Beverly Cleary is a well-known, prolific author of books for children. Her career spanned more than 50 years and her books have been loved by generations upon generations of kids. But have you ever wondered what Beverly Cleary’s own childhood was like? Thankfully Beverly penned two memoirs about her life prior to her publishing success and I found them both quite fascinating for a variety of reasons.
Before we dig into Beverly Cleary’s early life, let’s talk genre…
What genre of books do you like to read? For me, it’s usually historical fiction, mysteries, young adult, children, and realistic fiction.
(It pains me to call it realistic fiction. My kids (and probably English teachers everywhere!) swear that this is a real genre but to me what is known as realistic fiction is just called fiction. But here you go kids… proof that I have admitted to using the term realistic fiction!)
I also enjoy a personal sub-genre of fiction. It’s essentially a combination of historical fiction and realistic fiction and I have dubbed this new genre of mine “behind the times fiction.”
Historical fiction is about true events that actually happened and how people of the time may have experienced these events. Realistic fiction is about real life – it’s believable and you can imagine yourself as a character in the story because the setting feels real.
“Behind the times” fiction is realistic fiction that was written for a previous generation. For example, as a teenager, I read the teen romance books that had belonged to my mom. Even though these books were not written about specific events in history, they feel a bit like history because they are reflecting how life might look to someone who lived twenty or thirty years before me.
You heard it here first, folks – the next genre to break out will be “behind the times fiction”!
So what about memoirs and biographies? I don’t usually list these genres when someone asks what types of books I like to read but I really should. I’ve mentioned before how interesting I think it is to see how daily life looks for other people. A biography or memoir is basically that – a glimpse into someone else’s life. A little history and a little real life. Perhaps it is because I prefer the story and emotion aspect of fiction (which can be lacking in a drier non-fiction work) that I don’t think to read more biographies. It would seem that I’ve been missing out.
Recently I read two memoirs written by Beverly Cleary – A Girl from Yamhill (1988) and My Own Two Feet (1995) as well as a children’s picture book biography by Vicki Conrad, Just Like Beverly (2019). Reading about her life experiences felt a little like reading those old books of my mom’s. It was believable, relatable, but also historical. At the time of this writing, Beverly Cleary is over 100 years old. That definitely qualifies as historical in my book! It would seem that these books hit every single one of my preferred genres in some way.
Genre confusion aside, I really enjoyed these two memoirs.
Beverly Cleary – Just the Facts!
- Born Beverly Atlee Bunn on April 12, 1916 in McMinnville, Oregon
- Lived on a farm in Yamhill until age 6 then moved to Portland
- Attended college at Chaffee College, UC Berkeley, and University of Washington Library School
- Worked as a children’s librarian in Yakima, Washington after college
- Married Clarence Cleary in 1940
- Worked as post librarian at US Army Hospital in Oakland, CA
- First book, Henry Huggins, published in 1950
- Gave birth to twins, Malcolm and Marianne, in 1955
- Wrote 41 books. Her latest book was published in 1999.
Beverly Cleary – Let’s Get Personal!
As I said, the memoir brings more emotions into the story. The facts above are interesting but they don’t really tell the whole story about who Beverly Cleary is and how her life plays into her writing. Reading her memoirs, I felt like her life probably mirrored the lives of my own recent ancestors in a lot of ways.
Beverly was an only child and spent her first six years enjoying the complete freedom of living on a farm, exploring at will the world around her. The entire farm was her playground, a source of interest and delight. Life on the farm taught her that “the world was a safe and beautiful place, where children were treated with kindness, patience, and tolerance. Everyone loved little girls. [She] was sure of that.” Even though adults might have problems, Beverly was secure.
The move to the city required a lot of adjustments. Her mom who had never enjoyed life on the farm was happy to be living in town. Her father who loved life on the farm felt worn down by city life and having to work odd hours as a bank security officer.
Beverly initially loved all the time spent with the neighborhood children but encountered unexpected difficulties when school started. Reading was initially a struggle for her but by third grade she caught up and began to love reading. By sixth grade she frequently sought solace and quiet in the town library. (I, too, loved the library as a child and will probably love it forever!)
The Depression hit the Bunn home in 1930, the summer before Beverly started high school. Life had never been easy but now things got even tougher. In addition, the relationship between Beverly and her mother, which had always been strained, grew worse as Beverly began to push back and attempt to assert herself more in a bid for independence.
Times have changed
One of the things that struck me repeatedly throughout both books was how much parenting philosophy has changed in the past 100 years. Beverly grew up in the time of “seen, not heard”, “respect your elders”, and “parents are always right”. The authoritative Victorian parenting style was definitely still in effect then and contrasts greatly with the more permissive, nurturing modern parenting style that I know.
