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‘Blackbird’ soars as author

Editor’s note: In celebration of Love of Reading Week, the Feb. 13 edition of the Tucson Citizen Family Plus will kick off a 13-week serial of Beverly Cleary’s classic children’s favorite “The Mouse and the Motorcycle.” Before launching into this whimsical tale, read about this author who went from the bottom of her first-grade reading group to eventually become one of the most beloved children’s authors of all time.

She would become one of this century’s most popular writers for children, but you would never have guessed it to look at her sitting in the row against the blackboard with all the boys.

She was the only girl assigned to the “blackbird” reading group, the lowest in that Portland, Ore., first grade. How could such a thing happen? Why, her mother used to be a schoolteacher and had surrounded her with books and reading since infancy. She’d always told the girl that school was wonderful and so were books and reading.

But not this stuff, thought little Beverly Bunn, who would someday become Beverly Cleary. She desperately wanted to learn to read so her mother would be pleased, but she just couldn’t do it. Which made her fear another switching with the teacher’s bamboo pointer or banishment to the smelly cloak room.

At the end of the year she was promoted, but on trial, something her stunned mother made her promise to keep a secret. But that probationary second-grader would one day write stories that made the life of elementary school children so much happier and exciting than hers had been.

One day in third grade, on a rainy Sunday afternoon with nothing to do, she picked up a copy of “The Dutch Twins,” to look at the pictures. But soon she was intrigued enough to start reading, and keep on reading.

The Rose City Branch Library became a home away from home for Beverly. What she always looked for, but seldom found, were books about herself – stories about kids in a neighborhood like hers with parents and friends and pets who had exciting and funny things happen to them. By now her teachers and mother began to see the glimmer of talent and encouraged her. Her seventh-grade teacher told the class, “When Beverly grows up, she should write children’s books.”

After college, her first job was as a librarian, reading to children at story hours. She saw herself in their eyes, the little girl from the blackbird group. In 1950, after prodding from her husband, she wrote a book about a boy and his dog and their friends, all of whom lived on Klickitat Street in Portland, a real street that was a few blocks from where she lived as a child. The boy and his friends were real, too, because they represented all the kids she grew up with. That first book was “Henry Huggins.”

The schoolteacher’s daughter had remembered her lessons well. She remembered to write simply and put in some humor. And she never forgot the little girl in the blackbird group. In Beverly’s books, that little girl is Ramona Quimby, by far the most popular of all her characters.

Cleary’s young fantasy novels include “The Mouse and the Motorcycle,” “Runaway Ralph” and “Ralph S. Mouse.” “Dear Mr. Henshaw,” (winner of the Newbery medal as the finest children’s novel in 1984) is regarded by many to be her finest and most modern novel.

Cleary, 90, lives in Carmel, Calif.

Excerpt by Jim Trelease, copyright 1992, used by permission of the author, excerpted from “Hey! Listen to This” (Penguin Books, 1992).


Newspapers in Education, a program of Tucson Newspapers Inc., will send parents, grandparents and others an additional newspaper reading activity guide in English or Spanish to compliment “The Mouse and the Motorcycle” for use at home with young children.

For the materials, contact Janet Wood at 573-4495 or jwood@tucson.com.

This serial is part of National Drop Everything and Read Day, slated for April 12, which happens to be Beverly Cleary’s 91st birthday.

Citizen Online Archive, 2006-2009

This archive contains all the stories that appeared on the Tucson Citizen's website from mid-2006 to June 1, 2009.

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For all of the stories that were archived by the Tucson Citizen newspaper's library in a digital archive between 1993 and 2009, go to Morgue Part 2

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