Beverly Cleary is about as quintessentially an American children's author as one can get. Daughter of a long line of pioneers she was born in McMinnville, Oregon on April 12, 1916. McMinnville was the nearest town to the family farm in Yamhill and it was upon the farm that she spent her formative years. An only child, she had the freedom to roam the farm and the attention of her parents to ensure that she stayed safe.
Moving to Portland when she was six years old, she then grew up in one of the those all-American streets near the edge of town where kids play together, roam about, play in the neighborhood lot, get into mischief and sort things out.
Cleary's mother was a reader and read and told stories to her daughter all the time. Needing some reinforcements, she started a library in Yamhill by using a room above the bank and ordering books from the State Library for the people of Yamhill to be able to check out and read.
When they moved to Portland, the horizons of books and reading both opened up for Cleary but also temporarily closed down. Her story is a reassuring one for all anxious parents. From her autobiographical entry in The Eighth Book of Junior Authors and Illustrators:
I looked forward to starting school, but unfortunately the transition from a carefree life on a farm to a city classroom of forty children (yes, really!) was too much. The teacher was harsh, I had had little contact with other children, and I was ill much of that dreadful year. I begged to stay home from school and wept when my anxious mother tried to help me with reading. Fortunately a beautiful, kind second-grade teacher soothed my fears and taught me to read, but by then I was disillusioned. I no longer wanted to read, and no one could make me. So there!
Mother, horrified at the thought of an illiterate daughter, continued to read aloud. I recall enjoying The Blue Bird by Maurice Materlinck and The Princess and the Goblin by George MacDonald. She also supplied easy books, which I sulkily ignored until one rainy Sunday afternoon when I was so bored I looked at the pictures in The Dutch Twins by Lucy Fitch Perkins and discovered that in spite of myself I was actually reading and enjoying what I read. That moment changed my life.
In a separate essay noted in Anita Silvey's Children's Books and Their Creators, Cleary elaborated on this experience. It is worth quoting at length because it shows just how many extraneous influences affect when and whether a child learns to love reading and why the door is always open: it is never too late.
My first grade was sorted into three reading groups - Bluebirds, Redbirds, and Blackbirds. I was a Blackbird, the only girl Blackbird among the boy Blackbirds, who had to sit in the row by the blackboard. Perhaps this was the beginning of my sympathy for the problems of boys. How I envied the bright, self-confident Bluebirds, most of them girls, who got to sit by the windows and who, unlike myself, pleased the teacher by remembering to write with their right hands - a ridiculous thing to do in my six-year-old opinion. Anyone could see that both hands were alike. One should simply use the hand nearer the task.
To be a Blackbird was to be disgraced. I wanted to read, but somehow I could not. I wept at home while my puzzled mother tried to drill me on the dreaded word charts. “But reading is fun,” insisted my mother. I stomped my feet and threw the book on the floor. Reading was not fun.
By second grade I was able to plod through my reader a step or two ahead of disgrace. Although I could read if I wanted to, I no longer wanted to. Reading was not fun. It was boring. Most of the stories were simplified versions of folktales that had been read to me many times. There were no surprises left.
Then, in third grade, the miracle happened. It was a dull rainy Portland Sunday afternoon when there was nothing to do but thumb through two books from the Sunday school library. After looking at the pictures, I began out of boredom to read The Dutch Twins by Lucy Fitch Perkins. Twins had always fascinated me. As a small child, I had searched through magazines - my only picture books - for pictures of the Campbell Soup twins. To me, a solitary child, the idea of twins was fascinating. A twin would never be lonely. Here was a whole book about twins, a boy and girl who lived in Holland but who had experiences a girl in Portland, Oregon, could share. I could laugh when the boy fell into the Zuyder Zee because I had once fallen into the Yamhill River. In this story, something happened. With rising elation, I read on. I read all afternoon and evening, and by bedtime I had read not only The Dutch Twins but The Swiss Twins as well. It was one of the most exciting days of my life. Shame and guilt dropped away from the ex-Blackbird, who had at last taken wing. I could read and read with pleasure! Grown-ups were right after all. Reading was fun.
What unpredictable barriers to reading - a fight over left-handedness; being ostracized as a Blackbird; loss of favor; a martinet teacher, boredom with the material; stubbornness; and imposed shame and guilt. And who could have guessed the antidote - books at hand just when she was bored with everything else; a fascination with the topic (twins); a kind teacher; a personal connection with the story (falling in the river). How serendipitous and seemingly unforeseeable is the path to literacy and the habit of reading.
