Beverly Cleary: She Inspired Many, But What Were Her Inspirations?

Picture of Beverly Cleary
Source: Christina Kochi Hernandez/Getty Images

By Suzanne W. Hawley, MLS

I sighed sadly when I read of Beverly Cleary’s death on March 25. Those of us who work with children’s books revered her as an iconic figure in our field. She lived a long and full life, but I guess I thought she would always be with us. Still, 104 years isn’t bad!

Cleary often spoke about the original inspiration for her first novel, “Henry Huggins,” which was published in 1950. After college at UC Berkeley, she returned to her childhood home of Oregon to work as a librarian in Yakima. Tired of hearing her young patrons asking for “books about us,” and remembering she had experienced the same frustrations as a youngster, she set to work. To all of our enduring delight, she succeeded in developing the magical recipe for funny, smart stories about engaging characters…just like the kids in her own neighborhood.

Many years ago, I had the pleasure of listening to Cleary at an ALA Conference. She was an absolute delight. She was charming, funny, and perhaps a little shy. She talked about her life and career and included several stories about how her books came to life. Someone asked about the inspiration for “The Mouse and the Motorcycle.”

In the story, when Keith, the young hotel guest, leaves his room, Ralph S. Mouse scurries out from his piney knot, runs up a telephone wire, and jumps on the toy motorcycle that Keith has left behind. Ralph’s joyride ends when he and the motorcycle land in a trash can! Cleary created such a wonderful word picture of this escapade that I still laugh every time I read it.

Mouse and the Motorcycle Cover

So how did she come up with the idea for this book? Here’s the backstory. On one occasion, Cleary and her young son and daughter accompanied her husband on a business trip to England. During the trip, her son became ill and Mr. Cleary went shopping for something to take the boy’s mind off his ailment. A Hot Wheels motorcycle was the perfect answer. Needless to say, the toy was a hit, and her son had endless fun running it up and down the ridged lines on his bedspread: perfect roads for a small motorcycle.

Sometime later, when back at home, Ms. Cleary was working in her garden. She was sitting on the ground in front of a bench planting flowers when she heard scrambling behind her, followed by a loud noise. She looked up to where a large metal can sat at the end of the bench. Upon investigation, Cleary discovered that a mouse had run down the bench behind her, and instead of hopping to the ground, fell into the trash can. Add those two episodes together and voila! You have the ingredients for a delightful and enduring children’s story—at least at the hands of Beverly Cleary.

I told this account many times to groups of kids in my libraries and they reacted as I did: completely enthralled! Thank you, Beverly Cleary, for providing such wonderful stories for so many generations.

In addition to selecting children and young adult materials for library collections, Suzy Hawley spends her days interfering in her children’s lives as much as possible, wheedling her husband into cooking dinner just one more time, and walking on the beach. Click here for more.

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