That encounter in the library set Mrs. Cleary, who died March 25 at 104, on her way to becoming one of the most beloved children’s authors of all time, a chronicler of childhood who found the whole of human experience within the ordinary high jinks of growing up.
She wrote more than 40 books, many about high-spirited youngsters such as the spunky Ramona Quimby and adventurous Henry Huggins, a third-grader with hair “like a scrubbing brush” and with a knack for getting into gentle scrapes with his mutt, Ribsy.
In her stories, quotidian tribulations — the challenges of managing an unwieldy paper route, dealing with a fractious sibling or coping with an absent parent — became tales of triumph.
The books sold more than 85 million copies and became, like the works of Maurice Sendak and Theodor “Dr. Seuss” Geisel, essential reading for generations of schoolchildren. They earned Mrs. Cleary some of the highest distinctions in her field, including the Newbery Medal and Newbery Honor, as well as the National Medal of Arts, bestowed by President George W. Bush in 2003.
She aimed her stories squarely at an elementary school audience and hoped that, by creating relatable characters, she would inspire in her young readers a lifelong love of books. Her writing was distinguished by what essayist Benjamin Schwarz of the Atlantic magazine once called her gift for “photographic and psychological exactitude.”
She pulled heavily from memories of what she once described as her “free and wild” youth in Oregon, first on a farm and then in Depression-era Portland, employing what she called “all the bits of knowledge about children, reading and writing that had clung to me like burrs or dandelion fluff.”
Mrs. Cleary frowned on the moralizing, didactic themes that dominated children’s literature in the first half of the 20th century. She set out not to impart wisdom but instead to portray children at play, and to capture their dialogue and the ways they sometimes venture into an adult world beyond their full comprehension.
Her stories paved the way for the more mature subject matter of later young-adult writers such as Judy Blume, who has credited Mrs. Cleary as a significant influence.
The setting of Mrs. Cleary’s first work, “Henry Huggins” (1950), was modeled on Hancock Street in Portland, where she lived as a child. In her book, she gave the street a more evocative name: Klickitat, after a nearby street in Portland whose name reminded Mrs. Cleary of the sound of knitting needles.
The boys she knew inspired the book’s title character, who hunts for night crawlers in the park and struggles with whether to spend his silver dollar, a gift from a grandparent, on a pair of guppies at the pet store. (“He didn’t see how his mother could object to two quiet little fish that didn’t bark or track in mud or anything,” Mrs. Cleary wrote.)
“Henry Huggins” spawned five sequels and a spinoff series featuring Mrs. Cleary’s most beloved character, Ramona Quimby. She was the little sister of Henry’s friend Beatrice “Beezus” Quimby and was “tossed in,” Mrs. Cleary said, to move the story along.
Feisty, redheaded Ramona first received top billing in 1955 with the publication of “Beezus and Ramona.” Seven sequels followed, including “Ramona the Pest,” her 1968 classic about adjusting to kindergarten, and “Ramona and Her Mother” (1979), which earned a National Book Award in 1981 for children’s paperback fiction.
The “Ramona” books, the last of which appeared in 1999, gained a following that even Mrs. Cleary never expected.
“Little did I dream, to use a trite expression from books of my childhood, that she would take over books of her own, that she would grow and become a well-known and loved character,” she wrote in the second volume of her memoirs, “My Own Two Feet” (1995).
A film adaptation of the first “Ramona” book, with the reversed title “Ramona and Beezus,” starred Joey King as Ramona and Selena Gomez as her older sister and was released in 2010 to mixed reviews. It was one of the few spinoffs tolerated by the author, who generally loathed the merchandising of her work.
Mrs. Cleary occasionally strayed from the realistic children’s fiction that was her hallmark, writing several young-adult novels about thwarted romances and first loves. She also wrote three children’s books about the adventurous rodent Ralph S. Mouse, beginning with “The Mouse and the Motorcycle” (1965).
She once told the Los Angeles Times that the “Ralph” novels emerged from a family trip to Britain, where she bought her son “some little cars and a little motorcycle” to play with after he became ill. When the family came home, she said, “a neighbor called me over to see a mouse that had fallen in a bucket in her garden. And the thought crossed my mind that that mouse was just the right size to ride that little motorcycle.”
