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"Beverly Cleary's Childhood Memories Make Great Children's Stories"
By Barbara Smith


They have immortalized few fictional characters in bronze and few authors have been honored with their on sculpture garden. Yet, characters from Beverly Cleary's beloved series of children's books gleefully "romp" in Grant Park in Portland. "Ramona Quimby," the whimsical scamp joins "Henry Huggins" and his dog "Ribsy," other series' characters, in the new Beverly Cleary Sculpture Garden for Children, which opened in October 13, 1995. The sculptor, Lee Hunt also presented the Gresham Regional Library with two terra cotta busts of "Ramona": one smiling smugly, and one frowning angrily. At both occasions, Beverly Cleary greeted old and new fans.

For forty-five years Beverly Cleary has written winsome books for young readers; books well-received by both readers and critics. Her approach has been to been to write not what children ought to read about, but what they want to read about. As a reluctant reader herself, she has described a strategy to encourage young readers:

"Although children long for laughter, too often . . . adults feel the purpose of any book is to teach . . . Children would learn so much more if they were allowed to relax, enjoy a story, and discover what it is they want or need from books. They might even learn to enjoy reading, especially if they found in the early grades humorous books that make them laugh." (Children and Books, p.592)

Her stories address concerns that loom large to children. Her characters - humans and animals - seem very familiar and funny as they sometimes they confront serious issues. She created her characters from her imagination, but they were modeled after her childhood memories.

What were the roots of her memories? She has traced her life from a very young girl to a promising children's author in 1950 in two recent memoirs: A Girl from Yamhill, published in 1988, and My Own Two Feet, in 1995. She was born Beverly Atlee Bunn in 1916 at McMinnville, Oregon. An only child, she lived with her parents on a farm, close to her grandparents, in Yamhill, Oregon until financial troubles moved her family to Portland.

When times were tough, her family constantly exhorted her to remember her pioneer ancestors. Because no one took the time to explain that some of her ancestors were once children in the midst of grave trials, she grew to resent them. Still, the memories of early years on the farm clung to her mind like "burrs on her long cotton stockings," and the impressions filter through her stories. Beverly felt secure and loved, saying "Yamhill had taught me that the world was a safe and beautiful place, where they treated children with kindness, patience and tolerance."

Portland was a different experience. Financial woes complicated the transition, while her mother laid down endless rules for deportment, which strained their relationship over the years. In contrast, Beverly’s father was a quiet encourager, often stepping in to rescue her from maternal domination.

Still, she internalized many of her mother's guidelines, such as "Never be afraid." Beverly was not fainthearted! She took many risks as a young girl - she boldly approached a fitful cat, and later balanced herself on a narrow roof ledge high above the ground and swayed a Ferris wheel basket vigorously with her apprehensive mother.

Beverly wanted only to read the silent movie marquees, and resisted her mother's attempts to teach her to read; she wanted to be taught in a proper classroom. Nevertheless, when she got to the classroom her teachers squelched her desire to read. However, this aversion dissipated two years later. Intrigued by magazine ad pictures of the Campbell Soup twins she was drawn to Lucy Fitch Perkin's book, The Dutch Twins, to look at a picture and then began reading. Her appetite thus whetted, she continued to read. As she came to love both words and pictures, she decided, "Grown-ups were right after all. Reading was fun. In those years I wondered why there were not more funny stories about everyday children."(Children's Books and Their Creators, p.145)

In her memoirs, she candidly relates academic hurdles she faced, conflicts she had with her strong-minded mother, and strong friendships whose memories lasted more than sixty years. She describes the difficulty of living in the “great depression” and the value of college education to her writing career.

Beverly completed college and initially followed her mother's example, becoming a librarian. First she became a librarian for children. Later she served as librarian for a veteran’s hospital during World War Two.

Mrs. Cleary married in 1940. Her groom was Clarence Cleary, a young man she met in college at "Cal." Her description of the courtship and her family’s reaction, gives a glimpse into her religious experience that she does not discuss explicitly in her memoirs. She says her family stopped attending church during the depression because they lacked the money required for clothes and carfare to go to church. Still, in 1940 they adamantly opposed her marriage to a Roman Catholic on grounds that they were Protestants. So she eloped with Clarence over their objections. Sadly, reconciliation with her parents was a long, slow process.

After World War Two, Beverly and Clarence moved to Berkeley, California. When she found typewriter paper in their new home left in a closet by a former occupant, she took a pencil in hand. She plunged into writing her first book, publishing Henry Huggins, in 1950. She has continued writing, publishing more than thirty more books over the years.

