CHILDREN’S AUTHOR LIVING A SWEET LIFE
At nearly 100 years old, Cleary is still as feisty and direct as ever
Beverly Cleary doesn’t really want to talk about turning 100.
“Go ahead and fuss,” she says of the big day, April 12. “Everyone else is.”
People are delving into Cleary nostalgia, with celebrations and new editions of her books featuring introductions by the likes of Amy Poehler and Judy Blume. Kids and adults are being asked to “Drop Everything and Read” to commemorate Cleary’s contribution to children’s literature.
But the beloved children’s author has something far more low-key in mind: a celebratory slice of carrot cake, she says, “because I like it.”
Cleary is as feisty and direct as her famously spirited character Ramona Quimby — an observation she hears often and doesn’t care for.
“I thought like Ramona,” she says, “but I was a very well-behaved little girl.”
Today, Cleary lives a quiet, wellbehaved life in a retirement home in Northern California. She gets up at 7:30 a.m. and spends the day reading the newspaper and books and doing crossword puzzles. She watches some TV and enjoys visits with her family. She doesn’t have a computer, and though she enjoys writing letters, she notes dryly that “when you get to be 99, there aren’t many people to write letters to.”
Cleary is both set in her ways — “I don’t think I joined this century” — and keenly aware of how times have changed.
“I think children today have a tough time, because they don’t have the freedom to run around as I did — and they have so many scheduled activities.”
In her youth, “mothers did not work outside the home; they worked on the inside. And because all the mothers were home — 99 per cent of them, anyway — all mothers kept their eyes on all the children.” This is part of the reason the children in her books were so often out tromping through the neighbourhood without adult chaperones.
Cleary’s last book was Ramona’s World, published in 1999. Her plucky heroine remains frozen at age 9. Her sister, Beezus, is 14 and just entering high school. Who knows what Ramona might have been like when she hit puberty. Cleary, for one, is happy to leave her before that nightmare.
“I think writers need to know when to retire,” she says.
Cleary’s books live on. In January, HarperCollins published new editions of three of her most popular works: Henry Huggins, Ramona Quimby, Age 8 and The Mouse and the Motorcycle, with introductions by Blume, Poehler and Kate DiCamillo, respectively. There are more than 40 Cleary titles in print. Selena Gomez and Joey King play her two most famous characters in the 2010 movie Ramona and Beezus.
Cleary has won a National Book Award, a Newbery Medal and a National Medal of Art from the U.S. National Endowment of the Arts, among other accolades. In 2000, the U.S. Library of Congress gave her a Living Legend Award.
Yet she wears her literary stardom lightly. “I’m just lucky,” she says. Born Beverly Bunn in rural Oregon, Cleary yearned to be a writer. But she met resistance from her mother, who told her she must have some other way to earn a living.
“So I became a children’s librarian — the next best thing.”
During the Depression, Cleary attended a junior college and later the University of California at Berkeley and the University of Washington.
She struggled through her classes with poor eyesight: Her mother denied her money for glasses because she feared it would spoil her daughter’s appearance. In 1940, she eloped, marrying her longtime sweetheart Clarence Cleary, who died in 2004.
Cleary’s first book, Henry Huggins, was published in 1950. Based loosely on a story she overheard while working at a military hospital library, the book (originally titled Spareribs and Henry) came slowly. And it was, at first, rejected by her publisher. As Cleary reworked it, she added Beezus and Ramona — the latter a name she heard called out by a neighbour — to the mix.
As she approaches 100, Cleary still talks about her characters as if they are friends. She confesses the spitfire Ramona is her favourite. The charming and better-behaved Ellen Tebbits is a close second. She would have both over to dinner, she says, “but not at the same time.”
Ramona, she says, has to some degree been misunderstood. It’s not that she’s naughty, Cleary says, it’s that “things just didn’t work out the way she thought they should.”
For her creator, things pretty much have.
“I live in a very pleasant place with a very nice room that looks out on trees and rabbits and birds,” she says.
She has her books, her newspaper, her family and her memories. Bring on the carrot cake.