Cleary thinks books should be fun

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

Beverly Cleary wants to make one thing perfectly clear: Reading should be fun!

And this celebrated author, whose 25th children's book, ''Ramona Quimby, Age 8,'' was published last fall, guarantees that her stories are intended to be just that. No hidden messages about learning to obey parents or be neat.

''When I was a child,'' explains the creator of such familiar characters as Ramona Quimby, Henry Huggins, and Otis Spofford, ''I thoroughly disliked any book in which the children were reformed, or learned to be better. Any messages in my books are for the adults.''

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Over 3.5 million readers have been having fun with Cleary's stories for the past 30 years. The author has tallied an impressive collection of awards from educators, librarians, and reviewers alike -- including the American Library Association's Laura Ingalls Wilder Award (1975), the Newbery Honor Book Award ( 1978), and the Catholic Library Association's Regina Medal (1980). Perhaps the highest tribute to her popularity are the 25 awards she has won based on the votes of her 8 -- to 12-year-old readers.

At first glance, Beverly Cleary does not strike one as an author who could easily identify with the childlike joy, the range of emotions, and the overall sparkle so accurately portrayed in her young book characters. She is a well-dressed, somewhat soft-spoken individual who lives with her husband in a quiet section of Carmel, Calif. Her own three children are all grown and away. And she doesn't maintain any personal contact with youngsters, other than through the 100 or so letters she receives from them each day.

But don't be fooled by this settled exterior. Underneath it lies a frisky sense of mischief and humor that sneaks to the surface just when one least expects it. This playfulness is an integral part of her work. ''My writing,'' she explains, ''is a collaboration between my adult self and my child self. We both have to be pleased.''

What pleases her are contemporary stories about American children, living moderately with their parents in ordinary houses in average-size cities. These are the stories Cleary wished had existed when she grew up in Portland. Book characters she read about, she says, ''lived in foreign countries, . . . (and) they had adventures that could never happen to any child I knew. Most of these children were uninterestingly well-behaved.''

After graduating from the University of Washington School of Librarianship, Cleary, a native of Oregon, became a children's librarian and storyteller in Yakima, Wash. Her first book, ''Henry Huggins,'' resulted from complaints by several young library visitors that there were no books about ordinary children like themselves. ''I didn't know how to write,'' the author admits, ''so I just wrote as I had told stories.'' She must have been a good storyteller, because ''Henry Huggins'' was named a Notable Book by the American Library Association.

Henry Huggins was a composite of boys Cleary had known as a child. Almost all of the author's ideas stem from her own childhood memories. Ramona Quimby's experiences are autobiographical, Cleary adds, explaining, ''I had the same feelings, but I didn't do the same things'' Ramona does.

The author has noticed, however, that the word ''bored'' appears more regularly in the letters children now send her. ''They seem less willing to put in the preliminary work that makes things easy enough to enjoy,'' she explains. ''TV has given them a superficial sophistication.''

How does she eliminate boredom from her books? By writing with zest, she says , and with a love for her subject. Careful planning and rigorous reworking of her drafts also contribute to the freshness and accuracy of detail. ''I think about a book long before I begin to write,'' Cleary says. The actual writing process - including the extensive editing the author particularly enjoys - takes about six months. ''I don't begin with Page 1,'' she explains. ''If I have characters vividly in mind, and several incidents, I just start writing.''

Cleary's zest, love for her subject, and originality have proved a successful combination. Her books appear in more than 10 countries in various languages. ''I'm amazed at all that's happened to me as a result of my own middle-class childhood,'' she admits.

Exceptionally nice things are happening this year for Beverly Cleary. Besides winning still more children's literature awards, she is finishing her 26th book, which her publisher, William Morrow & Co., plans to release this fall. Since the author has no plans to retire from writing, the day may come when her books will have a third generation of readers.

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