Henry Huggins and Ramona Quimby were two of my closest friends growing up. I moved a lot, which meant that I was constantly making new friends and trying to find a new place in each neighborhood and school where we would make a home. Few things were constant in my childhood friendships, but I always knew that I could count on books. At a young age, I found the books of Beverly Cleary to be especially comforting. Reading the antics of Ramona, Henry, and the gang on Klickitat Street was my anchor, in a way. I always knew that while reading those books, that those kids would not judge me. The characters were full of fun, and they were always up to new adventures.
Recently, as I read about the childhood of Beverly Cleary in her memoir, “The Girl from Yamhill,” it was like coming home. It has been many years since I have opened the pages of those well-worn books from my childhood, but when I opened this memoir, memories of the adventures that I experienced in Cleary’s books came flooding back. I remembered the comfort I felt when I would reread a book about Ramona. I also remembered the thrill I got when I discovered other Cleary books for the first time.
One of my favorite books as a fourth and fifth grader was “Emily’s Runaway Imagination.” Emily is a girl who lives on a farm in Oregon in the 1920s whose small town cannot afford a library. Emily uses her lively imagination to help bring a library to Pitchfork. Little did I know that this was a childhood experience for Cleary herself! Living on a farm in Yamhill, Oregon, young Beverly was prone to getting into scrapes because of her own runaway imagination. And her mother was the one who brought a library to their small town during a time that books were considered a luxury, especially among farmers.
When the Great Depression hit, Beverly’s family was forced to leave the farm of her young childhood and move to the city of Portland. This is where a lot of the stories of Ramona and Beezus got their roots. Beverly had no shortage of adventures of her own that she whipped into tales of our young friends like Mitch and Amy, Ellen Tebbits and Otis Spofford, and of course, Henry Huggins.
Reading about the childhood of Beverly Cleary endeared her to me even more than her books did when I was a child. Cleary’s mother was not a warm woman. Yet despite the lack of compassion and love Beverly received from her, Beverly was able to grow up and write the Ramona books about the kind of mother every child wants to have. Her father was hardworking and wise, but rarely present. Beverly Cleary overcame so many hardships to become the positive, optimistic writer that molded many children into compassionate and loving young adults.
“The Girl from Yamhill” is the first of two installments by the Newbery medalist. It covers her childhood from living on the farm in Yamhill through her high school years in Portland. I am excited to read her second installment, “My Own Two Feet,” the story of her adventure leaving Oregon to attend junior college in California. This book takes us from her college years during the Depression, through various jobs she had, her marriage, and the publication of her first book.
Whether or not you are a fan of Beverly Cleary, you will find her childhood fascinating and be uplifted by her strength and character. I will be forever grateful for her imagination that brought me my best childhood friends and continues to bring comfort and happiness to my own children.