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Beverly Cleary's 'exceptionally happy career'

The children's author, creator of Ramona Quimby and Henry Huggins, will receive a lifetime achievement award at the Los Angeles Times Book Prizes.

April 17, 2011|By David L. Ulin | Los Angeles Times Book Critic
  • Ramona Quimby's groundbreaking "mom"
Ramona Quimby's groundbreaking "mom" (HarperCollins )

Reporting from Carmel Valley, Calif. — — Ramona Quimby is everywhere. She's outside the front door of Beverly Cleary's retirement community apartment, on a poster that proclaims: "Libraries are forever!" She's on a sideboard in the living room, in the form of a life-size bust, hair wild and face cut into the shape of a grin.

Most important, she's on the bookshelf in Cleary's neat, spare bedroom, along with the author's other books, 40 or so of them, the work of half a century. Asked which is her favorite character, the 95-year-old doesn't hesitate. "Well, it must be Ramona," she says in a low, matter-of-fact voice. "She was just a little brat in 'Henry Huggins.' She was sort of an accident because it occurred to me that all the children appeared to be only children. So I tossed in this little sister, and at that moment, a neighbor called out to another neighbor who happened to be named Ramona. So I just named this little girl Ramona. And she kept growing in the Henry books. And my editor said she would like a whole book about Ramona, and I was thinking about it myself."

There's a sense of both serendipity and tenacity to such an anecdote, two qualities that define Cleary as well. For many years, she has been an icon — not just of children's literature but also of American literature, the writer who changed everything with the publication of "Henry Huggins," her first novel for middle readers, in 1950. In the decades since, she has been a Newbery Medal and Honor winner; she's a recipient of the National Medal of Arts and has been declared a living legend by the Library of Congress. Ramona has become the mascot for Drop Everything and Read Day, which takes place in libraries and schools each year on Cleary's birthday, April 12. Later this month, she will receive the Robert Kirsch Award, presented each year to a writer in the American West for lifetime achievement, at the Los Angeles Times Book Prizes.

Yet talking with Cleary, it's impossible not to connect the writer with the child she once was. Sitting in a comfortable corner chair in her living room, wearing blue pants and a blue sweater, eyes wide behind big glasses, she exudes an air of, if not innocence exactly, then wonder, a delight with the world. "If I don't enjoy what I'm writing," she says simply, "I put it in the wastebasket. Because if I don't enjoy writing it, why would anybody enjoy reading it?" A little later in the conversation, she elaborates: "I've had an exceptionally happy career."

That exceptionally happy career has its roots in Cleary's early life. Born in 1916 in rural Oregon, she was labeled a problem reader in first grade after her family moved to Portland, the result, she insists, of her first grade Reader, an "incredibly stupid" book. By the time she reached sixth grade, however, she was already thinking she might want to be a writer. "We were assigned to write an essay about a favorite book character," Cleary recalls, "and I wrote an essay that included a number of favorite characters, and the teacher said that when I grew up I should write children's books. So I put that in the back of my mind." Later, as a children's librarian in Yakima, Wash., in 1939 and 1940, she had another a-ha moment, when "a little boy faced me rather ferociously across the circulation desk and said: 'Where are the books about kids like us?'"

All these years later, Cleary laughs, remembering this as a flash point in her life. "He had me there," she goes on, "because there weren't any. The only one I could find was called 'Honk the Moose' by Phil Stong, but it was about farm boys. It wasn't about town kids. And so I put that in the back of my mind as well."

What this suggests is a certain single-mindedness, a strength of purpose. But even more essential is Cleary's identification with younger readers, who she felt were not being served. "Cleary's unerring sense of the inner lives of children, not to mention animals, continues to speak to kids today," Susan Patron, former youth services librarian at the Los Angeles Public Library and the author of the Newbery-Medal-winning middle-grade novel "The Higher Power of Lucky," says in an email. "She showed me that the inner life of any child, the dynamics of family and pets, can be captured as rich, comic, fascinating, poignant, and meaningful."

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