When children’s book author Beverly Cleary passed away earlier this year at the age of 104, there were many tributes, but little mention was made of what she accomplished promoting bicycling to children. Her books, written over a period of 50 years and still in publication, revolve around children like Henry Huggins and Ramona Quimby with bicycles playing an integral role in their adventures.
On Saturday, there’s a Pedalpalooza ride where you can celebrate Cleary and learn more about her writing and local legacy. As a huge fan of riding bikes and her books, I thought I’d help get us in the mood with a review of Cleary’s cycling-centric work.
In one example of how her writing related to bikes, Cleary longed for a bicycle as a child, but didn’t get her own until 7th grade due to financial limitations. She used this experience for her first book “Henry Huggins” published in 1950. Here’s an excerpt that includes the name of a local street you might be familiar with:
Henry pressed his nose against the windowpane and looked out at Klickitat Street. The only person he saw was Scooter McCarthy, who was riding up and down the sidewalk on his bicycle.
“I sure wish I had a bike,” remarked Henry to his mother and father, as he watched Scooter. “I wish you did, too,” agreed his mother, “but with prices and taxes going up all the time, I’m afraid we can’t get you one this year.” “Maybe things will be better next year,” said Mr. Huggins, dropping the funnies and picking up the sport section. Henry sighed. He wanted a bicycle now. He could see himself riding up and down Klickitat Street on a shiny red bike. He would wear his genuine Daniel Boone coonskin cap with the snap-on tail, only he wouldn’t wear the tail fastened to the hat. He would tie it to the handle bars so that it would wave in the breeze as he whizzed along.
In a coincidence bordering on precognition, decades later Northeast Klickitat Street would become a major bike route in Portland’s neighborhood greenway network.
This passage also set the stage for Cleary’s next book in the Henry series published in 1952 and titled “Henry and Beezus.” This involves Henry’s fund-raising efforts to get a bike with the help of his friend Beezus Quimby. He eventually succeeds as told in this final passage that just about any kid who’s gotten a brand-new bike can relate to:
“Gee. . . .” Henry shoved up the parking stand and wheeled his bike out of the shop. His very own bicycle! He ran his fingers over the shiny frame and felt the leather on the seat. He turned on the built-in headlight and sounded the horn. Then he unsnapped his snap-on raccoon tail and fastened it to the handlebars. It was perfect.
Henry beamed at his father. “So long, Dad. See you at home.” He threw his leg over the bike and rode off without wobbling once. Ribsy loped along beside him, and his father smiled and waved. Henry turned down Klickitat Street so he could pass Scooter’s house. When he saw Scooter sitting on his front steps folding Journals, he sounded his horn. He had waited a long time for this moment. “Hi, Scoot,” he said casually, as he pedaled by with his spokes twinkling in the sunshine and his raccoon tail fluttering in the breeze.
Henry’s bike adventures continued in later books, including getting a job delivering newspapers in “Henry and the Paper Route.” The Henry series concluded in 1964 setting the stage for a series of books with Ramona now elevated to being the central character.
Ramona Quimby is the precocious little sister of Beezus, and initially she’s a tike riding a tricycle. But she longs to be on two wheels like the older kids in the neighborhood. This desire is amusingly related in “Ramona the Pest” when her friend Howie removes one of the rear wheels of the tricycle transforming it into a lopsided two-wheeler that can still be carefully ridden. By the time Cleary wrote the sixth book in the series “Ramona Quimby, Age 8” she’s ready for some real two-wheeled adventures. Here’s a passage upon which the book’s cover illustration is based:
Ramona sat on the Kemps’ front steps, her arms clasped around her knees, her Sustained Silent Reading book of fairy tales beside her, and looked with longing at the boys’ two bicycles while Howie wheeled his bicycle out of the garage. Because Howie was kind and because Ramona was his friend, he asked, “Ramona, would you like to ride my bicycle to the corner and back?” Would she!
Ramona jumped up, eager to take a turn. “Just once,” said Howie. Ramona mounted the bicycle and, while the three boys silently watched, teetered and wobbled to the corner without falling off. Having to dismount to turn the bicycle around was embarrassing, but riding back was easier—at least she didn’t wobble quite so much—and she managed to dismount as if she were used to doing so. All I need is a little practice, thought Ramona, as Howie seized his bicycle and rode off with his friends.
Besides Klickitat Street, Cleary used a number of local landmarks in the Portland neighborhoods of Grant Park and Hollywood. This has made walking tours of the area popular with the Multnomah County Library publishing a Beverly Cleary Map of the area. Cleary even conducted a tour of the area herself with a TV reporter in 2012. During that tour Cleary stands across the street from the house of her childhood best friend, which became Henry Huggins’ house in her books. Sadly, that house was later torn down. But on a positive note, Fernwood Grammar School, which she attended, was renamed Beverly Cleary School in 2008!
To learn more about the area and Cleary’s real and fictional relationship to it, read the book Walking with Ramona by Laura O. Foster (available from Microcosm Publishing, a firm run by long-term BikePortland columnist Elly Blue). And be sure to attend the family-friendly Beverly Cleary Memorial Ride on August 7.
— Tom Howe, email@example.com
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