DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:
If you were a child in America anytime between the 1950's and now, you may very well have made the acquaintance of Ramona Quimby. She's sometimes known as Ramona the Pest. Though Ramona herself would be the first to tell you she's not really a pest. Ramona, her sister Beezus, Henry Huggins and the other kids on Klickitat Street, are the creations of Beverly Cleary. The beloved children's author turns 90 this week. Cleary published the first of her dozens of books in 1950. It was Henry Huggins. In an interview from her home she told me that Henry's Klickitat Street is just like the neighborhood where she grew up in Portland.
Ms. BEVERLY CLEARY (Children's Author): I'm very fortunate because it was a very stable neighborhood. It hasn't changed that much since I lived there, except there are cars parked on the streets and houses have television aerials.
ELLIOTT: Now Ramona is probably your most famous character and she first appeared in one of Henry Huggins books.
Ms. CLEARY: She had one paragraph in Henry Huggins because it occurred to me that all the children appeared to be only children and so I tossed in a little sister and somewhat to my surprise she appeared in the other Henry books and she kept growing until I thought maybe I should write about her, and my publisher wanted a book about her, so I wrote one.
ELLIOTT: At the time you started writing about Ramona and these other children and the feelings that they had, what was out there in children's literature? Was this something that was common?
Ms. CLEARY: I know that when I was a children's librarian, that was about 1940, boys particularly asked where were the books about kids like us, and there weren't any at that time. So when I finally told myself if I was going to write I should sit down and start writing, well, I expected to write about the maturing of a sensitive girl but I found I didn't have anything to say on the subject, and so I thought about those boys who wanted books about kids like us. So I wrote about the sort of boys I knew in my neighborhood and then Ramona just appeared on her own and kept growing in each book.
ELLIOTT: Now Ramona and her sister Beezus lived on Klickitat Street in Portland, Oregon and you wrote about her family over the course of five decades. And society changed over that time and it's reflected in your books in some ways. For instance, Ramona's mother goes to work. But did Ramona change with the times as well?
Ms. CLEARY: No, I don't think so, because I think deep down inside children are all the same. They want two loving parents and they would prefer a house with a neighborhood they can play in. They want teachers that they can like. I don't think children themselves have changed that much. It's the world that has changed.
ELLIOTT: I think my favorite Ramona story is from Ramona and her father. Mr. Quimby has just lost his job and he's watching television and he makes this off-hand remark like look at that kid singing in that television commercial. He probably makes a million dollars. Well, this got Ramona to thinking. You know, hey I could help my family if I could make a television commercial and make a million dollars.
So she goes outside, inspired by this margarine commercial where the kid wears the little crown, and makes a crown for herself out of burrs. Well, that ends up, you know, creating this problem where her father has to try to get these burrs out of her head before the mom comes home from work. And it seemed to me in that story, you were able to remember so clearly from a child's point of view how they look at the adults in their lives and how they relate to the adult problems that affect their childhood. How are you able to recapture that as an adult?
Ms. CLEARY: Well I suppose I went through many of the same problems. My father lost his job in 1929 and I remember the anguish and how irritable he became. I didn't put burrs in my hair but I do remember across the street from our school there was a vacant lot that had a lot of burrs that we used to pick and make little baskets or just stick them together into something we thought was interesting.
ELLIOTT: How are you able to remember so clearly the feelings that you had as a child.
Ms. CLEARY: I'm just lucky. I do have very clear memories of childhood. I find that many people don't but I'm just very fortunate that I have that kind of memory.
ELLIOTT: You know, when word got around NPR that we were going to interview you I cannot tell you how many colleagues would pop their head in my office and tell me their favorite Ramona story, and of all different ages. It seems that you have a lot of fans from each generation. Do you still hear from them?
Ms. CLEARY: Oh yes, I do, and I've been surprised at the number of young men that I have heard from who said that they had never liked to read until they discovered my books.
ELLIOTT: Which books of yours do you think appeal to boys?
Ms. CLEARY: Oh, they read all of them. Of course they like, The Mouse and the Motorcycle is very popular with boys. I really wrote that for my son when he was in about the third grade and was disillusioned with school and reading and I said, well, what would you like to read about? And he said motorcycles. Well, I didn't know how I could write about motorcycles for a small boy, and then we were traveling in England and he was sick in bed for a couple of days and we bought him some miniature cars and a little motorcycle to play with, and he seemed lost in fantasy as he ran them up and down the stripes of the bedspread. And when we came home, a neighbor called me over to show me a mouse that had fallen into a bucket in her garden, and it crossed my mind that that mouse was just the right size to ride that motorcycle.
And so I began to think about it and wished we'd had a mouse who could ride out in the hotel and find us an aspirin under a bed or a bureau someplace.
ELLIOTT: To make your son feel better.
Ms. CLEARY: Yes, and it would bring his fever down.
ELLIOTT: You do seem to think a little bit like Ramona.
Ms. CLEARY: Well, I hope I can.
ELLIOTT: Mrs. Cleary, you seem to have an interesting relationship with your fans. I was reading where for the longest time you actually answered all your fan mail yourself.
Ms. CLEARY: I did for about 30 years, over my publisher's objection. They wanted me to be writing books, but you know, I learned a lot from children's letters. Dear Mr. Henshaw came about because two different boys from different parts of the country asked me to write a book about a boy whose parents were divorced, and so I wrote Dear Mr. Henshaw, and it won the Newbery, and I was, it's been very popular.
ELLIOTT: Do you think that children sort of felt like they could confide in you and tell you what was going on in their lives?
Ms. CLEARY: I think they did, and it was very interesting. I've had very sad letters from children, usually about a father who never comes to see them, or one little girl had been badly scarred by a dog and, no, they tell me their problems.
ELLIOTT: That must be hard sometimes. What do you write back to them?
Ms. CLEARY: Well, I try to write something cheerful, and it depends on the child, and...
ELLIOTT: You know, I'm wondering, in this world of, kids have so much competing for their attention. There are computers and DVDs and videogames and these iPods that they play music on. Do you expect children to be reading your books, say, in another 50 years?
Ms. CLEARY: Yes, I do because you can curl up with a book and I don't think anything takes the place of reading. I had a letter from a little girl once who said she was one of five children, so you know how hard it is to get the television set, so I just go to my room and read, and it's like having a little television set in your head.
ELLIOTT: Author Beverly Cleary is the creator of Ramona Quimby, Henry Huggins, Ralph S. Mouse, and countless others. She joined us from her home in Carmel Valley, California. Thank you so much for speaking with us.
Ms. CLEARY: Well, thank you.
ELLIOTT: And have a very happy birthday.
Ms. CLEARY: Oh, thank you. I shall.
ELLIOTT: To hear more from Beverly Cleary, go to our website, npr.org.
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