When she was twelve Beverly Cleary knew exactly what she wanted to be when she grew up.
‘Reading meant so much to me I wanted to be a librarian and a writer.’ In the nineteen thirties she qualified as a children’s librarian and got her first job in Yakima, a small town in Washington state (one of those which last year got covered in volcanic ash from the St Helen’s eruption). She stayed there only a year and four months. ‘But those were amongst the most important months of my life.’ Once a week a group of small boys from a nearby school came to visit the library. ‘Their teacher felt that they weren’t enthusiastic about reading because of their school books. She wanted me to help them find books they would enjoy. There was really very little in the library that those boys wanted to read. They wanted funny stories and stories about the sort of children they were. The library had nothing about children like them – lively, mischievous but not malicious, liking to play baseball.’
Years later, after the second world war, she finally got round to finding out if she was a writer. ‘I had always thought that when I began to write I would write the usual novel about the maturing of a sensitive female who wanted to write. But when I started I thought of those little boys and they prevented me from writing that book.’
What she did write was a story about an eight-year-old boy’s efforts to bring home a stray dog on the bus. ‘Dogs are not allowed on buses unless they are in a box, so he gets a carton from a store and puts the dog in. It’s raining and while he’s waiting for the bus the cardboard collapses. Then he shifts the dog into a shopping bag with something on top. But on the bus the dog gets out and causes havoc.’
That was the first chapter of Henry Huggins, and the book quickly found a publisher. The time in Yakima played a part in that first book in another way. As a fledgling librarian Beverly Cleary had to build up a repertoire of stories for telling. In sixteen months she learned sixty stories – mostly folk and fairy tales. ‘I think that’s how I learned to write. When I started Henry Huggins I didn’t know how to write but I knew how to tell stories. So I thought out each chapter and mentally told it to my old story-hour audience. I don’t work that way any more but that’s what got me started.’ It probably also explains why all her stories read aloud so naturally.
In Henry Huggins as well as Henry (‘he’s always trying to do the right thing, but trouble just comes along’) there is Ribsy, his dog, Beatrice Quimby (Beezus for short) and her little sister Ramona. Ramona, in fact, has one line – she’s there simply to explain Beezus’ unusual nickname – but in later Henry Huggins books she became increasingly prominent until she had such a hold on the author’s imagination that she had to have a book to herself. There are now five books about Ramona and the Quimby family and she has grown from kindergarten to second grade (7½).
Beverly Cleary’s books are very funny and the humour arises from a warm and precise observation of how people, especially children, behave. Like many other features of her writing she traces this back to her own childhood. ‘For the first six years of my life I was brought up in the American counterpart of an English village, where I felt wild and free and loved by everyone. Then we moved to the city. I came off the farm and was plunged into a class of forty children. I was an only child. I didn’t know how to play with children or how to get along. The teacher would tell us to form a line – I didn’t know what that meant. I’d never formed a line on the farm. So I became a very quiet child – and I think observant because I didn’t want to do anything wrong in school.’
But it’s more than observation. Beverly Cleary seems to have a direct line to what it feels like to be a child – the uncertainty, the fears, the intensity and immensity of things which to adults seem trivial and irrational. She has vivid recall of her own childhood. Her family moved to the city, Portland, Oregon, to find greater prosperity. But the Depression was coming. Her mother could find little work. When she was twelve her father lost his job.
‘I remember one period in particular. My mother had got some work soliciting magazine subscriptions over the phone at home. Listening to her tired voice, knowing how discouraged she was, I was very troubled. I wanted to hear her say she loved me.’
Ramona’s need to be reassured that she is loved by a worried, preoccupied, working mum lies beneath the surface fun of Ramona and her Mother. It’s a need shared by children who write to Beverly Cleary: ‘I think everybody feels like Ramona. When my mother tells me she loves me, I always feel sort of relieved.’
But Beverly Cleary is not writing books for therapy. ‘l am not a person who tries to write about social problems. Children need to be free to discover what helps them. During that time I found great comfort in the story of Persephone. And I’m sure no one would ever put that on a list of books that would ‘help’ children. It seemed to me that the long, wet cold Oregon winter that I was living through would end and everything would be beautiful and that my mother was really looking for me. It’s very presumptuous of adults to try to decide what’s going to help children.’
Beverly Cleary now lives in California but all her stories are set in Portland, Oregon. ‘It’s a city, about three or four hundred thousand people. The families in my stories are lower middle class. They live in a stable neighbourhood; it’s changed very little since I grew up there. The houses have a front lawn, and a back lawn; there’s a place to play. The only changes I see when I go back are the number of television aerials and the number of cars. Oregon, unlike Washington and California, is slow to change its ways. Portland is still not a violent place. It’s peaceful. The houses are well-built. I think that makes a difference.’ Stability and security: two gifts you feel Beverly Cleary would give all children if she could. ‘A lot of children are going through it today. Life is growing very tense. The world was not so dangerous when I was growing up.’
She writes about families, and ‘families are very important to children. I was encouraged to write Ramona and her Father because so many letters from children express a terrible longing for fathers.’ One boy who had read The Mouse and the Motorcycle (about a mouse called Ralph) wrote, ‘I had a father named Ralph once, but my mother divorced him and now we live in Texas.’ Another wrote, ‘My father ran away and now it’s just my mother, my brother and me.’ For Beverly Cleary, ‘That’s one of the saddest sentences I have ever read.’
