100 things you might not know about Beverly Cleary

The beloved American children's author turned 102 on April 12, 2018.
Beverly Cleary celebrated her 102nd birthday on April 12, 2018. (Christina Koci Herbabdez)

Beloved American author Beverly Cleary turned 102 on April 12, 2018. To celebrate, we collected these 100 amazing facts you might not know about the creator of Ramona Quimby, Henry Huggins and Ralph S. Mouse. 

1. She was born Beverly Atlee Bunn in McMinnville, Oregon, on April 12, 1916.

2. She never went to kindergarten.

3. In her writing, she never forgot the advice her mother gave her: "Keep it funny. People always like to read something funny."²

4. As a young girl, she lived on a farm in a small town called Yamhill, which didn't have a library until her mother set one up.

(Fact: beverlycleary.com)

6. She is an only child.¹

7. In high school, Cleary and a friend once discussed how long they wanted to live. They agreed that 80 would be a good cutoff date.

8. She didn't learn to read until the second grade and was put in her school's "low reading circle."

9. She did not take to reading right away. She says many of the books she read were published in England in the 1920s and the children had nannies and pony carts: "They seemed like a bunch of sissies to me."

(Image: Yesterday's Classics. Fact: opb.org)

11. The manuscript for her first book, Henry Huggins, was purchased for $500 in 1949. The publisher, William Morrow, wrote to her that "We all think this is going to be one of the exciting publications of the fall."

12. She graduated with a bachelor's degree in English from the University of California at Berkeley and later studied librarianship at the University of Washington in Seattle.

13. Before becoming an author, she was a children's librarian.

14. Cleary's boss at her first library job, Miss Remsberg, would use the word "fetish" when reprimanding her: "I don't want to make a fetish of printing, but you must improve yours on registration cards."²

(Image: courtesy of Beverly Cleary. Fact: beverlycleary.com)

16. Her first piece of fiction, written as a seventh-grade assignment, was a letter written in George Washington's time, describing how she sacrificed her pet chicken to feed Washington's troops at Valley Forge.¹

17. Cleary stuck her finger in an electrical socket out of curiosity as a girl, getting a pretty powerful shock.¹

18. When she was working as a children's librarian, a student angrily asked her, "Where are the books about kids like us?" That inspired Cleary to create characters like Henry Huggins and Ramona Quimby.

19. Judy Blume, fellow children's literature icon, is a huge fan: "Beverly, you were my inspiration when I started to write all those years ago. You remain my inspiration today."

(Image: courtesy of HarperCollins)

21. When Cleary applied to college, she didn't expect to be accepted, and she didn't know how she'd be able to afford tuition if she was. When she got in, she pledged "by hook or by crook" to attend school.

22. She met her husband, Clarence Cleary, at college.

23. Beverly and Clarence eloped in 1940. Her Protestant parents did not approve of the match, as Clarence was Catholic.

24. The Clearys raised two children, twins born in 1955.

25. In the second grade, Cleary fell in love with a boy named Johnny, and would chase him around the class during lunch period.¹

26. Her former elementary school in Portland was renamed for her in 2008. A district representative said that when she agreed to the honour, she asked "if the school still smelled like a sawdust floor."

27. In her memoir A Girl from Yamhill, she writes proudly that her childhood home had the second bathtub in Yamhill County.

28. For her first book, Henry Huggins, Cleary coordinated her writing day with the baking of bread — stretching her legs when the dough needed to be punched down, again when it needed to be put into the oven, and then finishing for the day when it was ready to eat.²

29. New editions of Henry Huggins, The Mouse and the Motorcycle and Ramona Quimby, Age 8 were released in January 2016 for Cleary's 100th birthday, with forewords by Amy Poehler, Kate DiCamillo and Judy Blume.

(Fact: The Atlantic )

31. She now lives in northern California.

32. She has received thousands of letters from children talking about their problems and she responds to many of them. She remembers one boy who said that the only adults who paid attention to him were Cleary and his social worker.

33. When she was growing up, telephones were for adults. To get in touch with her friends as a kid, she would just stand in front of their houses and yell their names.

34. As a newlywed, she worked in a bookstore in San Francisco. On her first day, she was flummoxed when asked to "count the little brown things," not realizing her colleague meant their inventory from the publisher Little, Brown.²

(Image: Kathy Willens/Canadian Press. Fact: The New York Times)

36. Cleary was horrified to learn that Blume's fans requested pieces of her garbage, and wrote to her, "This is ridiculous. You must be firm with them and not do these things."