A whiskered star was born.
Her work took a darker tone in later years, as even idyllic Klickitat Street, where kids were allowed to play and walk to school without parental supervision, became the scene of anxiety, loneliness and a feeling of helplessness. By “Ramona Forever” (1984), the title character’s troubles shifted from kindergarten messes to worries about a new baby in the family, the death of a cat, her father’s unemployment and the departure of a beloved aunt.
Another poignant work, “Dear Mr. Henshaw” (1983), earned Mrs. Cleary the top honor in children’s literature, the Newbery Medal. The novel consists of letters between Leigh Botts, a schoolboy whose lunch is always getting stolen, and Boyd Henshaw, an author with whom Leigh began corresponding for a class assignment.
In a review for the New York Times, children’s writer Natalie Babbitt praised “Dear Mr. Henshaw” as Mrs. Cleary’s finest book. “Dialogue has always been one of the strongest parts of her work,” she wrote. “And here, where all is dialogue, that strength can shine alone and be double impressive.”
The book differed from her other works, Mrs. Cleary once observed, because it did not arise from a joke or funny idea. Leigh’s often-absent father is a truck driver, and his parents eventually divorce. There is no tidy ending.
“At first I was surprised because it wasn’t funny like your other books,” Leigh writes in one revealing letter to Henshaw, explaining that he had just finished the fictional author’s new work. He continued, “but then I got to thinking (you said authors should think) and decided a book doesn’t have to be funny to be good, although it often helps. This book did not need to be funny.”
‘A Girl From Yamhill’
Beverly Atlee Bunn was born April 12, 1916, in McMinnville, Ore., the nearest town with a hospital to the family farm in Yamhill. Her father, Lloyd, was the son of a farmer whose ancestors had arrived in Oregon by covered wagon in the mid-1800s.
Her mother, the former Mable Atlee, was an aspiring writer who headed west from Michigan in the early 1900s to teach. She founded a library in Yamhill, but the family relocated to Portland after losing the farm in an economic downturn.
There, her father worked as a bank security guard but was laid off during the Depression, a traumatic experience for the young Mrs. Cleary that inspired a similar episode in “Ramona and Her Father” (1977).
“I sat filled with anguish, unable to read, unable to do anything,” she wrote in her first memoir, “A Girl From Yamhill” (1988), recounting the moment when she learned her father had been fired. “How could anyone do such a thing to my father, who was so good, kind, reliable, and honest?”
Chickenpox and then smallpox kept Mrs. Cleary out of first grade for a time, and when she returned, she was placed with the least-proficient group of readers. She was in third grade when she finally started to grasp the fundamentals of reading. She recalled the moment it all came together: the rainy afternoon at home when she stumbled across Lucy Fitch Perkins’s children’s novel “The Dutch Twins.”
“I picked up a book,” she told the Philadelphia Inquirer. “My mother always kept them around, with high hopes. I looked at the pictures, and then the words, and discovered I was reading.”
In recent years, Mrs. Cleary’s birthday became a reading holiday of sorts, with libraries and schools across the country celebrating it as Drop Everything and Read Day.
She graduated with a bachelor’s degree in English in 1938 from the University of California at Berkeley. After receiving a second bachelor’s degree, in library science, from the University of Washington in 1939, she became a children’s librarian in Yakima. She later settled in California’s Berkeley Hills, where she devoted herself to writing full time with the encouragement of her husband, Clarence Cleary, an accountant she married in 1940.
He died in 2004. Survivors include their two children, Malcolm and Marianne; three grandchildren; and a great-grandchild.
In “My Own Two Feet,” Mrs. Cleary recalled a brief feeling of anxiety while working on her first book.
“It occurred to me that even though I was uncertain about writing, I knew how to tell a story,” she wrote, remembering her years as a librarian in Yakima. “What was writing for children but written storytelling? So in my imagination I stood once more before Yakima’s story-hour crowd as I typed the first sentence: ‘Henry Huggins was in the third grade.’ ”