Beverly Cleary has died. The author of large swathes of the 20th century’s most beloved works of children’s literature, Cleary was renowned for creating characters like Ramona and Beezus Quimby, Henry Huggins, and many more—and for infusing them with the wit, anxieties, and struggles of actual real-world kids. Her death was announced earlier today by her long-time publisher, HarperCollins. Cleary was 104.
Born in Oregon, Cleary originally studied and worked as a librarian, a position that brought her into close contact with a) a great many children with a great love of reading, and, b), the general dearth of emotionally intelligent and enjoyable children’s literature in the post-World War II U.S. Thus began a long career intended to correct the deficits of b) on behalf of the vast majority of a), with Cleary’s first novel, Henry Huggins, published in 1950, kicking off a decade-spanning career that made a virtue of talking to young readers, rather than at them.
Tonally, Cleary’s books could range from the silly—The Mouse And The Motorcycle, published 1965—to the serious, as with 1983's Dear Mr. Henshaw, which dealt with issues like parental divorce. But even Cleary’s lighter books, like the celebrated adventures of youthful troublemaker Ramona Quimby, were informed by a simple principle: That the feelings of her characters, even and especially the young ones, were real, important, and never to be dismissed. It’s part of what made her books feel so timeless, despite the huge span of time she published them over; Beezus, Henry, and Ramona all felt real, vulnerable, and identifiable, whether Cleary was writing them in 1965 or 1985. When asked about the appeal of Ramona’s character in an interview in 2011, Cleary outlined a major part of her philosophy for writing young characters: “Because she does not learn to be a better girl,” reflecting that real people rarely get “better” in the didactic sense children’s literature often espouses.
Although she didn’t start receiving major award attention for her work until the 1970s, Cleary quickly became one of the best-selling children’s authors of all time; per Variety, she sold something like 90 million books over the course of her life, and her works appear in more than 25 different languages. She also picked up legions of dedicated fans, many of whom inspired new books with the questions and concerns they expressed to her in their letters. She picked up her first major honor, the Laura Ingalls Wilder Award, in 1975, and the Newbery Medal in 1985; in 2000, she was named a “Living Legend” by the United States Library Of Congress. She published her final book, Ramona’s World, in 1999. Despite the fact that Cleary was 83 when she wrote it, the book was still praised for its ability to tap into the joys and worries of the fourth-grade mind.
Cleary’s husband, Clarence, died in 2004. She is survived by two children, Malcolm and Marianne, and millions of readers in countries all across the globe.