She was on her way. From that point on, the only issue that Cleary had with reading was a disappointment that there were not more stories about ordinary children like herself.
Through the rest of school, Cleary enjoyed reading and developed a fondness of and knack for writing as well. Through a cousin of her mother's, Cleary had the opportunity to attend Chaffey Junior College in Ontario, California and then took her BA at the University of California, Berkeley. It was at Berkeley that she met her future husband, Clarence Cleary. With BA in hand, Beverly Cleary decided on a career as a librarian and with the longer term plan of writing children's books that would fill the gap she had felt as a young reader: stories about ordinary American children. She took a second BA from the University of Washington in Seattle in librarianship in 1939. In 1940, Beverly and Clarence Cleary married. Ironically, given her seminal reading experience, she later had twins, a boy and a girl.
Cleary's early career was entirely bookish. She worked as a librarian, as a bookseller, travelled to schools as a storyteller, did a stint on her library's radio program, all the time gaining insight about what children wanted to see in their children's books and stockpiling experiences.
In 1948, Cleary began to write her first book, the one she had always looked for but could never find, the one about ordinary American children experiencing an ordinary life and celebrating every minute of it. Henry Huggins, the unlikely patriarchal founder of a whole series of books, was published in 1950.
Henry Huggins is just an ordinary American boy experiencing the normal challenges of growing up. For example, finding a stray dog (Ribsy) and figuring out how to get him home when the bus rules clearly state that dogs must be in a box (Henry's chaotic solution is to try and carry him in a bag.) This first book has all the hallmarks of Cleary's later work. Simple text, easily engaged with by a relatively new reader. Material heavily mined from her own childhood experiences. Direct and straight-forward writing. The one exception is that the very first book is a little episodic. Basically every chapter is a stand-alone story. This is not a bad thing but in later books, Cleary made much more of an effort to link each chapter in some way to the next.
Cleary was well launched with Henry Huggins. She wrote a new book virtually every year from 1950 through the mid 1990s. She very soon developed a pattern of generating new series of books. Of the forty-five books she has written, twenty-five of them are from one of four series. There were eventually six Henry Huggins stories from 1950 to 1964. In the first Henry Huggins stories, one of Henry's buddies is Beezus, a girl his own age but with a younger sister Ramona. In 1955, Cleary wrote a book about the two sisters, Beezus and Ramona. Eventually there were to be twelve Ramona books between 1955 and 1999. The Henry Huggins books tended to primarily focus on the adventures of childhood, particularly boyhood, a sort of Tom Sawyer for first readers.
The Ramona stories are similarly chaotic, humorous and entertaining but there is an interjection of reality that often shows up as either victimhood rants or over-analysis in the hands of other authors. With Cleary, these are incidental to the humor and the entertainment but they are a part of a child's everyday life and they are therefore in her books. At one point Ramona's father loses his job, another time she decides she hates her sister. Overhearing their parents arguing, Ramona and Beezus become worried that they will divorce. Cleary acknowledges children's fears, weaves them into her stories, but then addresses them and puts them to the side while the torrent of childhood good ideas gone wrong (cleaning the cat by vacuuming it) flows on.
As with so many of the great children's authors, not only does Cleary remember the mindset of a child but she writes with a very specific audience or a very specific child in mind. Ralph the Mouse made his appearance in the first of a series of three books (The Mouse and the Motorcycle, Runaway Ralph, and Ralph the Mouse) in 1965 when Cleary's fourth grade son, who was evincing all his mother's earlier disinclination to read, fell ill while on a visit to Britain. After a particularly trying night of fevers she bought him some miniature cars and a motorcycle with which he happily played through his recuperation. Seeing him inspired Cleary to write The Mouse and the Motorcycle which he declared to be a good book.
Cleary wrote across the spectrum of children's books, from a couple of picture books to mostly independent readers to a handful of young adult books (Fifteen, The Luckiest Girl, Jean and Johnny, and Sister of the Bride). These four books are not quite romances per se but they do chart the journey from young girl to young woman with an interest in young men. They are written from the perspective of fifteen to seventeen year old young women. Against today's avalanche of books tackling similar journeys, where there seems to be a perennial contest among authors to be more relevant and to overload with more and more trauma and dysfunction, Cleary's books seem to be almost hopelessly idyllic and dove soapish. Indeed, in some ways there is a temptation to put them into the hands of middle schoolers and classify them as independent readers. And yet they are really about becoming an adult. I am not convinced that every child has to see this as a journey through the lenses of alcoholism, drug abuse, eating disorders, family dysfunction and hook-up culture as seems to be the inclination of many of today's authors. Perhaps a bit dated, these books do deal with a perennial topic and in a far healthier fashion than much of what is currently available.