Beverly Cleary had written five books before she had children. ‘I was a housewife, and for the first time I had peace, quiet, a place to work – and time.’ Then the twins were born. Twins to order, she claims, having left it so late she was determined to be efficient and have two at once! She went on writing. Facets of the children’s childhood became entwined with Ramona’s, and a new character was born.
One of the twins, Malcolm, had difficulties with reading. ‘By the time he was eight he was disgusted with books. He could read but he hadn’t learned to enjoy it and he began to say he was stupid, which he wasn’t.’ His mother could sympathise. ‘My first teacher was a woman who should not have been a teacher at all, much less of small children. I had a really dreadful time learning to read. Fortunately the next year I had a kind, gentle teacher and by the third grade (8) I had discovered, with my mother’s help, that reading was fun. From then on I was the library’s best customer. If children don’t discover that reading is pleasure by the time they are ten, they may well be lost to reading and become television watchers instead. I think these are the most important years for childhood reading.’ Malcolm clearly had to be convinced that reading was fun.
‘That summer the family was on holiday in England. August Bank Holiday found them in a hotel in Exeter that was being re-modelled. ‘There was no carpet, the corridors echoed, doors slammed. There were hardly any guests.’ That night Malcolm had a frighteningly high fever. The doctor wouldn’t come and there was no aspirin. After an anxious night, aspirin was found and all was well. That experience and the sight of a convalescent child lost in the fantasy of playing with his toy motorcycle and ambulance on the stripes of the bedspread was the genesis for The Mouse and the Motorcycle. It was an immediate success, with Malcolm and children generally, as was the sequel, Runaway Ralph. ‘Every post brings letters from small boys asking for another book about Ralph. I have one in mind; but I haven’t felt like writing it. For one thing Ralph doesn’t have the nuances of character that appeal to me in Ramona. But they were lots of fun to write.’
Not all of Beverly Cleary’s books are published in this country. Of her four books about older children Fifteen, written in the fifties, is available and popular. ‘I don’t really know why I wrote it. I just felt like it and I enjoyed the change of pace. Jane, the central character, is really one of my college friends. We were at the University of California at Berkeley. She lived two ferry boat rides across the bay in Marim County. I used to go there for weekends. The book is my guess of what she would have been like at fifteen.’ Does she think the book has dated? ‘It was dated when I wrote it. It was a period piece set in the thirties. I think that at some stage every girl wants a steady boyfriend. That’s when they read it. I get letters about Fifteen from girls from eight to eighteen. I haven’t had a problem with the women’s movement about it.’
But she has no patience with editors, using extracts from her books, who insist that Ramona is not allowed to call her teacher ‘pretty’ (that’s sexist) and that Mrs Huggins shouldn’t wipe her hands on her apron (that’s stereotyping). Her observers eye and heart reject that kind of superficial tinkering. Like so many humourists, she’s thoughtful and caring, critical of much of what she sees that disturbs her. But it’s the positive values and the glint of laughter, never far from her eyes, which come through in the books.
She is modest, even self-effacing and, when it comes to telling how she came to write her first book, almost ashamedly apologetic. ‘I’ve told this story so many times… After world war two we bought a house. The back bedroom had no furniture, just a kitchen table. And the former owner had left a pile of typing paper in the linen closet. I said, “I guess if I’m ever going to write a book I’d better do it. Either do it or put it out of my mind forever.” My husband said, “Why don’t you?” I said, “Well we never have any sharp pencils.” So he went straight out and bought a pencil sharpener.’
Lucky he did. Or Beverly Cleary would never have been able to disprove what she was taught at library school – that children don’t like reading about children younger than themselves, and that boys will not read about girls. And we would have been deprived of a set of books that really get children interested in reading.
Beverly Cleary – The books
Ramona the Pest, Hamish Hamilton, 0 241 02412 9, £3.95, Puffin, 0 14 03.0774 5, 75p
Ramona the Brave, Hamish Hamilton, 0 241 89257 0, £3.95, Puffin, 0 14 03.1059 2, 95p
Ramona and her Father, HH, 0 241 89752 1, £3.95, Puffin, 0 1 4 03.1303 6, Autumn 1981
Ramona and her Mother, HH, 0 241 10280 4, £3.95
Beezus and Ramona, HH, 0 241 10014 3, £3.95, Puffin, 0 14 03.1249 8, 85p
Henry and Beezus, HH, 0 241 10431 9, £4.25, Fontana, 0 00 641 875 2, Autumn 1981
Henry and Ribsy, HH, 0 241 10020 8, £3.95, Fontana, 0 00 671 726 8, 85p
Henry and the Clubhouse, HH, 0 241 10618 4, £4.95
Runaway Ralph, HH, 0 241 89112 4, £3.25, Puffin, 0 14 03.1020 7, 90p (April 1981)
The Mouse and the Motorcycle, Puffin, 0 14 03.0970 5, 70p
Fifteen, Puffin, 0 14 03.0948 9, 85p