Celebrating Beverly Cleary

Last week, Oregon native Beverly Cleary turned 95. The author of "Beezus and Ramona," "Henry Huggins," "The Mouse and the Motorcycle" and so many other wonderful children's books has been declared a living legend by the Library of Congress.

Next week, Cleary will receive the Robert Kirsch Award at the L.A. Times Book Prizes. She is also a Newbery Medal and Honor winner and a recipient of the National Medal of Arts. There are statues of her beloved characters Henry Huggins, Ribsy and Ramona in Portland's Grant Park, and a Portland elementary school was renamed Beverly Cleary School in 2008. Darn right, she's a living legend.

I'm hard-pressed to think of a child or adult who hasn't been charmed by at least one of her stories. I'm still charmed. My sons have read a number of her books, and their favorites so far have been "Ramona the Pest" and "Henry Huggins," Cleary's first book. It was written in 1950 and focuses on Henry, an earnest little animal lover and his neighborhood friends on Klickitat Street. In it, Ramona makes a brief appearance, with a sentence or two, but the story is mainly about Henry's adventures.

Cleary's birthday prompted me to finally read her two memoirs, which was a treat. The first, "A Girl From Yamhill," is a nice book for Cleary fans and easily enjoyable for teens as well. It covers her childhood on a farm in Yamhill and her youth in Portland.

In her easy prose and with some humor, Cleary describes a young life that later would help shape her as a writer and a parent. She talks of being in her elementary school's low-reading program and the struggles she had with an unsympathetic first-grade teacher. She also tells how she overcame her reading troubles and poor health with the support of her mother and a fierce passion for books.

I have to admit, I found myself searching for the drunken parents or a secret glue-sniffing addiction, but there's nothing truly shocking in the memoir. It's like a Beezus and Ramona story, or any wholesome tale where a smart, funny girl overcomes her challenges and discovers a great love for books. The fact that there wasn't anything racy made me admire her even more, see her even more as a regular person who truly understands children.

Cleary's second memoir, "My Own Two Feet," is a bit juicier, sort of. This sequel begins with Cleary leaving for college. She takes a bus from Oregon to live with relatives in California and attend school. Cleary recalls details such as the colorful passengers who board the bus, the changing landscape of California, her friends and romances. Again, it's not a spine-tingling read, but it is a vivid picture of life for a young woman in the 1930s.

It's in this book especially that we get glimpses of her in her most popular characters. Cleary is as studious and sweet as Beezus, attending classes at Berkeley, skipping (some) parties to study and staying true to her personal values. But she can also be contrary like Ramona. She defies her strict, Presbyterian parents by getting her own apartment and later shocks her family by eloping with a Roman Catholic. The book ends with the publication of "Henry Huggins."

At first I wished there was more to the memoir. I wanted to hear how things turned out with the new husband (the marriage lasted until his death in 2004) and I wanted to know if she ever suffered some sort of writer-angst or felt baffled by parenthood. But on reflection, I realized that Cleary's story continues through her characters.

"Henry Huggins" launched her career. For me, it is a perfect ending to her memoir, and for children around the world, it is a perfect beginning to a lifetime love of reading.

Angela Decker is a freelance writer in Ashland and can be reached at decker4@gmail.com.

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