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The Real Ramona

klickitat_streetI worked with Beverly Cleary for nearly twenty years, so it’s beyond difficult to pick from so many wonderful memories. Here are two that I hope capture both her remarkable sense of humor and her unwavering integrity.

cleary_ramona quimby age 8Soon after becoming editor in chief at Morrow, I accompanied Beverly to the ALA Annual convention in Philadelphia, where she was to receive a Newbery Honor for Ramona Quimby, Age 8. The awards ceremony was held in a grand old hotel with an enormous curved stairway that went from the balcony to the floor of the ballroom. The award-winning authors and their editors assembled on the balcony. We were told that after the master of ceremonies announced our name, each of us should proceed down the staircase. But curved stairways are tricky because the outer edge is much narrower than the part near the wall. What they hadn’t told us was that the room would be dark and that they would shine a spotlight on us as we descended. Going down narrow stairs in the dark with a spotlight in your face is terrifying. When I finally got to my seat next to Beverly, who had preceded me down the stairs, I told her I had been sure I would trip and fall on my face in front of a thousand people. She laughed and said, “I thought I was going to fall backward and as I slid down the stairs my dress would fly over my head!”

*   *   *   *

Many years passed, and with nearly every one of them I received a letter from a Hollywood studio asking if Beverly would agree to a movie about Ramona. Beverly was interested, but she had two conditions. First, the film had to be based on her books, not new stories the studio invented. Beverly also wanted approval of the screenplay to make sure her characters sounded like themselves.

The studios always refused. They explained that if the movie was a big success, people would want sequels, and eventually the studio would run out of existing stories. Beverly understood this, but she was firm; she wouldn’t turn her characters over to the whims of a studio. The executives also refused to allow her to approve the screenplay. They said if they did this for her, it would open the door for other authors who wanted approval. Beverly understood this as well, but she wouldn’t budge.

cleary_ramona quimby age 8 updateThen in 1994 an award-winning director approached us. Beverly loved this woman’s work, so she agreed to meet her instead of negotiating by phone. Beverly flew to New York, and we gathered in Morrow’s conference room. The director lavishly praised Beverly’s books and then outlined the movie she wanted to make. Beverly was impressed with the presentation, but she told the woman her two conditions nevertheless.

The director very politely explained why both were impossible. Beverly said she knew these would be difficult; she’d heard this many times before. Still, she couldn’t allow sequels that were not based on the books, and she wouldn’t allow screenwriters to put words in Ramona’s mouth that didn’t sound like something Ramona would say.

The director paused, and then she pounced: “But Mrs. Cleary, this movie will make you rich!” And Beverly said, “Thank you, but I already have enough money.” The director pounced again with what she must have thought was the dealmaker: “But Mrs. Cleary, this movie will make you famous!” Beverly smiled and said, “Well, I already get more mail than I can answer.”

The director was stunned. She sat there for a minute and then she, too, smiled. “Rich. Famous. That’s all I’ve got.” And she left, laughing.

From the March/April 2016 issue of The Horn Book Magazine. Happy 100th Birthday, Beverly Cleary! For more, click the tag Beverly Cleary at 100.

David Reuther About David Reuther

From 1982 to 1998, David Reuther was publisher of Morrow Junior Books, where he edited a dozen books by Beverly Cleary, including her 1984 Newbery Medal winner, Dear Mr. Henshaw.

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Comments

  1. This is a wonderful story. Thank you, David, for adding even more ‘life’ to Beverly Cleary.

  2. I was a reluctant reader. Ramona was the book that changed all that and made me love reading.
    My family never had the money to buy the series so I would borrow them from the local council library.
    I am now a single mother of 5 children and a teacher of primary school students. Not a year passes when I don’t somehow expose all those little treasures around me to Beverley Cleary’s books.
    She is a legend and it is her I have to thank for my love of books and my passion to have the children under my care love them equally. Thank you. You have made a difference in my life.

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