Imagining the Timeless Childhood of Beverly Cleary’s Portland

Fifteen months ago I traveled to Portland, Ore., To visit the children’s betting and the homes of Beverly Cleary, the beloved and award-winning author of over 40 children’s and young adult books. I was accompanied by my husband and our daughter, all three Ramona Quimby lovers, we parents who have read all the books as children, before re-reading them aloud to our child.

With an overseas move on the horizon, we decided to visit the city that plays its own subtle but essential role in the author’s most popular novels: Portland, with its moody rain and muddy potholes, the streets named after the periphery. Indigenous tribes welcoming libraries and parks full of worms. Mrs. Cleary’s childhood Oregon clearly inspired her imagination – among her books, almost half of them are in Portland.

So, in the last days of December 2019, we took a trip to the city of Roses, visited the northeastern Grant Park and the Hollywood neighborhoods of Mrs. Cleary’s childhood. Little did I know then that this would be our last family vacation before the Corona pandemic – and I could not imagine how often I would return to these memories during the months of our confinement.


When Mrs. Cleary died on March 25 at the age of 104, my grief over the loss of a beloved author who was named “Living Legend” by the Library of Congress in 2000 was associated with memories of our journey. Browse the photos of our trip, the simple scenes of craftsmen houses, green parks and full of children’s libraries caused a lost innocence.

As a kid, I used to love Mrs. Cleary’s books because they did not give in. Her characters are ordinary children who succumb to common temptations, such as squeezing an entire tube of toothpaste into the sink or taking the first, juicy bite from each apple in the box.

As an adult, reading the books aloud to my daughter impressed me with their sense of timelessness – sisters struggling with rivalry, parents facing financial worries and job losses. The author’s father lost his Yamhill farm when he was 6 years old, moving the family about 40 miles northeast of Portland – the “city of regular wages, namely sidewalks instead of promenades, lawns and flower beds, trams instead of hacks “from the livery stall, a library with a children’s room that looked as big as a Masonic room,” she wrote in her 1988 memoir, “A Girl from Yamhill.”

I was thinking this when I saw one of Mrs. Cleary’s favorite orphanages, a mediocre, bungalows near Grant Park, on a block lined with narrow houses. She ran with a gang of “kids of the right age to play,” and their fugitives longed for stories about neighborhood kids. “I longed for books for the children of Hancock Street,” he wrote in “A Girl from Yamhill.” In her stories, she changed Hancock Street to Klickitat Street “because I always liked the sound of the name when I lived nearby.”

We found Klickitat Street of Books nearby, along with Tillamook Street, both named after Native American tribes of the Pacific Northwest. As my 6-year-old daughter ran, looking for vintage rings, I imagined Ramona – or even a young Beverly – on these same sidewalks, clinging to stilts from coffee pots and two-pound twine or climbing the sidewalk to watch the parade. of the Rose Festival.

In the following days, we found the author’s former elementary school, a brick building now called the Beverly Cleary School, Fernwood Campus. We stopped at Multnomah County Central Library, an impressive brick structure in the city center where she did “practical work” as a student librarian in the summer (and where the children’s section bears her name). We ate donuts and pizza. We visited Grant Park, where local artist Lee Hunt created a trio of bronze sculptures depicting three of Mrs. Cleary’s favorite characters: Henry Huggins, his dog, Ribsy, and Ramona, posing as if on the move.

Credit…Ann Mach

Although it was a typical Portland winter day – wet – nothing could diminish my daughter’s joy when she saw her favorite characters perform slightly older than life. He ran to hold Ramona’s hand, to radiate, and the image we took will burn forever in my heart.

For my daughter, the best part of the trip was our visit to the Willamette Valley town of Yamhill, where we took a look at the Victorian house where Mrs. Cleary spent the first six years of her life. We spent the night in a vintage trailer park nearby, sleeping in a 1963 Airstream Overlander, as I imagined the author could have done with her own young family. For dinner, we cooked hot dogs and marshmallows, a meal that my daughter still describes as one of the best in her life.

These are the memories I have of last year as the pandemic has stolen the simple pleasures of life. A wet afternoon in the park. Warm up at library history time. A cup of hot chocolate was drunk in a full coffee. The rain is hitting the metal roof of our caravan, reminding me of the creative inspiration Mrs. Cleary described in “A Girl From Yamhill”: “Every time it rains, I feel the urge to write. Most of my books are written in the winter. “

Before our trip, I wondered if my daughter was too young for a literary pilgrimage – and maybe it was, because there were times when she was looking for another thread of the author’s childhood to test her patience. And yet, even though it was only a few days, our journey has captured her memory. He speaks it now with crystalline precision, reminiscent of the last days before the strange year of our lives.

Our last morning in Portland was found by a tired group of travelers as we waited to board the flight before dawn. Queuing at the airport coffee counter for muffins and hot drinks – but when I tried to pay, the cashier told me that an anonymous stranger had bought us breakfast.

“Mom! It’s just like in the book!” My daughter shouted. It took me a few minutes to realize he was talking about a scene from “Ramona Quimby, Age 8” when the Quimby family – worn out by financial worries, family quarrels and sad weather – was trying to get excited about an unbearable hamburger dinner. financially, just to have a polite gentleman anonymously get his check.

This moment seems like a dream now, disconnected as we are from each other, we all exist in our bubbles. But one day we will soon meet again and touch each other’s lives, not only as friends and family, but also as strangers. In the meantime, we have Beverly Cleary books that remind us.

Ann Mah, author of the novel, The Lost Vintage, lives in Hanoi, Vietnam.

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