Beloved author Beverly Cleary has died at 104. For more than half a century, her writing was many a child’s introduction to the world of literature.
But a lesser known fact is that her literary career was spurred on by time she spent as a children’s librarian at what is now Yakima Valley Libraries.
“Listening to Yakima’s children tell me about the books they read gave me valuable insights into children and their reading,” Cleary wrote in her 1995 memoir, “My Own Two Feet.”
Henry Huggins, Ribsy the skinny dog, Beezus, Ramona and the other denizens of Klickitat Street, as well as a motorcycle-riding mouse named Ralph, have entertained countless children, and cemented Cleary’s reputation as one of the greatest children’s authors.
Beverly Bunn was born April 12, 1916, in McMinnville, Ore., to Chester and Mable Bunn and spent her early childhood in Yamhill, a town that did not have a library.
But Bunn’s mother arranged to have books sent over from the Oregon State Library, and she served as Yamhill’s librarian and made it a point to introduce books to her daughter.
Beverly Bunn didn’t take to reading right away. When the family moved to Portland, Bunn entered first grade and struggled with reading so much that she was the only girl assigned to the “blackbird” group for poor readers in the class.
By third grade, she finally had become an avid reader, after being introduced to the book “The Dutch Twins” by Lucy Fitch Perkins.
Many times you’ll find that someone who loves to read also develops skill as a writer. And Bunn was no exception, with a school librarian suggesting she become a children’s writer after reading one of her essays.
Bunn went to college at the University of California at Berkeley, where she graduated with a bachelor’s degree in English and also met Clarence Cleary, who would become the love of her life.
After graduating from Berkeley, Cleary went through the librarian program at the University of Washington and was hired in September 1939 as a children’s librarian at the Yakima library, which stood where the present library now stands on North Third Street.
“In a one-library town, the children’s librarian meets all sorts of children: bright, healthy children of doctors and lawyers, children of unemployed millworkers, sad waifs whose poverty-stricken parents were past caring, garden-variety middle-class children such as those I had grown up with,” she wrote in her memoir.
But it was a group of boys from St. Joseph’s School that would stick in her mind and set her on her career path.
“Their teacher, (Sister) Bernard Jean, said their textbooks did not interest them and perhaps library books would tempt them to read,” Cleary said.
But the children’s section of the library, built with a grant from Andrew Carnegie in 1907, did little to entice them, the young librarian discovered. At the time, children’s books were either about animals or they were simplistic stories about ideal children — Dick and Jane, for example — who would end up being well-behaved if they weren’t at the beginning of the story.
“‘Where are the books about kids like us?’ they wanted to know,” Cleary said. “Where indeed.”
Cleary left Yakima at the end of 1940, moving back to California to elope with Clarence after her Presbyterian parents did not approve of her marrying a Catholic. They were together until Clarence’s death in 2004.
She set out to answer those Yakima parochial schoolboys’ question. Drawing on the children she met in Yakima, as well as those she grew up with in Portland, Cleary wrote her first book, “Henry Huggins,” in 1950. In the book, Henry adopts a skinny, stray dog he names Ribsy, and they proceed to have a series of adventures — and a few misadventures.
She followed that book with “Henry and Beezus” in 1955, the same year Cleary gave birth to twins. That novel introduced the world to Beatrice “Beezus” Quimby, one of Henry’s friends on Portland’s Klickitat Street, and her pesky little sister, Ramona.
Ramona would earn her own stardom in Cleary’s books “Ramona the Pest”, “Ramona and Her Father” and “Ramona’s World,” when Ramona finds herself in the role of big sister.
Cleary would also write a series about Ralph S. Mouse, starting with “The Mouse and the Motorcycle” in 1965, followed by “Runaway Ralph” in 1970 and “Ralph S. Mouse” in 1982.
In the 1960s, Cleary also wrote three books adapted from the TV series “Leave it to Beaver,” which fans said were better than the television version. Cleary’s secret? She cut out Ward Cleaver’s “philosophizing.”
She also turned her literary skills on herself with two memoirs, “A Girl from Yamhill” and “My Own Two Feet” in 1995.
Her awards include the Laura Ingalls Wilder Award from the American Library Association and the 2003 National Medal of Art, and the designation as a “Living Legend” by the Library of Congress. Portland’s Grant Park — which was a setting for many of the scenes in her Klickitat Street books — is also the home of the Beverly Cleary Sculpture Garden for Children, with statues of Ramona, Henry and Ribsy.
“The children of Yakima, I shall never forget them,” Cleary wrote in her 1995 memoir.
It Happened Here is a weekly history column by Yakima Herald-Republic reporter Donald W. Meyers.