An appreciation of Beverly Cleary: both children’s author and memoirist

The Oregon author, beloved by generations of young readers, wrote two memoirs that are forgotten Northwest gems.

Beverly Cleary, age 6. She’s sitting on a table, legs crossed, hands at her sides. Her dress has puffy sleeves and her socks are pulled high and rolled at the top. Her haircut is a pageboy — what used to be called a Prince Valiant — with bangs straight across her forehead.

But look at that face. The chin is level, the eyes are bright as a pair of sparklers, the lips are pulled back in a half-smile that says I’m Watching You. It’s there in every picture of Cleary, from her first-grade photo in 1922 to the ones from last year, when she celebrated her 100th birthday.

Cleary was nobody’s little princess then and she’s nobody’s sweet old great-grandmother now, no surprise to anyone who’s read “Beezus and Ramona” or “The Mouse on the Motorcycle” or any of her 40 children’s books.

The photo of 6-year-old Cleary appears on the front cover of “A Girl From Yamhill,” her 1988 memoir about growing up in Oregon as the only child of a farmer and a housewife who moved to Portland and struggled through the Depression. A second memoir, “My Own Two Feet” (1995), has Cleary’s graduation photo from the University of California, Berkeley, on the cover. Sixteen year later, her expression is the same: knowing smile, eyes that see beneath the surface to what’s funny and sad and true.

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Cleary’s ability to write stories that kids love was recognized early and celebrated often in a 50-year career that started with “Henry Huggins” in 1950 ended with “Ramona’s World” in 1999. She won every award in the book and was named a Living Legend by the Library of Congress. The elementary school she attended in Portland is named after her, and so is the children’s library where she checked out books. There are statues of her characters — Ramona and Henry and his dog, Ribsy — in Grant Park, next to her old high school.

All the accolades and honorary degrees are nice and Cleary accepted them like the polite Oregonian she is, but those who put her on a pedestal are missing something. There’s a sharpness to her writing, an edge that comes from her understanding of human nature and her absolute refusal to pander or condescend to her young readers.

The feistiness makes her books funnier and is a big reason why she’s so popular…

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