Happy 100th, Beverly Cleary! Celebrating the Kid’s Lit Icon

As author Beverly Cleary turns one century old today, we're celebrating her remarkable life and the beloved characters she created including Henry, Beezus, Ramona and more.
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Beverly Cleary 1972 State Library Photograph Collection 1851-1990 Washington State Archives Digital Archives via Wikimedia Commons

Beverly  Cleary in 1971. The author turns 100 today. (Photo: State Library Photograph Collection 1851-1990 Washington State Archives Digital Archives via Wikimedia Commons)

Popular children’s author Beverly Cleary turns 100 years old today. With more than 30 books to her credits, this esteemed writer launched her writing career with 1950’s Henry Huggins. More novels soon followed, including Beezus and Ramona, The Mouse and the Motorcycle and Dear Mr. Henshaw. In all, Cleary has sold more than 90 million copies of her stories during her lifetime.

Cleary’s birthday has also become a national literacy event called as Drop Everything and Read Day, or D.E.A.R. Day. This celebration of books appears in Cleary’s Ramona Quimby, Age 8, and, in true Ramona fashion, she first thinks that D.E.A.R. means “Drop Everything And Run.” To celebrate a century of Cleary, let’s take a look at her fascinating life and remarkable tales. 

Cleary wasn’t a natural born reader. While she loved books as a kid, she preferred to hear stories rather than read them herself. Her mother, a former teacher, often read to her when she was growing up. As Cleary told the Washington Post, “So I thought, what’s the point in my having to do it myself?” It took the works of Lucy Fitch Perkins to spark her interest in reading on her own in third grade.

Beverly Cleary Henry Huggins Photo Courtesy HarperCollins Publishers

Beverly Cleary launched her writing career with Henry Huggins. (Photo: Courtesy HarperCollins Publishers)

Cleary is a romantic rebel. Her parents didn’t think much of her college boyfriend Clarence Cleary. Their main grievance with him was over religion. He was Catholic while Beverly’s parents were Presbyterian. Rather than yield to parental pressure, Beverly decided to elope with Clarence. In her memoir, My Own Two Feet, Cleary wrote “I knew Mother and Dad would never give me a wedding. Suddenly I was angry and weary of trying to appease them. Why not get married now? Life is fragile.” She and Clarence traveled to Reno where they tied the knot in 1940. Fifteen years later, they welcomed twins, Malcolm and Marianne. Clarence died in 2004.

Cleary started writing for kids because she didn’t like other children’s books. “As a child, I disliked books in which children learned to be ‘better’ children,” she said, according to the University of Washington website. Cleary also wasn’t a fan of animal stories, either. She didn’t like the dialogue written for these creatures, she explained to the New York Times. “No dog I had ever known could talk like that,” Cleary said. During her time as a children’s librarian, she often had moments when she wondered “What was the matter with authors?” Luckily for her millions of readers, Cleary decided that she could make better stories for kids. 

Beverly Cleary A Girl from Yamhill Photo Courtesy HarperCollins Publishers

Beverly Cleary's memoir A Girl from Yamhill. (Photo: Courtesy HarperCollins Publishers)

Klickitat Street, home of Henry Huggins and Beatrice “Beezus” and Ramona Quimby, is real. It’s a road in Portland, Oregon. Cleary lived nearby for a time growing up, and the name stuck with her. Her fans often stop to take photos by the street’s signs. In her memoir, A Girl From Yamhill, Cleary shared fond memories of her Portland childhood when she roller skated and played all sorts of games with neighborhood kids. “With scabs on my knees and brick dust in my hair, I was happy.”

Cleary never meant to write about Ramona. In an interview posted on her website, she explained that Ramona “was really an accidental character” that first appeared when she was writing Henry Huggins. She decided to give one of Henry’s friends a little sister and her name was Ramona. “I hadn’t really intended to write so much about her . . . [But] She kept hanging around, and I kept having Ramona ideas.”

Beverly Cleary Ramona Quimby, Age 8 Photo Courtesy HarperCollins Publishers

Cleary says she never intended to write a lot about Ramona, but she kept "hanging around." (Photo: Courtesy HarperCollins Publishers)

Ramona is not based on Cleary. “I thought like Ramona,” she told the Washington Post. “But I was a very well-behaved little girl.” The novel Ellen Tebbits is quite autobiographical, however. Cleary told the New York Times that "In the first grade, I had a really cruel teacher, Miss Falb. She quickly turned me into Ellen Tebbits, a rather anxious little girl." 

Cleary doesn’t seem too impressed about turning 100. In an interview with Today, Cleary said that she didn’t reach this milestone “on purpose.” She remembered talking with a high school friend about how long they thought that they would live. Their verdict, she joked: “We decided that 80 was the cut off date.” And Cleary credits the longevity of her stories to her honest portrayal of what it means to be a kid. “I have stayed true to my own memories of childhood, which are not different in many ways from those of the children today. Although their circumstances have changed, I don’t think children’s inner feelings have changed.”