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Transcript from an interview with Beverly Cleary

Today we're going to visit Beverly Cleary, one of the world's most beloved and most distinguished writers of books for children.

More than 50 years ago, Beverly Cleary was a children's librarian in Yakima, Washington. Young readers, and especially boys, were bored by the kind of books that were available. They kept asking Mrs. Cleary for books about children, "just like us."

Several years later, when Beverly Cleary started to write her first novel, she had those children in mind. The book she wrote was Henry Huggins. It was an immediate hit and established her remarkable career.

More than three generations of readers have loved the characters Beverly Cleary has created, including Henry, Otis Spofford, Ellen Tebbits, Ribsy, Ralph S. Mouse, Beezus and her ever-popular sister Ramona.

Interviewer: What's the greatest joy you've received from writing books?

Ms. Cleary: I think the many letters I have received from children, or from their parents, or teachers telling me of a child who never liked to read until he discovered my books.

Interviewer: Of all the characters you've created, who would you most like to have dinner with?

Ms. Cleary: Well, I'd really like to have dinner with all of them, if they chewed with their mouths shut and sat up straight and minded their manners.

Interviewer: Which one would be best at that, do you think?

Ms. Cleary: Ellen Tebbits.

Interviewer: And the worst behaved?

Ms. Cleary: Probably Otis Spofford.

Interviewer: He was kind of a roguish boy.

Ms. Cleary: Yes, and at the time I wrote — wrote about Otis — he was a child of divorce, and that was unusual.

Interviewer: Do you think they'd get along with each other?

Ms. Cleary: I think basically they would. They might squabble a bit, but don't all children?

Interviewer: What prompted you to write the character of Ramona Quimby?

Ms. Cleary: Well, she's really an accidental character. When I was writing the Henry books, it occurred to me that all the children appeared to be only children, so I tucked in a little sister. And at the moment I needed a name, a neighbor called out, "Ramona," to another neighbor, and so I just named her Ramona.

Ms. Cleary: The actual moment that I think might've inspired me was a little girl who lived near us — who was — she was considered rather impossible, and I have a vivid memory of her coming home from the grocery store. In those days, children could be sent to the store. And she had a pound of butter, which she had opened, and she was just eating the pound of [chuckling] butter.

And somehow, that little girl became Ramona, although Ramona never ate a pound of butter.

Beatrice Quimby's biggest problem was her little sister Ramona. Beatrice, or Beezus, every — as everyone called her, because that was what Ramona had called her when she first learned to talk, knew other nine-year-old girls who had little sisters who went to nursery school, but she did not know anyone with a little sister like Ramona. Beezus felt the biggest trouble with four-year-old Ramona was that she was just plain exasperating. If Ramona drank lemonade through a straw, she blew into the straw as hard as she could to see what would happen. If she played with her finger pin — finger paint in the front yard, she wiped her hands on the neighbor's cat. That was the exasperating sort of thing Ramona did.

And there — then there was the way she behaved about her favorite book.

Interviewer: Why do you think that children like Ramona so much?

Ms. Cleary: Because she does not learn to be a better girl. I was so annoyed with the books in my childhood, because children always learned to be better children, and in my experience, they didn't. They just grew, and so I started Ramona, and — and she has never reformed. And she — she's really not a naughty child, in spite of the title of Ramona the Pest. Her intentions are good, but she has a lot of imagination, and things sometimes don't turn out the way she had expected.

Interviewer: Do you remember, like, waiting — when you first started writing, waiting to hear from people you submitted your manuscripts to, or — remember those days before you were published?

Ms. Cleary: Well, I had worked in a bookstore, and I knew of the Morrow editor and her fine reputation. I sent it off, and I had learned from the book business that you should be able to hear within six weeks, and so the days went by, and I watched for the mailman, who finally said, "What are you watching for?"

And I told him, and he began to watch for the — I said, "Either a letter or a big, brown envelope."

And he finally came running down some brick steps to our front door, waving the envelope and said, "Here it is!" And he stood there while I opened it.

Interviewer: And it was from Elizabeth Hamilton?

Ms. Cleary: Yes.

Interviewer: Really?

Ms. Cleary: Saying nice things about the book and — and I — I haven't had any rejections.

Interviewer: I — I'm sure everyone asks you, and everyone wants to know, where do you get your ideas?

Ms. Cleary: From all sorts of places. From my own childhood, from the childhood of others that I hear about, sometimes from newspapers. The story of Henry Huggins and the Bubble Gum came from a newspaper clipping. Uh, sometimes they just seem to come — come out of thin air, and sometimes — well, with — with Dear Mr. Henshaw, two little boys who didn't know one another asked me to write about a boy whose parents were divorced. And I had never thought about it, but I said I'd — give it a try.