Before reaching high school, she had decided to become a writer. Through the years Beverly kept a journal into which she poured her thoughts, dreams, and frustrations. A school librarian suggested she write books for children. Also, her mother confided to her daughter that she herself had always wanted to write, and she continually reminded her: "Make [your writing] funny. People always like to read something funny. Also, keep it simple. The best writing is simple writing."

One professor's description of successful literature had a permanent influence on her writing. Professor Benjamin Lehman (teaching "The Novel" at Cal) often repeated: "The proper subject of the novel is universal human experience." Beverly recalled these words often as she wrote. Also, she remembered Lehman’s stressing "the minutiae of life," those details that give reality to fiction. (My Own Two Feet, p.29)

Mrs. Cleary concluded her memoirs as of 1950, the year she published Henry Huggins. She wrote that she "was confident that a satisfying life of writing lay ahead, that ideas would continue to flow . . . I thought about all the bits of knowledge about children, reading, and writing that clung like burrs or dandelion fluff . . . As I mulled over my past, I made two resolutions: I would ignore all trends, and I would not let money influence any decisions I would make about my books." (My Own Two Feet, p.260)

The mother of now grown twins, Beverly summarized her life as one of good fortune. She said it "came . . . through friends, readers, awards, travel, children, and financial security." This secure life allowed her to return the generosity extended to her when times were hard. (My Own Two Feet p.261) A third volume of memoirs would be most interesting.

Beverly Cleary has received three awards recognizing her lasting and substantial contribution to children's literature: the Laura Ingalls Wilder Award in 1975 awarded by the American Library Association's Association for Library Service to Children; the Regina Medal from the Catholic Library Association in 1980, and the Silver Medallion from the University of Southern Mississippi in 1982. Ramona and Her Father and Ramona Quimby, Age 8 were selected as Newbery Honor Books, and Dear Mr. Henshaw won the Newbery Medal in 1984, awarded by the American Library Association's Association for Library Service to Children.

Using Mrs. Cleary's Books Can Kindle Readers and Teachers
How do parents know if their children understand what they read? Book reports and questions can be traditional but terminal tools to measure reading skills. Beverly Cleary's books offer a refreshing alternative. She tells simple funny stories that children enjoy and that parents enjoy reading aloud.

Many of her books, such as the Henry Huggins series have self-contained plots in each chapter. Moms can draw even hesitant readers into a discussion of character and plot. Snuggling and laughing together, parents can start a conversation by asking,

"Who is this story about?"
"How would you describe him/her?"
"Can you tell me what happens?"
"Why do you think such and such happens?"

The Ramona books are enjoyable to read aloud, because, while we laugh at her antics, we can sympathize with how she gets into predicaments like wearing her pajamas to school. Ask your children how some of Ramona's escapades are like ones they have experienced - or imagined.

Older students can explain why her characters get into scrapes, or describe the humor and surprise endings. Parents can help their students identify humor, or explain why the story's ending is unexpected. These discussions can give parents an understanding of a child's reading comprehension. Listen to see if a child can recall details or tell the main idea of the chapter; describe the characters, or re-tell the story. Consider asking open-ended questions like "why?" when children to respond to questions about characters, content, plot and theme. Be careful never to ask questions that they can answer with one word.

Tips to Stretch Writing Skills
Good writing depends upon plot, and character development and style. Beverly Cleary is a master for young readers, so use her stories to teach writing. Her characters encounter or create difficulties. The struggles she describes make her characters funny or believable. Help your writers to see how Mrs. Cleary develops a plot by describing a story problem and then solving it.

Parents can ask young writers to illustrate a situation about their family. Ask them to create a little imaginary animal like Ralph the Mouse or Socks and describe something that might make their younger brothers or sisters laugh.

Older students who have "graduated" from Mrs. Cleary's series' books may be interested in exploring Mrs. Cleary's life. Her formative years breathe life into the history of the Great Depression. Assign them a writing or public speaking assignment to describe what they learn about the Depression from her two memoirs. What do they learn about writers or the writing profession from Mrs. Cleary’s memoirs? Finally ask older readers to discuss what they learned about growing up in a home where the Lord does not appear to rule.

References

  • Children and Books, 8th ed., Zena Sutherland and May Hill Arbuthnot, Harper Collins, 1991.
  • Children's Books and Their Creators, Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston, New York, 1995.

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©Barbara W Smith




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