On Friday, in the hours after the world learned of Beverly Cleary’s death (the 104-year-old Portland-raised children’s author passed the day before, on March 25, in her California home), many took to Twitter in her honor. “I’m incredibly saddened to hear about the passing of Beverly Cleary,” wrote Gov. Kate Brown. “[She] sparked a love of reading for generations of children.” “Her books gave me permission to write about Portland, to name the streets, the stores, the parks & libraries that raised me, to tell stories about joyful, thoughtful, rambunctious girls,” wrote writer Renée Watson, a Portland native. “Thank you, Beverly Cleary.”
Others followed US Rep. Earl Blumenauer’s lead and took to the Beverly Cleary Sculpture Garden in Grant Park (next to Grant High School, which Cleary attended), where bronze statues of Cleary characters Ramona Quimby, Henry Huggins, and Henry’s dog Ribsy have stood since 1995. Families, solo mourners, readers, and nonreaders alike trickled in slowly on Friday evening, in the hours before sunset, to leave flowers, books, notes, and candles for one of Portland’s most beloved and enduring icons.
Julie Gage grew upon NE Holman Street, near Ramona’s stomping grounds (she took piano lessons on Klickitat, where the fictional Quimbys lived), and her father taught at Grant High School. She remembers Cleary’s matter-of-fact approach to subjects like learning disabilities and economic hardship. “She just touched upon so many things that were so real-life in families, and having the fact that she’s from Portland, and that she talks about Portland—Klickitat Street and other things in Northeast Portland—really made it personal to us that lived here,” Gage says. “I’m just so sad. I think she becomes a little piece of you, and all of a sudden that little piece is gone, yet carries on, and I'm so grateful for what she's contributed. She brought a lot of joy to our family.” Gage and her husband, John, dropped a bouquet of flowers at Ramona’s feet.
Neon Brooks and John Dwyer brought their two young daughters to the garden—one, Junie, who celebrated her birthday there last summer, brought a handmade mask for Ramona. “Even 60 years after [Cleary] wrote many of these books, they’re really incomparable in terms of just expressing the realities of the lives of children,” says Brooks, who’s been reading Cleary’s books with Junie over the last year. “That’s the crux of it. She really captures the reality of children's emotional lives. There doesn’t have to be a big event happening to make kids feel something deep and important.”
Brooks grew up in the area, and reading about Ramona’s adventures helped connect her more deeply to the place she was raised. “We used to bike along the Klickitat mall. It definitely changes the way you think when you’re small and your world is so little—it does create that link to history, to how things have changed and how they’ve stayed the same,” she says. Dwyer calls Cleary “a neighborhood fixture”—when he and Brooks moved into the neighborhood, two people on their street dropped Beverly Cleary walking tour books by as housewarming gifts. The family set a small tea light by Ramona's feet, lit it, and then strapped into their cargo bike and headed home.
Several visitors showed up on behalf of family members who loved Cleary. Erin Please dropped a bundle of daisies (“Something a little springy, I thought that would go with Beverly’s vibe”) and recalled walks around Grant Park with their mother, who grew up in the area and shared Cleary’s books with Please and their brothers. “[My mom] loved … what was her name? Beverly … Cleary? I’d never heard of her until today,” says Aswad Malik, whose mother notified him of Cleary’s death from Singapore. He hiked it from Portland State University to Grant Park to send back photos of the tributes on Ramona, Henry, and Ribsy.
When Annie Adelson, an Oklahoma native visiting Portland from San Diego, received the news, she broke for the sculpture garden and called her friend Jen (a more casual Cleary fan) for moral support. Adelson recalls an iconic scene from Ramona Quimby, Age 8 where Ramona cracks what she thinks is a hardboiled egg on her head in the school cafeteria, only to find out her mother had forgotten to boil it.
“I read that when I was 7 or 8 maybe. And then when I was in my 20s, I was thinking about it for whatever reason, and I had an egg that I was 80 percent sure was hardboiled,” she says. “I called my little brother over, and I was like, ‘Peter, I think this egg is hardboiled, and I’ve wanted to crack an egg on someone’s head ever since I read this 18 years ago. Can I please crack this on your head?’ He was like, ‘How sure are you?’ And I was like, ‘80 percent. It’s not in the carton, it’s by itself in the fridge,’ and he said, ‘OK, fine.’ And I cracked it on his head. And, just like Ramona, it was raw."
"I saw myself in her characters. They were flawed, but I still wanted to be like them, and I think that's something that's really stuck with me and helped define my literary taste probably somehow," Adelson says.
Gretchen, who requested Portland Monthly not share her last name, showed up after receiving emails from her mother and sister on the East Coast about Cleary's passing. As she prepared to share her experiences with Cleary's work, she burst into tears. "I'm sorry, I didn't expect this," she says. She was in the middle of mentioning a key moment in Cleary's origin story, which most of her obits recalled: while she was working as a librarian, a "ferocious" young boy stared Cleary down across the circulation desk and asked her, "Where are the books about kids like us?"
"I said, 'You know what? I'm gonna go by that sculpture garden, which I always took for granted, to see if there are flowers or anything,'" Gretchen says. There were, in spades—not to mention handwritten notes, a growing pile of books, and a slow drip of TV cameras. "I'm just so glad that people remember her. I’m gonna come by tomorrow and Sunday to see if maybe more people are placing flowers.”
Listen: In this episode of Footnotes, Portland Monthly news editor Julia Silverman talks with author Lydia Kiesling about how Beverly Cleary wrote about motherhood, parenting, and Portland.