour include Cleary’s elementary school, formerly known as Fernwood Grammar School and renamed after the author in 2008, as well as her characters’ home streets—Klickitat included. Multnomah County Central Library in downtown Portland, where the author briefly worked as an intern, holds their children’s section in the Beverly Cleary Children’s Library.
Cleary aimed to depict ordinary children in her books, and her success in achieving that goal in her life’s work is clear. For decades, the kids of Klickitat have taught readers to embrace their inner pest and be themselves unapologetically. And they’ll carry their stories with them for years to come.