Badass Ladies of History: Beverly Cleary

As a kid, I was an avid reader and Beverly Cleary’s books ranked among my very favorites–still, when my mother gave me A Girl from Yamhill, Cleary’s memoir of growing up during the Great Depression, I wrinkled my nose at it. It wasn’t even fiction! That meant it was going to be boring.

How wrong I was. That book turned out to be one that I read and re-read at least a dozen times, until its paper spine was permanently broken and a page or two got ripped out. Though I was growing up in suburban, middle-class America in the “˜90s, and Cleary grew up on a farm and then in the big city of Portland during the Great Depression, how could I not relate to a girl who wanted to be a writer, had a less-than-perfect relationship with her parents, and mirrored the same frustrations and hidden longings I felt?

Some highlights of Cleary’s childhood:

When she was six, her parents lost the family farm and made the decision to move from McMinnville, OR to Portland. A defining aspect of Beverly’s childhood was the strain the move placed on her father, who became withdrawn, was frequently between jobs, and eventually wound up unhappily working nights as a security guard.

Beverly’s mother was discontented and determined to hoist Beverly’s social status above her own.  To this end, she meddled and manipulated teen Beverly’s social life, dictating that she take dance lessons and host frequent soirees (for which Beverly’s father dutifully spent entire afternoons waxing the living room floor).  When she was around 16, Beverly found and read her mother’s diary, which was actually a detailed account of Beverly’s suitors and dates, which made her feel both violated and ashamed for not having been more pliable.

One of my favorite anecdotes from A Girl from Yamhill illustrates how passive-aggressive the relationship between Beverly and her mother grew: Beverly had a pen pal from Africa who sent her a small piece of furry, black monkey skin. She treasured the skin but her mother thought it was uncouth and hated it. After the two had an unrelated fight, Beverly’s mother must have seized the opportunity to get rid of the skin once and for all, because it mysteriously disappeared.

Beverly’s first serious boyfriend, Gerhardt, turned out to be a nightmarish, miserable young man who flaunted his money (he had a much nicer car than Beverly’s dad and wasn’t very tactful about it). He was several years older than her, jealous and apparently a bad kisser (Beverly decided a stage kiss she received during a school play was better than her “real” kisses with Gerhardt). He proposed to Beverly, who turned him down, to her mother’s dismay and her father’s approval.

Beverly struggled with reading in the first grade, but, with the help of a number of caring teachers, quickly learned that English is her strong suit. She frequently entered children’s writing contests, taking away lessons to a) write simply and b) never be afraid to try (she won several contests by being the only entrant).

A Girl from Yamhill ended with Beverly graduating high school and leaving home to attend junior college in California. There is a follow-up memoir titled On My Own Two Feet, which I haven’t read, but I’m sure Beverly manages to impart as much as detail and honest emotion to that book as she does to Yamhill.

It would be easy to dismiss Beverly Cleary’s life and achievements as somewhat mundane, but for her time, she was radical. Turning down an offer of marriage to travel hundreds of miles away and pursue a college education was not something a lot of women were doing in the “˜30s.

Additionally, Cleary is so much more than a children’s book author; she deserves recognition for pioneering YA fiction. Perhaps because of her own somewhat troubled childhood, she was always committed to writing about teenagers and children who were fully fleshed characters, not cardboard bullies or tomboys or girly girls. She leant credence to the earth-shattering childhood events of having a parent laid off or having an unreciprocated crush, things that most adults tend to forget were ever important to them. Today, she continues to influence popular authors like Laurie Halse Anderson and Judy Blume.

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