“Even though adults had troubles, I was secure,” Beverly Cleary wrote of her feelings about leaving the Oregon farm where she lived for the first few years of her life. “Yamhill had taught me that the world was a safe and beautiful place, where children were treated with kindness, patience, and tolerance. Everyone loved little girls. I was sure of that.”
The next few decades of Cleary’s life might have taught her otherwise about “everyone” loving little girls, but she certainly always did; her work became integral in leading the wave for a new style of children’s books (and a new understanding of children in general) for “kids like us,” as requested by the students she worked with in her first job as a librarian.
Beverly Cleary, who turns 100 today, is most associated with Henry Huggins and Ramona Quimby, two characters whose lives she explored at length in her books, but a true appreciation of Cleary’s work (and one perhaps more edifying for teens and adults) comes from her memoirs, published in the ‘90s: A Girl From Yamhill and My Own Two Feet. The books cover her life up to the point where she became successful: the former handles her childhood years—growing up as World War I ended and the Great Depression took over—with the latter looking at the span of time between Cleary starting junior college with the intent to become a librarian and a children’s book author, and the year 1950, when she published Henry Huggins, her first book.
As an adult, I remember far more of Cleary’s descriptions of the life that influenced her children’s books than the actual fiction she wrote—stories about how she hates the taste of almond extract because it’s all they had to make desserts with during the Depression, or how eating a whole avocado every day from the tree outside her window in college caused her weight to bloom, or what she and her friends asked of each other’s clothes during the lean years: “Is it new, or new to you?”
Cleary’s writing is always matter-of-fact, observant without being unkind. In her limited first-person work, she’s evaluative of herself perhaps more than anyone else, and she allows certain undertones that are mostly absent from her children’s books to creep in. While the environment of the 1950s was expressed almost too tidily to feel real in her less ubiquitous books like Fifteen (which is highly accurate with regards to the emotional turmoil of being a teen girl, but leaves a modern reader skeptical with its mention of only one chaste kiss), it’s easier to understand the kindness of this altered setting when you read her memoirs: in Cleary’s experience, the United States between the wars (and especially during Prohibition) was more defined by its financial darkness than any other kind of edge.
The moments of gloom are handled lightly. Surely a lifetime of writing for children influenced Cleary with regards to how much she wanted to reveal about her personal life: mentions of an inappropriate uncle she dealt with in seventh grade, or her mother’s miscarriage, or even her own, are far briefer than the pages devoted to her complex relationship with her mother, who encouraged to her write but got more critical of her as she aged, forcing her to spend time with a beau Cleary hated and disapproving of her eventual husband. For example, a brief exchange:
One evening, when Mother and I were washing and wiping the supper dishes, she said, ‘You know, you are the type that will fade quickly.’
You can tell that feeling ignored or misunderstood as a child and a teen formed Cleary’s determination to respect them in her own stories. “Being seen and not heard, I gleaned all sorts of interesting information,” she says of being a child and listening to adults.
Sometimes the most interesting and mysterious conversations ended when Mother shot a glance at me and said, ‘Little pitchers have big ears.’ The ladies’ sudden silence was insulting. I was not a pitcher, and I did not have big ears.
“Why did adults think children had no feelings at all?” Cleary recalls feeling later, upon hearing the neighbors talk about her in front of her. Or of a fight with her parents during a low stretch of their financial situation during the Depression:
I longed to tell my father I was sorry I had added to the unhappiness in his life, that I understood his irritation and weariness after a day at work, but my generation was never encouraged to talk openly with our parents about feelings. Whenever I tried, I was always judged wrong.