37. Blume, a huge fan of Cleary, said the mix-up was "exciting" and her fan mail was "charming and adorable."

38. One of Cleary's librarian jobs was on an army base in Oakland, California.²

39. The army insisted that the books be dust-free, though Cleary argued that dust on the army base was inevitable. She ended up spending hours restocking books that cleaning staff had dusted off and stuffed back at random.

(Image: courtesy of Beverly Cleary. Fact: opb.org)

41. A boy once laughed so hard at her reading of Horton Hatches the Egg that he fell out of his seat.²

42. When illustrator Tracy Dockray signed on to do art for The Mouse and the Motorcycle, she received a card from Cleary that said her mouse ears were too big and she needed a "mouse model." Dockray ended up adopting a baby mouse from outside, which lived in her studio for the rest of its life.

43. In an interview about turning 100, Cleary remarked that she "didn't do it on purpose."

44. Cleary's grandmother taught her to sew when she was five years old. In college, Cleary earned much-needed extra money by knitting and sewing, shortening friends' skirts and knitting lace yolks (she was paid 75 cents an ounce for the latter task).²

(Image: courtesy of Portland Parks & Recreation. Fact: portlandoregon.gov/parks)

46. She published over 40 books before retiring in 2000. All of them are still in print.

47. As a child, Cleary — who grew up on a farm — named her doll after a nearby town and a tractor: "Fordson-Lafayette." Her character Ramona Quimby names her doll "Chevrolet."

48. She never used outlines to write.

49. She says that a line from a college English professor has guided much of her writing: "The proper subject of the novel is universal human experience."

50. Beverly Cleary has appeared twice on CBC. In 1968 she discussed writing for children with Vancouver Weekend News, and in 1980 she appeared on Ideas to talk about her teen novel, Fifteen.

51. When asked which of her characters she'd most like to have dinner with, she said, "I'd really like to have dinner with all of them, if they chewed with their mouths shut, sat up straight and minded their manners."

52. She's a big supporter of the D.E.A.R. (Drop Everything And Read) program in elementary schools. One of her characters, Ramona Quimby, participates in D.E.A.R. time in her books.

53. She struggled through typing class in high school and considers it the hardest part of writing.¹

54. When she was a girl, a local woman staged "Tom Thumb" weddings for parents, bringing child-sized wedding clothes and holding fake child weddings for fun photo ops. Cleary was "married" to her cousin Winston in one of these ceremonies.¹

(Image: courtesy of Cleary Family Archive. Fact: opb.org)

56. As a girl, she won a contest for writing the best essay about an animal. Upon collecting her $2 prize money, she was told no one else had entered. "This incident was one of the most valuable lessons in writing I ever learned. Try!"¹

57. At the start of the Great Depression, when food became very scarce, Cleary's mother had to use up what was already in the pantry, including a large bottle of almond flavouring. To this day, Cleary hates almond-flavoured desserts.¹

58. After reading aloud an essay Cleary had written, her seventh-grade teacher told the class, "When Beverly grows up, she should write children's books."¹

59. Her graduating class at library school was told not to accept any position that paid less than $100 a month — except in the case of the Canadian students, who could not possibly expect to earn that much.²

(Image: courtesy of Cleary Family Archive. Fact: today.com)

61. She does not own a computer.

62. Her first memory is of hearing the church bells of her hometown, Yamhill, ringing all together to celebrate the end of the First World War.

63. The night of her college graduation, Cleary's future husband Clarence showed up to take her out on the town in a tuxedo... with his bow tie untied because he didn't know how to tie it. When they stopped for gas, the gas station attendant tied it for him.²

64. Her first published story, "The Green Christmas," was published with someone else's name on it by accident.¹ Many years later, Cleary would rewrite this story as part of her first book, Henry Huggins.
(Image: courtesy of Beverly Cleary)

66. Her cat would sometimes sit on her typewriter keys while she was trying to write.

67. Just as Ramona Quimby's family struggled financially in the books, Cleary's parents suffered through financial hardships. Her father had to sell his farm in the early 1920s, relocating his family to Portland where he would later lose his job during the Great Depression.

68. As a teen, she overheard her mother saying to her father, "If she has it in her to go ahead and be somebody, we should back her up."¹

69. While waiting for a response to her manuscript for her first book, Henry Huggins, Cleary confided to her mailman that she was hoping for a large white envelope with a publishing contract. So he started watching too. One day, he came running up to the front door with the envelope and excitedly watched her open it.