Beverly’s relationship with her mother was difficult. They disagreed about most things. Mrs. Bunn was very controlling of Beverly and her social life. So not only was Beverly growing up in a strict, authoritarian environment, but she also had a very overbearing mother. Beverly often felt that her mother was forcing her own dreams and disappointments onto her.
Another part of the story that felt disturbing to me was the relationship between Beverly, her mother, and a boyfriend. Beverly did not enjoy the company of the young man but wasn’t allowed by her mother to sever ties. Her mother had decided that he was right for her and Beverly’s attempts to sever ties with him were repeatedly thwarted.
This situation is the opposite of what seems typical for today – young people today are more likely to date someone despite the disapproval of their parents rather than be forced to date someone they don’t care for.
“An only daughter of a possessive mother develops a kind of selfishness in a struggle to preserve something of herself, something that does not belong to her mother.”– Beverly Cleary
Beverly’s struggle for independence continues throughout both books.
A Girl from Yamhill leaves off at high school graduation. We pick up the story in My Own Two Feet as Beverly is leaving Oregon for her first year of college in California.
Right off the bat I am struck by how different travel (and life!) was back then.
When traveling, you had to plan far enough in advance to be able to make arrangements by mail with the people you intended to visit. These days you can make a phone call, send an email or a text, and know almost immediately if the plan works. Then you can jump in your car and hit the road or head over to the nearest airport. All within a single day you could devise and act upon a plan. You could wake up in one state and fall asleep on the opposite side of the country all on the same day. This was not the case in the 1930s. Beverly boarded a Greyhound bus and spent several days traveling from Oregon to California, including two overnight stays while awaiting bus transfers.
Beverly was able to go to college initially only because a relative offered to let her stay with them for the school year. Also, any further studies after that first year were not guaranteed. Beverly’s return to school the second year almost didn’t happen. Nowadays when kids apply for college, it’s expected that they will continue with school until graduation.
Another thing that caught my attention in Beverly’s stories is how everyone is constantly working, saving, and scrimping just to get by. It can be argued that today’s college kids are living an unrealistic, overly pampered life in their fabulously decorated dorm rooms and fancy apartments. And while it’s true that not everyone has an indulgent college experience, the overall feeling and rhythm of daily life experienced in the 1930s was vastly different from my own experiences 60 years later.
Happily Ever After – Moving Away From Home and Marrying Clarence Cleary
Beverly’s life away from her mother was happier but Mrs. Bunn continued her attempts to control and manipulate Beverly from afar. Guilt-inducing or judgemental letters arrived by mail at regular intervals. I, like Beverly, was feeling frustrated that she wasn’t able to completely break free.
It all comes to a head when Beverly decides to marry Clarence Cleary (who is Catholic!) in direct opposition to her parents. I cheered when they eloped and was very happy to know that they had a good life together for so many years.
After college Beverly worked for a year in Yakima, Washington, as a children’s librarian then after marrying Clarence she gets a job as post librarian at the US Army Hospital in Oakland, CA. As a veteran myself, I particularly enjoyed her stories about the military red tape, adjusting to the quirks of working with the military, and the many great soldiers she met at the hospital.
After the war, Beverly returns to life as a housewife. She and Clarence buy a house closer to his job, a house that comes with Kitty, who “ruled with an iron paw” over his new household. Beverly who has been dreaming of writing a book since sixth grade, still hasn’t begun.
After all, what could she possibly write about?
Then “on January 2, 1949, I gathered up my typewriter, freshly sharpened pencils, and the pile of paper [left by the previous owner in a closet] and sat down at the kitchen table we had stored in the back bedroom.” She was still facing a blank page and never-ending writers block.
Kitty jumped up on the table to help and Beverly wondered… could she write about Kitty? Maybe. But it had to be interesting to kids. She thought about all the kids who had visited her in the library in Yakima and she thought about how much she had wished for books that were written about “kids like us” when she was young.
Eventually, after much writing and re-writing Beverly Cleary finishes her first book, Henry Huggins.
She’s a natural!
Once she finally got started writing, Beverly Cleary was able to use her own life experiences from childhood plus her many hours spent working with children in the library to write exactly what they wanted. She won many awards throughout her career and her books continue to resonate with kids today. Beverly captures perfectly the experience of a child living a middle class life – all their concerns and worries and perceptions of life – in a timeless, enjoyable fashion.
Did you have a favorite Beverly Cleary book?
Want more Beverly?
You can see more pictures and learn more about Beverly Cleary on her website and you can see a PBS documentary about her here.
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