It’s later on, in My Own Two Feet, that the set of expectations Cleary was up against is put into full relief. While the Depression and both World Wars were hard for men, the inequality between men and women became starker in different ways. Cleary recalls going to Chaffey College and learning: “Wives of men on the Chaffey faculty who also taught were allowed to work only half-time.” She remarks on how astonishing it was for her to meet mothers whose lives were not entirely defined by caring for family; for instance, in Yamhill, meeting a woman who “was the first married woman I had ever known who did not devote her life to being a good housewife,” who was considered “eccentric” as a result. Upon befriending an older woman named Hannah years later, a former newspaperwoman and mother of seven, she describes her as “the first liberated woman I had ever known.”
An obsession—forced upon her—with virtue lingers, too. Cleary writes of getting a lucky placement in college housing, she suspects, because she told the housemother she wanted “a roommate who was a good student and who did not smoke.” (Soon, and luckily, that housemother was replaced with one who was less hard on the girls living there, who were battling issues like whether you could wear slacks to the library or live in the house while obviously pregnant.) Clearly explains that her mother told her to just move back home instead of getting glasses (how would she catch a man with them?!), and warned her about going to a man’s apartment alone.
That Cleary eventually ended up writing children’s books feels the way the paths of a great many talented people feel: both inevitable and magical, the result of a lot of hard work mixed with a certain amount of luck. Upon becoming a librarian after school, she recalls another librarian wondering about how she could get to be so good at her job:
Miss Remsberg also said that she did not understand why the children had liked me so much; I treated them the same way I treated adults, of course. That was the way I had wanted to be treated as a child.
Remember, as Cleary does, it would be years before “the labels ‘teenager’ and ‘young adult’” would even be used regularly. Back then, to look at young people this way, you had to be extraordinarily interested in understanding the emotional states of an age group that was almost always overlooked. Cleary did; she had a firm grasp of the reality that children have complex inner lives, and this sensibility made her books break through.
I continued happily investigating stories about Henry from reality and imagination, and as I wrote, Mother’s words, whenever I had to write a composition in high school, came back to me: ‘Make it funny. People always like to read something funny,’ and ‘Keep it simple. The best writing is simple writing.’ Some of Professor Lehman’s words also echoed through my mind: ‘The minutiae of life,’ and ‘The proper subject of the novel is universal human experience.’ I remembered Mr. Palmer’s three-hundred-words-a-day assignment and disciplined myself to write every day.
“It is a long leap from Peregrine Pickle, Tristam Shandy, The Mysteries of Udolpho, and all the other novels we studied that year to the books I was to write about Henry, Ramona, and Leigh Botts, but I know, if others may not, that the influence of Professor Lehman is there,” Cleary wrote humbly, of what she learned in college about writing from one of her most influential teachers.
That emphasis on writing simply and about life’s minutiae explains why Cleary’s fictionalization of her normal if sometimes difficult life has been so embraced. “For years I avoided writing description, and children told me they liked my books, ‘because there isn’t any description in them,’” she said of her simple style, influenced (perhaps negatively in her mind, though not in anyone else’s) by a teacher who was overzealous with the red pen early on. Her characters are flawed but not overly dramatic: average, but interesting because of it, you might say (or in other words, realistic). Upon reading her memoirs, you can see the specific and broad bits of real life Cleary did use in her books—the “Smells to Heaven” casserole that her friend’s mother served that Jane won’t eat before a date in Fifteen for fear she’ll ruin her breath, or the comfortable home she didn’t have growing up run by Bernadette’s less-involved mother in Mitch and Amy. The new cover of A Girl From Yamhill might have Ramona on it, but it’s Beverly I think of, the one who had this exchange as she left her parents for college:
Mother said, “Be a good girl and don’t forget to write.”
“I won’t,” I promised. None of us noticed that Mother’s requests required two different answers, but of course I always had been, mostly, a good girl. A lovely girl, people said, pleasing Mother and annoying me, for I did not feel lovely, not one bit. I felt restless, angry, rebellious, disloyal, and guilty.
Despite her concerns, she was lovely, good, and never forgot to write, all at once.
Image via Beverly Cleary’s Private Collection, as seen on the original cover of A Girl From Yamhill at the age of 6, and William Morrow.