The adjustment from living in the country to the city was difficult for Cleary, and she struggled in school; in first grade, her teacher placed her in a group for struggling readers.[b] Cleary said, "The first grade was sorted into three reading groups—Bluebirds, Redbirds and Blackbirds. I was a Blackbird. To be a Blackbird was to be disgraced. I wanted to read, but somehow could not."
With some work, Cleary's reading skills improved, but she eventually found reading boring, complaining that many stories were simple and unsurprising, and wondering why authors often did not write with humor or about ordinary people. However, on a rainy afternoon at home during Cleary's third-grade year, she found herself enjoying reading The Dutch Twins, a book by Lucy Fitch Perkins about the adventures of ordinary children. The book was an epiphany for her, and afterward, she started to spend a lot of time reading and at the library. By sixth grade, a teacher suggested that Cleary should become a children's writer based on essays she had written for class assignments.
As a children's librarian, Cleary empathized with her young patrons, who had difficulty finding books with characters they could identify with, and she struggled to find enough books to suggest that would appeal to them. After a few years of making recommendations and performing live storytelling in her role as librarian, Cleary decided to start writing children's books about characters that young readers could relate to.[d] Cleary has said, "I believe in that 'missionary spirit' among children's librarians. Kids deserve books of literary quality, and librarians are so important in encouraging them to read and selecting books that are appropriate."
Cleary's first book, Henry Huggins (1950), was the first in a series of fictional chapter books about Henry, his dog Ribsy, his neighborhood friend Beezus and her little sister Ramona. When writing the book, Cleary took inspiration from the times she composed stories for children during Saturday afternoon story hours when she worked as a librarian in Yakima. Like many of her later works, Henry Huggins is a novel about people living ordinary lives and is based on Cleary's own childhood experiences, the kids in her neighborhood growing up, as well as children she met while working as a librarian. Although her book was accepted by Morrow, the first publisher she sent it to, it had been initially rejected, and Cleary had added the characters of Beezus and Ramona while revising it.[e]
Cleary's first book to center a story on the Quimby sisters, Beezus and Ramona, was published in 1955. A publisher asked her to write a book about a kindergarten student. Cleary resisted, because she had not attended kindergarten, but later changed her mind after the birth of her twins.
Cleary also wrote two memoirs, one about her childhood, entitled A Girl from Yamhill (1988), and one about her years in college and as an adult up to writing her first book, entitled My Own Two Feet (1995). During a 2011 interview for the Los Angeles Times, at age 95, Cleary stated, "I've had an exceptionally happy career."
Cleary's books have been historically noted for their attention to the daily minutiae of childhood, specifically the experience of children growing up in middle-class families.Leonard S. Marcus, a children's literature historian, said of Cleary's work: "When you're the right age to read Cleary's books you're likely at your most impressionable time in life as a reader. [Her books] both entertain children and give them courage and insight into what to expect from their lives." Cleary's employment of humor has also been noted by critics; William Grimes of The New York Times wrote that Clearly used a "humorous, lively style" while "ma[king] compelling drama out of the everyday problems, small injustices and perplexing mysteries – adults chief among them – that define middle-class American childhood", while Roger Sutton of The Horn Book Magazine noted that "Cleary is funny in a very sophisticated way. She gets very close to satire, which I think is why adults like her, but she's still deeply respectful of her characters—nobody gets a laugh at the expense of another. I think kids appreciate that they're on a level playing field with adults."
Pat Pflieger, professor of children's literature at West Chester University, commented: "Cleary's books have lasted because she understands her audience. She knows they're sometimes confused or frightened by the world around them, and that they feel deeply about things that adults can dismiss."Eliza Dresang, professor in children and youth services at the University of Washington Information School, Cleary's alma mater, said, "Those books don't seem so radical now, but they were when she was writing them".[f] Dresang added that Cleary's writing, "in terms of the topics [covered], the honesty, the accuracy, [and] the ability to portray real-life children", was decades ahead of her time.Twentieth-Century Children's Writers said, "Beverly Cleary's impact as a children's writer cannot be overestimated... her extraordinary talent in creating memorable young characters whose exuberant spirit and zest for life attract young and old readers alike.":210
In 1955, Cleary gave birth to twins, Malcolm and Marianne. She lived in Carmel Village in California from the 1960s onwards. As of 2018[update], she lived in a retirement home.
In 2012, Ramona the Pest was ranked number 24 among all children's novels in a survey published by the School Library Journal, a monthly with a primarily U.S. audience. The Mouse and the Motorcycle (89) and Ramona and Her Father (94) were also among the top 100.
In Portland, Oregon, the Hollywood branch of the Multnomah County Library, near where she lived as a child, commissioned a map of Henry Huggins's Klickitat Street neighborhood for its lobby wall. Statues of her characters Henry Huggins, the Hugginses' dog Ribsy, and Ramona Quimby can be found in The Beverly Cleary Sculpture Garden for Children, which is part of Portland's Grant Park in the Hollywood-Fernwood neighborhood. In June 2008, the neighborhood's K-8 school, formerly named Fernwood Grammar School and once attended by Cleary, was officially renamed Beverly Cleary School.
In 1997, the Central Library in downtown Portland, Oregon, which serves as the main branch of the Multnomah County Library system, dedicated its children's room as the Beverly Cleary Children's Library.
In 2004, the University of Washington Information School completed fund-raising for the Beverly Cleary Endowed Chair for Children and Youth Services to honor her work and commitment to librarianship. In 2008, the school announced that she had been selected as the next recipient of the university's Alumna Summa Laude Dignatus Award, the highest honor the University of Washington can bestow on a graduate.
Cleary has a 220-student residential hall named after her, Beverly Cleary Hall, at her alma mater, the University of California, Berkeley.
In April 2016, on the occasion of her 100th birthday, Oregon Public Broadcasting produced an original half-hour program, Discovering Beverly Cleary, which included an extensive interview with Cleary at age 99 at her home in Carmel, California, and photographs and stories from her life. It was broadcast in the spring of 2016 on PBS stations across the country.
^Cleary won the 1981 National Book Award for paperback children's fiction. From 1980 to 1983 in National Book Award history there were dual awards for hardcover and paperback books in many categories. Most of the paperback award-winners were reprints, including Ramona and Her Mother (1979).
^Although she had talked about writing books for years, Cleary did not begin writing her first book until she was in her 30s, and recalled the experience of finding a children's book with the text "Bow-wow. I like the green grass, said the puppy", a passage she found "ridiculous [since n]o puppy I had known talked like that", as a catalyst for her journey to authorship.
^Ramona was added as a little sister when Cleary realized that it seemed all the children in her book were only children, like herself.
^Dresang was the incoming inaugural Beverly Cleary Professor for Children and Youth Services at the time.
^"House Concurrent Resolution 30". 81st OREGON LEGISLATIVE ASSEMBLY. 2021. Archived from the original on March 26, 2021. Retrieved March 26, 2021. Whereas the Multnomah County Library has installed numerous memorials in recognition of Beverly Cleary's connections to Portland and in honor of her accomplishments and contributions to literature, including naming the Beverly Cleary Children's Library in the Central Library branch in her honor.