In 1983, Cleary wrote what is her most well-acknowledged book in terms of awards (winning the Newberry Medal) and critical acclaim, Dear Mr. Henshaw, a tale of a young boy and his correspondence with a favorite author. Leigh Botts is in sixth grade, lives with his hard working mother and is forced to address the fact that his father has left them. Cleary brings remarkable skill to this delicate issue and delivers a poignant and moving story without being defeatist, unrealistic or maudlin.
Over her career, Beverly Cleary has written forty-five children's books. Nearly 80% of them remain in print. She has written award winning novels such as Dear Mr. Henshaw as well as perennially favorite series such as Henry Huggins, Ramona, and Ralph the Mouse.
In addition to her children's books, she has also written a couple of autobiographies The Girl from Yamhill and My Own Two Feet both of which are well worth a read as microcosms of Americana and of life at a certain time and place when Americans really began to move from the land to the cities.
In the TTMD list of most popular children's books (20,000 books based on awards won, library recommendations, academic citations and popular lists), Cleary stands as a key contributor to our rich children's literature heritage. Two of her books are in the top 100 favorites (Dear Mr. Henshaw at 35 and Ramona Quimby, Age 8 at position 85.) Another ten (Ramona and her Father, Ramona the Pest, The Mouse and the Motorcycle, Beezus and Ramona, Henry Huggins, Ralph S. Mouse, Henry and Beezus, Ramona the Brave, Runaway Ralph, and A Girl from Yamhill) are in the top 500. All but seven of her forty-five books are mentioned at least once. Really, a most remarkable performance.
Try some of the Henry Higgins or Ramona books with your developing reader and see if they don't enjoy them. Most likely you will both get a laugh and with any luck, they will want to read more and there is nothing like a good series to start one down the trail of habitual reading.
Let us know your favorites from this wonderful writer.
This book list is divided into three sections:
(1) Picture Books
(2) Books for Independent Readers
(3) Books for Young Adults
(4) Beverly Cleary Bibliography
The list begins below with Picture Books, but you can use the following link to skip directly to the Independent Readers or the Young Adults sections.
Go to books for Independent Readers
Go to books for Young Adults
Go to Beverly Cleary Bibliography
The Hullabaloo ABC by Beverly Cleary and illustrated by Ted Rand Suggested
Ramona Quimby, Age 8 by Beverly Cleary Highly Recommended
Dear Mr. Henshaw by Beverly Cleary Highly Recommended
Henry Huggins by Beverly Cleary and illustrated by Louis Darling Recommended
Henry and Beezus by Beverly Cleary Recommended
Henry and Ribsy by Beverly Cleary Recommended
Beezus and Ramona by Beverly Cleary and illustrated by Tracy Dockray Recommended
The Mouse and the Motorcycle by Beverly Cleary and illustrated by Louis Darling Recommended
Ramona the Pest by Beverly Cleary Recommended
Runaway Ralph by Beverly Cleary and illustrated by Louis Darling Recommended
Ramona and Her Father by Beverly Cleary Recommended
Ralph S. Mouse by Beverly Cleary Recommended
Ellen Tebbits by Beverly Cleary Suggested
Otis Spofford by Beverly Cleary and illustrated by Louis Darling Suggested
Henry and the Paper Route by Beverly Cleary Suggested
Emilys Runaway Imagination by Beverly Cleary Suggested
Henry and the Clubhouse by Beverly Cleary and illustrated by Louis Darling Suggested
Ribsy by Beverly Cleary Suggested
Mitch and Amy by Beverly Cleary Suggested
Socks by Beverly Cleary and illustrated by Beatrice Darwin Suggested
Ramona the Brave by Beverly Cleary Suggested
Ramona and Her Mother by Beverly Cleary Suggested
