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Spokane authors laud beloved children’s writer Beverly Cleary, a former Yakima librarian, for her connection to young readers

UPDATED: Sat., March 27, 2021

Cleary  (Vern Fisher)
Cleary (Vern Fisher)

In “Ramona and Her Father,” Beverly Cleary’s fourth in a series of eight books about Ramona Quimby and her family, the loss of a job sends Robert Quimby into a depression.

Second-grader Ramona must learn to cope with changes in her household. Stephanie Oakes remembers reading the story to a class of third-graders she was student-teaching and how the youngsters appreciated the story, even though it dealt with sadness and adult themes, including smoking.

“She knew that kids are smart,” Oakes, the Spokane-based author of young adult novel “The Sacred Lies of Minnow Bly,” said of Cleary. “She wrote for a kid audience, not for adults. Not for award committees, reviewers or adults. She wrote for the kids.”

Cleary died Thursday at age 104, her publisher HarperCollins announced. Raised in Yamhill, Oregon, the beloved child author of the “Ramona” books, along with titles that include “The Mouse and the Motorcycle” and the epistolary “Dear Mr. Henshaw,” leaves behind a literary legacy that can’t be overstated, local authors said.

“Ramona was a tomboy, and I was a tomboy,” said Kris Dinnison, author of 2015’s “You and Me and Him,” who happens to also be from Oregon. “There were a lot of things about Ramona that I related to.”

What Cleary seemed to understand was that her audience wanted stories that didn’t condescend to them, Dinnison said. They tackled big subjects, including the idea of divorce in “Dear Mr. Henshaw” and the challenges of unemployment in “Ramona and Her Father.”

“It just sort of, frankly, gave you a kid’s-eye view of a struggle,” Oakes said of the latter title. “I remember thinking that even though this book was super accessible, the themes were different than I saw in a lot of children’s books.”

That type of writing has proven timeless, said Sharma Shields, author of “The Sasquatch Hunter’s Almanac” and “The Cassandra.” Shields works at Wishing Tree Books in Spokane’s South Perry district, and said there’s still demand for that writing from a new generation of readers.

“The thing that really struck me about them was this really amazing way she had of showing how strong our feelings are,” said Shields, who remembers reading the Ramona books as a child and now shares them with her two children at bedtime. “When you’re children, it’s OK to mess up. It’s OK to feel really strongly about things.”

Shields also pointed to the resonance of “Ramona and Her Father.”

“He is so utterly depressed. Actually in the story, he’s not the best dad in the world,” Shields said. “She sees that he’s hurting, and she doesn’t understand it.”

Sheri Boggs, a writer and the youth collection librarian at the Spokane County Library District, noted that many readers of Cleary’s books also likely grew up with cover images provided by Spokane-based illustrator Joanne Scribner. Scribner provided the skinny, turtlenecked portrait of Ramona on a printing of “Ramona Quimby, Age 8” that remains praised for its simple composition.

“She was the first to write about kids as they really are,” Boggs said of Cleary. “Before then, you had your mysteries. Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys. For the most part, it was stories about fairly wholesome kids getting into adventures.”

After attending a librarian program at the University of Washington, she landed a job in 1939 as a children’s librarian in Yakima. There, a group of boys from St. Joseph’s School asked her, “Where are the books about kids like us?” according to the Yakima Herald. The question stayed in her mind as she wrote her first book, “Henry Huggins,” which was published in 1950.

The first Ramona book was written in 1955. The eighth and final tale, “Ramona’s World,” was published in 1999, when Cleary was 83 years old.

“Even later in her career, I was so impressed with how in-tune she was with the world of young people,” Boggs said.

That voice was what left the third graders clamoring for more Ramona during Oakes’ student-teaching years. It’s the type of young adult writing Oakes said she aspired to.

“That’s so hard to do, she said, “to write something that’s accessible to people in different generations.”

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