“Romana and Beezus” Author, Beverly Cleary, Turns 103

It took The Oregonian a while to realize that children’s-book author Beverly Cleary was an Oregon treasure.

The newspaper’s first mention of Cleary’s work came in 1959, and it actually occurred in the California-based syndicated column Dear Abby.

“I wish you would go to your public library and get the book ‘The Luckiest Girl’ by Beverly Cleary,” the columnist wrote to advice-seeker “Hates Mother.” “It’s the story of a teen-aged girl who ‘couldn’t get along’ with her mother. I recommend this excellent book for all girls aged 12 and 13 whose mothers don’t ‘understand’ them.”

Cleary, who celebrates her 103rd birthday today, had published her first book, “Henry Huggins,” nine years earlier. Seven more efforts, including the classic “Beezus and Ramona,” followed before 1958’s “The Luckiest Girl.”

Maybe the dearth of local coverage at that time can be explained away by the fact that Cleary’s publisher, William Morrow & Co., identified her as a California author. Beverly Bunn (she married Clarence Cleary in 1940) had been raised in Portland, but she left in 1934 for the golden promise of the Golden State.

“Portland during the Depression was grim,” Cleary said years later about her decision to head south. “My father being out of work was just devastating. I well remember all these gaunt-looking men coming around to the house and my mother having nothing to give them.”

But that was then. More than 20 years after skipping town, Cleary still felt great affection for Portland, where her “Henry Huggins” and “Ramona Quimby” series were set. And so, two years after that Dear Abby mention, she decided to raise her Rose City profile on her own.

In 1961, she drove up to Portland from her home in Berkeley to give a handful of workshops, lectures and book-store talks. Multnomah County Library’s Marian Herr heralded Cleary’s “happy faculty for writing humorous stories about everyday boys and girls.”

By now, Oregon’s newspaper of record had joined the bandwagon. “Popular Fiction Figure Charms Young Readers,” The Oregonian headlined. The paper published a photo of Cleary presenting her latest book — “Emily’s Runaway Imagination” — to her mother, who still lived in Portland.

After that whirlwind Bridgetown trip, Beverly Cleary belatedly became a regular in The Oregonian, with frequent interviews and book reviews. Slowly but surely, she was turning into an Oregon literary icon. The Portland elementary school she attended is now named after her, and sculptures of her beloved characters Ramona, Henry and Henry’s dog Ribsy can be found in Grant Park.

In 1988 Cleary wrote a memoir, “A Girl From Yamhill,” about her youth in Yamhill and Portland. “I swear, I remember every blade of grass,” she said of her Oregon childhood. A few years later, in “My Own Two Feet,”she wrote about her early years on her own in California.

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SOURCE: The Oregonian, by Douglas Perry