If you haven't raised a child between the ages of 7 and 11--or been a kid yourself in recent years--you probably don't realize that Beverly Cleary is a phenomenon. One of America's most successful living authors, she's written 39 beloved books since 1950 and sold 91 million copies worldwide--not far behind the "Harry Potter" series, at 120 million. Most remarkable is that all her books have stayed in print. Despite the lure of electronic games, the Internet and ever-more-violent TV, kids today still connect to Cleary's clear-eyed stories of ordinary boys and girls even though she's never updated them with new toys or gadgets--or even removed such arcana as Ellen Tebbits's woolen underwear.
But kids haven't really changed, and Cleary has a gently comic gift for getting inside their heads; she knows what gives them bubbles of happiness, as well as those universal feelings of injustice, shame or disappointment. Take Ramona Quimby, her most popular creation, who fights with her bossy big sister, Beezus (short for Beatrice), and tries to be grown up but can't help acting her age. "Cleary's books have lasted because she understands her audience," says Pat Pflieger, who teaches children's literature at West Chester University. "She knows they're sometimes confused or frightened by the world around them, and that they feel deeply about things that adults can dismiss."
Now the author of "Ramona Quimby, Age 8" is about to become "Beverly Cleary, Age 90." Cleary has always kept a low profile and plans to celebrate quietly with her family (she has a twin son and daughter, and three grandchildren). But the world of kid lit is making a big deal of the milestone, with a national promotion on her birthday, April 12, called "Drop Everything and Read." HarperCollins is repackaging some of her best-loved titles, including the eight Ramona books. And after years of resisting Hollywood, Cleary has finally given the green light for a movie about that irrepressible little girl with the roller-coaster emotions. Recently, the author read the film treatment--but sent it back to the writers because she didn't like the ending. "I don't know how they'll feel about it," she said from her home on California's Monterey Peninsula. "But I talked to the producer, and she agreed with me."
Cleary was born on an Oregon farm but moved to Portland when she was 6. "I had such a miserable time in the first grade, plunged into a classroom of 40 children," she still recalls. She was a poor reader until the third grade, when she discovered a book she loved called "The Dutch Twins," by Lucy Fitch Perkins. After that, she read like mad, fairy tales especially, and began to write stories. As an undergrad at Berkeley, she met her future husband (he died two years ago). Later she became a children's librarian. Some little boys complained they couldn't find books about "kids like us." Youth fiction was all about children in England or, as she told one interviewer, about a puppy who said, "Bow wow. I like the green grass." (Ridiculous, she thought.) So she wrote her first book, "Henry Huggins," about a third grader who grew up in Portland and had funny but ordinary adventures. She drafted it in longhand--as she has all her books since--and sent the manuscript off to a publisher. Six weeks later it was accepted.
Though never trendy, Cleary did incorporate more contemporary situations into her books in later years. With "Dear Mr. Henshaw," about a boy raised by a single mom, she won a Newbery Medal in 1984. Her last book, "Ramona's World," was published in 1999, and though she admits she's made "notes on another book," she doesn't plan to write it. "It's important to know when to stop," she says. Really? There must be millions of kids--and former kids--whose birthday wish for Beverly Cleary would be, please, just one more.