Interviewer: And that's the Newbery Medal winner.

Ms. Cleary: Yes, it was, um—hum.

Interviewer: You get thousands of letters every year from your fans. What have you noticed about them over the years?

Ms. Cleary: Well, I think the emotions of children don't change. Their life situations change, but inside they're just like they always were. They want a home. They want parents that love them. They want friends. They like teachers that they like. And — and I think that — that's rather universal.

Interviewer: Are there any particular characters that they write about more than others?

Ms. Cleary: Well, they write mostly about Ramona and Dear Mr. Henshaw.

Interviewer: Are any of your characters modeled after your own children?

Ms. Cleary: Mitch and Amy is modeled after my own children, but I found it difficult to — to write when the characters were running around the house. And — and so I — I didn't write anymore about them.

Interviewer: Did you start to set aside a certain time every day to write?

Ms. Cleary: Yes, I did. When I first started writing, I would start after breakfast. In those days, I — I baked bread, and quite often would start breads and sit down and write. And by the time I needed to stretch my legs, it was time to punch the dough down, and so I'd take a break — ahem — and then go back to writing and write 'til lunchtime, or 'til — until I was tired.

Interviewer: Do you know there's gonna be a National Drop Everything and Read Day on your birthday, April 12th of — of this year? What do you hope will happen on that day?

Ms. Cleary: Well, I was very honored to learn about it, and I've always thought that "Drop Everything and Read" was a — a great idea. When I was in grammar school, I sometimes felt that school didn't want us to read, because there were long questions after everything we read, and we had to write book reviews and give the theme of the book. I hate — that was the question I hated the most: "What was the theme of this book?" I just wanted to read a book and enjoy it. And I think that's what children should do.

I think I was fortunate in growing up before television and before many people even had radios, because my mother read aloud every evening to my father and me, and I was — I — I don't know what I would've done in the evening if she hadn't. She — she read many books. She read myths and fairytales for my benefit, and she read travel books, because that's what my father enjoyed. She really read quite a variety of things, and I loved those evenings. I wish more people read aloud.

Interviewer: What do you hope that people will get out of National Drop Everything and Read Day?

Ms. Cleary: That they enjoyed it so much that it will be more than just a day.

There were good parts of third grade, Ramona decided. She enjoyed riding the bus to school, and she enjoyed keeping Yard Ape[unintelligible] from getting the best of her. Then a good — 'nother good part of the third grade began the second week of school. Just before her class would make its weekly visit to the school library, Mrs. Whaley announced, "Today and from now on, we're going to have sustained, silent reading every day."

Ramona liked the sound of sustained, silent reading, even though she was not sure what it meant, because it sounded important. Mrs. Whaley continued, "This means that every day after lunch, we're going to sit at our desks and read silently to ourselves any book we choose from the library."

"Even mysteries?" somebody asked.

"Even mysteries," said Mrs. Whaley.

"Do we have to give book reports on what we read?" asked one suspicious member of the class.

"No book reports on your sustained, silent reading books," Mrs. Whaley promised.

Then she went on. "I don't think sustained, silent reading sounds very interesting, so I" — "I think we will call it something else."

Here she printed four letters on the blackboard, and as she pointed out, she read, "D, E, A, R." "Can anyone guess what these letters stand for?"

The class thought and thought.

"Do everything all right," suggested someone.

A good thought, but not the right answer.

"Don't eat a reader," suggested Yard Ape.

Mrs. Whaley laughed and told him to try again.

As Ramona thought, she stared out the window at the blue sky, the treetops and, in the distance, the snow-capped peak — peak of Mt. Hood looking like a giant, licked ice cream cone. "R" could stand for "run," "A" for "and" — "Dropping" — "Drop everything and run!" Ramona burst out.

Mrs. Whaley, who was not the sort of teacher who expected everyone to raise their hand before speaking, laughed and said, "Alright, Ramona. Have you forgotten "we are talking about reading?"

"Drop everything and read," chorused the rest of the class.

Ramona felt silly. She should have thought of that herself."

I developed my love of reading because my mother always saw to it that I had books, and she read a lot. And then — ahem — when I went to school, I — I disliked reading, and it wasn't until the third grade that I — I picked up a copy of The Dutch Twins by Lucy Fitch Perkins, planning to look at the pictures, and I discovered that I was reading and enjoying what I read, and — and I kept on reading. It was a dull, rainy day, and it really was — was wonderful. It — it was a turning point in my life.

"Today a reader, tomorrow a leader." — Margaret Fuller