The beloved author of intermediate-level young adult novels, who got her master's degree at the University of Washington and has sold 91 million copies of her books since they were first published in 1950, turns 101 years old today.
On this list of authors who have lived past the age of 100, she is literally the only one I've heard of.
Last year, the New York Times reached out to her at the retirement home in Carmel, California, where she lives, and asked her how it felt to be 100.
“I didn’t plan on it,” she explained dryly.
According to that piece, Cleary was working as a librarian in Yakima, Washington, when she wrote her first book, Henry Huggins. A boy at the library "complained that there weren't any books about kids like him."
In response, Cleary sat down and wrote about Henry Huggins and his dog, Spareribs. She thought her characters needed siblings, so she decided to torment Henry’s friend Beezus with a pesky little sister—“and at that moment someone called out ‘Ramona,’ so I named her Ramona.”
An editor suggested a few changes—such as turning “Spareribs” into “Ribsy”—and the book was published to immediate acclaim. Later volumes followed, including a series focused on Ramona, one of the great figures in children’s literature.
As I wrote on Slog last year, I distinctly remember staying home sick from school and reading Henry Huggins when I was in fifth grade or so. I could not get enough of Henry Huggins. He had Ribsy, a paper route, and a raccoon-tail hat. Whatever it was that made him fascinating, I can't remember (was he my first crush?), but I couldn't stop reading, and there were so many more books about Henry and his friends to get to, so the next day, I pretended to still be sick so I could stay in bed reading.
Her books were set in Portland, Oregon. "The elementary school she attended in Portland was named after her in 2008," The New Yorker pointed out last year. "There are statues of Ramona Quimby, Henry Huggins, and Ribsy in Grant Park, in Portland, a few blocks from Klickitat Street."
These days, she lives "in a very pleasant place with a very nice room that looks out on trees and rabbits and birds," she told the Washington Post in 2016. She spends her days reading, doing crossword puzzles, watching CNN, and writing letters to people—although "when you get to be 99, there aren’t many people to write letters to."
And on her birthday, to celebrate? Carrot cake. "Because I like it."