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June 2, 2023

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As her 100th birthday nears, Cleary the subject of a new documentary

By , Columbian staff writer
4 Photos
Beverly Cleary, the winner of everything from the Newberry Medal for children&#039;s literature to the National Book Award, had a simple secret for literary success: straightforward, realistic, fun stories about ordinary children and everyday experiences.
Beverly Cleary, the winner of everything from the Newberry Medal for children's literature to the National Book Award, had a simple secret for literary success: straightforward, realistic, fun stories about ordinary children and everyday experiences. (Courtesy of the Cleary Family Archive) Photo Gallery

There’s this totally annoying, totally charming little girl who drags around an empty leash. It’s for her imaginary pet lizard, Ralph. What, you can’t see Ralph? Too bad for you. Don’t step on him, and don’t you dare throw sand on him or the cherub with the huge imagination, Ramona Quimby, will throw one ugly tantrum.

So her sister, Beezus — that’s the best little Ramona can do pronouncing “Beatrice” — grumbles to grown-ups that her silly sister is just playing pretend. But on the inside, Beezus gets to wondering whether her own imagination is slightly deficient.

How can Ramona can be so lovable and so irritating simultaneously? It’s because the author who invented her, Beverly Cleary, has a special gift for understanding and portraying the minds and emotions of young children as they go about lives that seem tiny on the outside but are truly huge on the inside.

Yes, that’s Cleary in present tense; while retired from writing, Beverly Cleary is living in California and just a few days shy of her 100th birthday, on April 12. In honor of that fact, Oregon Public Broadcasting spent much of the past year preparing a documentary called “Discovering Beverly Cleary” — the first and only documentary ever made about a truly great author, according to OPB producer Katrina Sarson.

Cleary’s publisher warned Sarson that Cleary is “an extremely private person” who never liked doing interviews and probably wouldn’t do any more. “She has maintained a really low profile. She wanted her books and characters to speak for themselves,” Sarson said.

If You Go: Beverly Clearly documentary

What: “Discovering Beverly Cleary,” featuring a screening of a new Oregon Public Broadcasting special, Q-and-A with producer and children’s activities.

When: 3 p.m. April 8; screening at 4 p.m.

Where: Vancouver Community Library, 901 C St.

On TV:  8 p.m. Thursday on OPB, Channel 10.

Online: opb.org/beverlycleary

There must be something special about Oregon Public Broadcasting then, because Cleary gladly did an interview and contributed family photos to this project. Sarson figures that OPB’s educational mission must feel like a nice fit to the former children’s librarian and champion of reading; also, public broadcasting did a good and faithful job with a live-action TV version of “Ramona the Pest” in the early 1990s — which you can find now on YouTube, Sarson added.

Or maybe it’s that Cleary grew up in Oregon.

Real life

There was no public library in Yamhill, Beverly Bunn’s first hometown. Her mother refused to accept that, and arranged with the Oregon State Library to send books through the mail. When the family moved to Northeast Portland’s Hollywood neighborhood, young Beverly struggled in school until a librarian found her books she enjoyed. Something must really have clicked, because she went on to earn degrees in English and library science.

Cleary was working at a library in Yakima when she started meeting children like her former self — hungry to read but unable to find books they could relate to. It took a few years of live storytelling and book recommendations before Cleary realized that she was the person best situated to write the books those kid wanted to read.

So, starting in the 1950s and through the turn of the century, Cleary wrote nearly one book per year. They have titles like “Henry Huggins,” “Henry and the Paper Route,” “Beezus and Ramona” and “Ribsy,” and their leading characters are the just-plain-kids and pets and parents who live on Klickitat Street in Portland. No fire-breathing dragons or flying broomsticks, no depressed vampires nor televised combat to the death; Cleary’s stories are about humble reality. Bikes and mud puddles. Sibling rivalries and beloved lizards — real and imagined.

“They’re about ordinariness,” Sarson said. “They are simple stories about children’s emotions.” Children’s literature is so often about fantasy and adventure — or, back in Cleary’s day, namby-pamby prescriptions for good behavior (like “Dick and Jane”) — but Cleary’s stories are honest, accurate, funny portrayals of childhood in all its joys and limitations, discoveries and confusions. That’s how Ramona can be both adorable and a real pest. That’s life.

Library love

More cool local connections: Before going to work in Yakima, Cleary graduated from the library science program at the University of Washington in Seattle. UW now boasts the first and only endowed professorship in children’s library science — named for Beverly Cleary.

“I believe in that ‘missionary spirit’ among children’s librarians,” Cleary told UW in 2005, when the chair was announced. “Kids deserve books of literary quality, and librarians are so important in encouraging them to read and selecting books that are appropriate.”

And how about this neat conjunction of UW, Cleary and the latest headline news about thawing relations with Cuba? Ana Mari Cauce, the current (and first woman) president of the University of Washington is a Cuban emigre who grew up in Miami and remembers falling in love with Cleary books, and Cleary’s beautifully straightforward English, as a child there.

Cauce’s fond remembrance of Cleary’s influence is included in “Discovering Beverly Cleary,” OPB’s new half-hour special. So are interviews with Cleary’s editors, illustrators and admiring fellow authors. The program tells Cleary’s life story, examines her strong connection to her Portland neighborhood and celebrates her impact on young readers everywhere.

The show is getting quite the public library launch, with the Oregon Library Association sponsoring free screenings and related festivities at libraries all around the state and up here, too. Portland’s Hollywood neighborhood — the landscape of Cleary’s childhood and so many of her books — is really getting into the action, of course, with three guided walking tours leaving from the neighborhood library at 4040 N.E. Tillamook St. every half-hour beginning at noon today. Needless to say, registration is required and these are entirely booked up already — but the phone is 503-988-5391 in case you feel like being a lovable pest. All that is followed by a 2:30 p.m. screening of the new documentary at the Hollywood Theater.

Our own Vancouver Community Library will host a free “Discovering Beverly Cleary” event at 4 p.m. Friday — including a screening of the show, Q-and-A with producer Sarson, and activities for children.

Of course, you can just enjoy the show at home. It airs on OPB-TV at 8 p.m. Thursday on OPB-TV’s “Oregon Art Beat,” and will repeat several times during Cleary’s 100th birthday month. Visit OPB.org to learn more.

Sarson said one of the real joys of making “Discovering Beverly Cleary” was knowing that the author can enjoy the appreciation. A tribute like this is the kind of thing that tends to happen after a celebrity is dead, she said.

“But here she is, weeks away from being 100,” said Sarson. “It’s just magical, and very personal for me, to be able to say thank you to this great author.”