A biography about Beverly Cleary I wrote for the Literary Ladies Guide.
Beverly Cleary (1916 – 2021)
How does a person go from living on a humble little farm in an obscure town in the Pacific Northwest to someone who is undeniably the leader in creating and perfecting books children love to read? By deciding to, some might say.
Beverly Atlee Bunn was born on April 12th 1916 in McMinnville Oregon and until she was six years old lived on the family’s farm in Yamhill just a few miles from her birthplace. Although an only child, Beverly loved roaming freely about on the farm, tripping up chickens with a pole (something she did when her mother wasn’t looking, as she told Beverly it was mean. Beverly thought tripping the chickens was not mean compared to when her father took an ax to their neck), eating apples in the shade of the apple tree, juice streaming down her chin, watching her father milk the cow and the farmhands thresh the wheat, helping her mother bring in the cow, and gathering wildflowers, some which smelled so strong they stayed out on the porch!
When Yamhill lacked a much needed library, Mrs. Bunn solicited funds, acquired some borrowed space in a building downtown, organized fund raisers, and procured children’s books from the state library in Salem in order to build Yamhill’s first library. Beverly loved the books being read to her, the pictures in the stories, listening to the tales. There were so many children’s books available at the Yamhill library now, Mrs. Bunn begged Beverly to let her teach her to read, but Beverly wanted to wait and learn to read in school with the other children, not in her mother’s kitchen.
By the time Beverly was six years old, the family farm grew more and more in debt. The Bunns moved to Portland where Beverly’s father got a job at a federal reserve bank as a night guard. First grade was going along well for Beverly until she contracted chicken pox and missed at least a week of school. Upon her return, not only did she fail to receive any more of the gold stars she was used to getting for her schoolwork, she began to fail miserably at reading and her teacher was becoming mean enough to make her afraid to go to school. Beverly caught smallpox from a neighbor, missed even more school, and grew terribly hopeless at reading. Her mother continued to read aloud to her and encouraged Beverly to choose which stories she’d like to hear.
Beverly disliked reading and it wasn’t until the third grade when she “picked up The Dutch Twins by Lucy Fitch Perkins planning to look at the pictures and I discovered that I was reading and enjoying what I read! It was a miracle. I was happy in a way I had not been happy since starting school. I read all afternoon until I had finished the book. Then I read The Swiss Twins. For once mother postponed bed time, until I finished the book.”¹
From that point on, Beverly Bunn read countless books for pleasure, to combat boredom, for escape, to kill time while waiting for the rain to cease, and to learn about all manner of things from animals to people and everything in between. Over the next decade or so, some of her favorite stories would be, Les’ Miserables as it was told to her 7th grade healthy living class by a teacher apparently bored with the standard curriculum, Peter Pan, Tom Sawyer, and Jane Eyre.
Also in seventh grade, Beverly had a reading teacher who would inspire her to become a librarian and a writer². Miss Smith was the first teacher to allow the students to read for enjoyment (without answering questions about the books, etc.) and a kind librarian who let Beverly into the library first on the daysSt. Nicholas Magazine³was delivered.
When the great depression hit upon the Bunn family of Portland, Oregon, adjustments and sacrifices were made by all, much like most families all over the world. Beverly’s father lost his job, her mother picked up work cold calling from their living room, they had to sell their car, the tension was thick and laughter was a memory⁴, yet they muddled through.
When Beverly was 18 in 1934, she moved to California to live with her mother’s cousin and attend Chaffey Junior College, a free community college where she earned her associates of arts degree before going on to complete her masters degree in Berkeley. She studied, worked her way through college, and began to date the man who would become her husband, Clarence Cleary. Although it was a tradition for women to attend college in order to catch a man, it was not Beverly’s motivation for getting an education. She wanted to be able to stand on her own two feet. She wanted to accomplish her dual goals; earning a librarianship degree and writing books. Catching a man was left to nature, as it were. Her plan was to work for a year after college before getting married.
After obtaining her Bachelor’s degree, Beverly attended the school of librarianship at the University of Washington in Seattle and upon graduation took a job as a children’s librarian in Yakima. She soon discovered the local boys were not interested in reading the books available to them, as they often asked her where to find the books about kids like us, something she made as a sort of personal quest. She spent hours memorizing stories from books for a lively retelling during story hour in the library and, during the summer, in the park. All told, Beverly memorized a total of sixty-two stories during her time in Yakima. The Five Chinese Brothers by Claire Huchet Bishop was the most popular of these stories.
Finally having an income, Beverly bought a portable typewriter, but she had no time to write.
On October sixth 1940, almost one year to the day after beginning her job in Yakima, Beverly Bunn headed to California to marry Clarence Cleary. When she left Yakima, the head librarian commented that she didn’t understand why the children liked her so much: she treated them just like she treated the adults.
Beverly Cleary embraced her role as a housewife, and spent the holiday season working at a bookstore. With the murmur of war on everyone’s lips, the Cleary’s decided against starting a family, as Clarence could be drafted despite his high draft notice number. Beverly began a library position for the Army, which she held until the end of the war.
After the war, the Cleary’s moved to Berkeley and Beverly found herself staring at her typewriter with nothing to say. She’d always known she wanted to be a writer. She’d always known that someday she’d have all of life’s necessities taken care of and this opportunity to write would finally present itself. The problem was, she didn’t know what to write.
Thank goodness Beverly Cleary had a great imagination! After waiting and planning for the time to write for nearly 20 years, without ever having written a word of fiction, at the age of 33, she began to imagine the children in the Yakima library who wanted to read stories about kids like us, and she thought about the kids on her street in Portland riding skates and playing along Klickitat Street. Thank goodness that though Beverly Cleary was not sure how to begin writing, she knew exactly how to tell an interesting story. The world of Henry Huggins was born! Thanks to her imagination, her dreams, her goals, when it came time to write, the stories and new characters such as Ramona, Beezus and more, poured from her creativity with such perfection she never received a single rejection letter!
For more than three generations, Beverly Cleary’s books have been enjoyed by countless children. She wrote books children wanted to read, which is precisely the point of writing them she would likely quip if she were here. She passed away in March of 2021 at the age of 104. Beverly Cleary’s books have been translated into twenty-nine languages, sold over 91 million copies and received a long list of awards including the prestigious John Newberry Award in 1984 for her book, Dear Mr. Henshaw.
¹ Cleary, B. (2016). In A girl from Yamhill (p118). essay, HarperCollins Children’s Books.
² ibid (pp. 174–178)
³ St. Nicholas Magazine was published in the late 18th and early 19th century. It was full of stories, illustrations, and information of interest to children of all ages. To get an idea of what inspired Beverly Bunn, open the link below, click on the thumbnail, select “images” above Material Information, browse through page numbers.
⁴ Cleary, B. (1999). In My own two feet: A memoir (p.51). essay, Avon Books.
“It’s wonderful books that inspire children to be readers.”