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Beverly Cleary’s humorous, realistic depictions of American children have made her one of the most beloved writers of children’s literature for more than fifty years. Throughout this time, she has retained her popularity, critical acclaim, and relevance. A prolific writer with a wide range of interests, Cleary appeals to grade schoolers because of her ability to portray children and their language on a level readers can understand.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
A Safe and Beautiful Farm Town
The only child of Lloyd and Mabel Atlee Bunn, Cleary was born in McMinnville, Oregon and grew up on an eighty-acre farm in Yamhill, Oregon, where her uncle was mayor and her father was on the town council. in her autobiography A Girl from Yamhill: A Memoir (1988), Cleary wrote that living there taught her ”that the world was a safe and beautiful place, where children were treated with kindness, patience, and tolerance.” All of these qualities would be apparent in her books.
The Power of Books
From an early age, Cleary was taught that books had power. in addition to introducing her daughter to such authors as Charles Dickens and Geoffrey Chaucer, Mabel Bunn told the girl stories from her own childhood, as well as folk and fairy tales. Because Yamhill did not have a library, Mabel arranged for the State Library to send books to Yamhill, and she created a small lending area in a room over the town’s bank. Amazed by the variety of books available to children, Cleary learned to love books there.
When she was six, Cleary’s family moved to Portland, Oregon. Although she was excited by the big city and by the immense children’s section of the Portland Library, Cleary felt out of place in school, particularly after an extended illness left her behind the other students in first grade. By the time she returned to school, the class had been divided into three reading groups according to their abilities, and Cleary was in the bottom group. Bored and discouraged, she decided that reading and school were miserable experiences, and she developed an aversion to reading outside of school. When she was eight years old, however, she finally found a book that aroused her interest, The Dutch Twins by Lucy Fitch Perkins. In this story about two ordinary children and their adventures, Cleary found release and happiness. Soon, she was reading all the children’s books in the library; however, she rarely came across what she wanted to read most of all: funny stories about boys and girls who lived in the same kind of neighborhood and went to the same kind of school that she did.
Immersed in Books
When Cleary was in seventh grade, a teacher suggested that she write books for children. This idea had immediate appeal, and Cleary vowed to write the type of book she herself wanted to read. When her mother reminded her that she would need a steady job as well, Cleary decided to become a librarian and focused on literature and journalism during her high school years. Upon graduation, she attended Chaffey Junior College in Ontario, California, and was a substitute librarian at the Ontario Public Library before transferring to the University of California at Berkeley. After graduating with a BA in English in 1938 and a second BA in librarianship from the University of Washington in 1939, she worked as a children’s librarian in Yakima, Washington. In 1940, she married Clarence Cleary and moved to San Francisco. During World War II, Cleary served as post librarian at the Oakland Army Hospital.
Henry Opens Doors
After the war, she worked in the children’s department of a Berkeley bookstore, a job that allowed her the opportunity to review popular children’s books, which she found inadequate. Her answer to such substandard children’s literature was to write her own, and she began writing on January 2, 1948. Since then, she has begun all her books on the second of January. Published in 1950, Henry Huggins was different from many other books of the time, which either presented an idealized version of well-behaved children or told unrealistic stories of children who solved crimes or found long-lost wealthy relatives.
In addition to five more volumes about Henry, Cleary has written other works about children who live in or near Henry’s neighborhood. The most notable of these is a series about the Quimby family, which began with the publication of Beezus and Ramona in 1955, the same year Cleary gave birth to twins. Several of her sub sequent books reflected the interests and experiences of her children, including the popular Ralph S. Mouse fantasy series, which she wrote when her son showed a fascination with motorcycles and a difficulty in learning to read. During the 1950s, Cleary also wrote several novels for and about teenage girls whose searches for identity involve confusing relationships with the opposite sex, as well as with their families. In doing so, Cleary was able to fill a void in the young-adult fiction market.
A Kinship with Children
Prolific over the course of her long career, Cleary has spoken at many schools, interacting with students whose requests she takes to heart. She has conscientiously corresponded with thousands of readers, and wrote Dear Mr. Henshaw (1983), a book about a child who exchanges letters with a children’s author, in response to requests she received for a book about a child of divorced parents. Cleary’s unique talent to invent tales about ordinary children has won her prestigious national and regional literary awards, as well as more than twenty-five child-selected awards.
Works in Literary Context
While Cleary has referred to many places, people, and incidents from her own experiences for her works, her stories are neither memoirs nor autobiographical fiction. Twentieth-Century Children’s Writers records that in discussing her motivation as an author, Cleary says, ”The stories I write are the stories I wanted to read as a child, and the experience I hope to share with children is the discovery that reading is one of the pleasures of life.” In her quest, Cleary has written picture books, realistic fiction, historical fiction, fantasy, and nonfiction for audiences ranging from preschoolers to young adults. As a result, she has inspired generations of readers to view reading as a joy, not just something they have to do at school.