(Image and fact: HarperCollins)

71. The title characters of the book Mitch and Amy are the only characters inspired by Cleary's twins, because she found it hard to write while "the characters were running around the house."

72. In her first year at the University of California, Cleary stayed with relatives who had an avocado tree in their yard. Always thin, Cleary ate an avocado every day after school and gained a noticeable amount of weight for the first time in her life.²

73. She tap-danced in college and hated it.²

74. When asked where Ramona would be when she grew up, Cleary said she didn't know, but that "she might go backpacking around Europe."

75. Cleary showed the very first draft of what would become her first book, Henry Huggins, to a friend before submitting it to a publisher — the friend said only, "They'll be glad to get it." After that, she only ever showed her manuscripts to her husband Clarence before submitting them.²

76. In high school journalism class, she published a story on the "comparative chest expansions of the football team."¹

77. She once fended off an unwanted advance by quoting The Rime of the Ancient Mariner: "Unhand me, greybeard loon!"¹

78. Cleary enjoys seeing theatrical adaptations of her work — but only when children play the children's roles. She does not like it when adults play children's roles.

79. Oregon Public Broadcasting produced a documentary about Cleary for her 100th birthday. You can watch it here.

80. The Ramona series became a 10-episode television show in 1988, starring Sarah Polley. It was filmed in Canada and aired on PBS.

81. In P.E. class, Cleary was required to pick up marbles with her toes in an effort to correct her faulty arches.²

82. Cleary's maiden name is Bunn. Boys used to tease her by singing "Hot Cross Buns." She hated it.

83. Cleary wanted the 2010 movie Ramona and Beezus to be as timeless as the books, so she insisted on getting rid of anything that might date it — like technology, slang or clothing trends.

84. In the first draft of Henry Huggins, Ribsy the dog was originally named Spareribs, after the dinner Cleary had waiting for her in the refrigerator while she was writing it. The editor suggested a more child-friendly name.

(Image: Silent Spring courtesy of The Hagströmer Medico-Historical Library. Fact: The Atlantic)

86. Cleary had poor eyesight and struggled through school for years without glasses because her mother feared they would ruin her appearance.

87. Cleary's future husband, Clarence, slipped a cigar band on her finger as a placeholder until he could afford an engagement ring. She eventually got a ring, but she kept the cigar band anyway.²

88. As a library student, she travelled in a bookmobile run by the Portland Library Association to bring books to rural families. She's been an avid bookmobile supporter and proponent ever since.²

89. She had severe stage fright before her first storytime reading as a librarian.²

From left: Cleary received the National Medal of Arts in 2003, the Newbery Medal in 1984 for Dear Mr. Henshaw, the National Book Award for Ramona and Her Mother and the Catholic Library Association's Regina Medal Award in 1980 for her contribution to children's literature. She's also received the University of Southern Mississippi 1982 Silver Medallion, the 1985 Everychild Award and the 1975 Laura Ingalls Wilder Award. (Image: Tim Sloan/Getty Images)

91. Cleary's hobbies are travel and needlework.

92. She's a fan of the celebrated American humorist James Thurber.²

93. In 1937, while she was at the University of California, a group of Commonwealth Fellows proudly showed Cleary a small atom-crushing cyclotron in a shack on campus. She would remember this with horror when the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima.²

94. Cleary's son Malcolm says the only difference between his childhood and those of his friends was that his family had a bigger mailbox to accommodate all of his mother's fan mail.

(Image: Louis Darling/HarperCollins. Fact: HarperCollins)

96. Before her writing career started, Cleary suffered from writer's block and flippantly told her husband Clarence that she wasn't writing because she didn't have any sharp pencils. The next day he brought home a pencil sharpener.²

97. Cleary once asked Elizabeth Allen, the director of the 2010 Ramona and Beezus feature film, what the themes in the story were. Allen said, "It's about this iconoclast who's learning how to navigate in society." Cleary replied, "No. It's about growing up."

98. Upon telling a neighbour that she was to be a published author after Henry Huggins was accepted, the neighbour said, "I think it's just great that you sat quietly at home and cracked that New York crowd. Now you can be eccentric."²

99. Cleary says her writing was guided by two principles: to ignore all trends, and not to let money influence any decisions she made about her books.²

¹From Cleary's first memoir, Girl From Yamhill.

²From Cleary's second memoir, My Own Two Feet.

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