Ramona Forever by Beverly Cleary Suggested
Janet's Thingamajigs by Beverly Cleary Suggested
Muggie Maggie by Beverly Cleary Suggested
Strider by Beverly Cleary Suggested
Ramona's World by Beverly Cleary and illustrated by Alan Tiegreen Suggested
A Girl from Yamhill by Beverly Cleary Recommended
My Own Two Feet by Beverly Cleary Recommended
Fifteen by Beverly Cleary Suggested
The Luckiest Girl by Beverly Cleary Suggested
Jean and Johnny by Beverly Cleary Suggested
Sister of the Bride by Beverly Cleary Suggested
Beverly Cleary Bibliography
Henry Huggins by Beverly Cleary and illustrated by Louis Darling 1950
Ellen Tebbits by Beverly Cleary and illustrated by Louis Darling 1951
Henry and Beezus by Beverly Cleary and illustrated by Louis Darling 1952
Otis Spofford by Beverly Cleary and illustrated by Louis Darling 1953
Henry and Ribsy by Beverly Cleary and illustrated by Louis Darling 1954
Beezus and Ramona by Beverly Cleary and illustrated by Louis Darling 1955
Fifteen by Beverly Cleary and illustrated by Beth and Joe Krush 1956
Henry and the Paper Route by Beverly Cleary and illustrated by Louis Darling 1957
The Luckiest Girl by Beverly Cleary 1958
Jean and Johnny by Beverly Cleary and illustrated by Beth and Joe Krush 1959
The Real Hole by Beverly Cleary and illustrated by Mary Stevens 1960
Leave It to Beaver by Beverly Cleary 1960
The Hullabaloo ABC by Beverly Cleary and illustrated by Earl Hollander 1960
Two Dog Biscuits by Beverly Cleary and illustrated by Mary Stevens 1961
Beaver and Wally by Beverly Cleary 1961
Emily's Runaway Imagination by Beverly Cleary and illustrated by Beth and Joe Krush 1961
Henry and the Clubhouse by Beverly Cleary and illustrated by Louis Darling 1962
Sister of the Bride by Beverly Cleary and illustrated by Beth and Joe Krush 1963
Ribsy by Beverly Cleary and illustrated by Louis Darling 1964
The Mouse and the Motorcycle by Beverly Cleary and illustrated by Louis Darling 1965
Mitch and Amy by Beverly Cleary and illustrated by George Porter 1967
Ramona the Pest by Beverly Cleary and illustrated by Louis Darling 1968
Runaway Ralph by Beverly Cleary and illustrated by Louis Darling 1970
Socks by Beverly Cleary and illustrated by Beatrice Darwin 1973
The Sausage at the End of the Nose by Beverly Cleary 1974
Ramona the Brave by Beverly Cleary and illustrated by Alan Tiegreen 1975
Ramona and Her Father by Beverly Cleary and illustrated by Alan Tiegreen 1977
Ramona and Her Mother by Beverly Cleary and illustrated by Alan Tiegreen 1979
Ramona Quimby, Age Eight by Beverly Cleary and illustrated by Alan Tiegreen 1981
Ralph S. Mouse by Beverly Cleary and illustrated by Paul O. Zelinsky 1982
Cutting up with Ramona! Paper Cutout Fun for Boys and Girls by Beverly Cleary and illustrated by JoAn L. Scribner 1983
Dear Mr. Henshaw by Beverly Cleary and illustrated by Paul O. Zelinsky 1983
Ramona Forever by Beverly Cleary and illustrated by Alan Tiegreen 1984
The Ramona Quimby Diary by Beverly Cleary and illustrated by Alan Tiegreen 1984
Lucky Chuck by Beverly Cleary and illustrated by J. Winslow Higginbottom 1984
The Beezus and Ramona Diary by Beverly Cleary and illustrated by Alan Tiegreen 1986
The Growing-up Feet by Beverly Cleary and illustrated by DyAnne DiSalvo-Ryan 1987
Janet's Thingamajigs by Beverly Cleary and illustrated by DyAnne DiSalvo-Ryan 1987
A Girl from Yamhill: A Memoir by Beverly Cleary 1988
Meet Ramona Quimby by Beverly Cleary 1989
Muggie Maggie by Beverly Cleary and illustrated by Kay Life 1990
Strider by Beverly Cleary and illustrated by Paul O. Zelinsky 1991
Petey's Bedtime Story by Beverly Cleary and illustrated by David Small 1993
My Own Two Feet: A Memoir by Beverly Cleary 1995
Ramona's World by Beverly Cleary and illustrated by Alan Tiegreen 1999