Because she has an uncanny understanding of her audience, Cleary accurately depicts the world of children with humor, honesty, and compassion. Typically, Cleary’s characters are ordinary youngsters with faults, and the small problems they face seem big to them. The difficulties and fears they encounter both at school and at home reflect those generally faced by many children: losing a pet, being bullied at school, sibling rivalry. Cleary’s works show that making mistakes is normal and that everyone feels helpless, guilty, misunderstood, or left out at one time or another. Many of her works focus on children who struggle to learn in school, as she herself did, or have difficulty in conforming to adults’ expectations. Possibly the most popular of such characters is Ramona Quimby, a mischievous, annoying little sister who eventually attempts to grow up gracefully without losing her feisty personality.
Cleary has explored the experiences and emotions of only children and is one of the first American authors to address the effects of divorce on children. Although she writes about children’s problems, however, she does not dwell on the difficulties; rather, she highlights the pleasures of childhood. Perhaps most importantly, Cleary gives her readers a sense of hope. By avoiding endings with moralistic preaching or magical solutions, Cleary assures her readers that her protagonists will handle their situations with courage and common sense. In doing so, Cleary teaches young readers that they can be in control of their own actions when dealing with life’s frustrations.
Works in Critical Context
Most critics embrace Cleary’s spirited depiction of children and childhood, praising her books for being empathetic and simply written, but not condescending. They also applaud her gentle humor, memorable characters, and age-appropriate plots. Reviewer Joanne Kelly writes that Cleary’s ”sharp recollections of the complex feelings of childhood and her ability to relate those feelings in a way that is both humorous and comforting to the reader make her work ever popular with children and adults.” In addition, critics commend Cleary’s ability to write on several levels at once—for the younger child who identifies with the pesky Ramona, for the older child who sympathizes with being an older sibling, and for the adult who appreciates the books’ word play and nostalgic appeal. Because of her unique gift for understanding the fears and joys—as well as the struggles and victories—of childhood and adolescence, Cleary’s books have remained relevant for decades of readers.
Negative criticism of Cleary’s work has appeared as American society has evolved. For example, critics have noticed the lack of minority and ethnic characters in her books, which almost exclusively feature white, middle-class children and their families. Other critics have charged that Cleary perpetuates stereotypes, such as mothers who are homemakers and do not work outside the home. In recent years, Cleary’s works have been criticized because they fail to address contemporary problems or social ills. For the overwhelming majority of critics, however, Cleary is regarded as one of the most innovative and influential children’s writers, a natural storyteller who makes reading a pleasure.
Ramona and Her Father
Reviewers agree that the conflicts in 1977’s Ramona and Her Father are credible, as Mr. Quimby loses his job and begins to smoke too much. Once referred to by critic Ellen Lewis Buell as a ”most exasperating little sister,” a more mature Ramona spearheads an anti-smoking campaign in order to save her father’s life—despite her tendency to make things worse before she makes them better. About Ramona and Her Father, reviewer Betsy Hearne writes:
With her uncanny gift for pinpointing the thoughts and feelings of children right down to their own phraseology—while honoring the boundaries of clean, simple writing—the author catches a family situation that puts strain on each of its members, despite their intrinsic strength and invincible humor. … [The story is] true, warm-hearted, and funny.
As in Cleary’s previous works, Ramona and Her Father illustrates that ”the author delineates the contemporary family with compassion and humor, unerringly suggests the nuances of suburban conversation, and develops as memorable a cast of characters as can be found in children’s literature,” lauds critic Mary M. Burns.
- Berg, Julie. Beverly Cleary: The Young at Heart. Edina, Minn.: Abdo & Daughters, 1993.
- Berger, Laura Standley, ed. Twentieth-Century Children’s Writers. Detroit, Mich.: St. James Press, 1998.
- Cleary, Beverly. A Girl from Yamhill: A Memoir. New York: Morrow, 1974.
- Kelly, Joanne. The Beverly Cleary Handbook. Englewood, Colo.: Teacher Ideas Press, 1996.
- Pfliger, Pat. Beverly Cleary. Boston: Twayne, 1991.
- Buell, Ellen Lewis. ”Review of Beezus and Ramona.” New York Times Book Review (September 25, 1955): 34.
- Burns, Mary M. ”Review of Ramona and Her Father.” The Horn Book Magazine (December 1977): 660.
- Davis, Mary Gould. ”Review of Henry Huggins.” Saturday Review (November 11, 1950): 48.
- Hearne, Betsy. ”Review of Ramona and Her Father.” Booklist (October 1, 1977): 285-286.
- Drennan, Miriam. I Can See Cleary Now. Retrieved September 24, 2008, from http://www.bookpage. com/9908bp/beverly_cleary.html
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