When children’s book author Beverly Cleary died this year on March 25 — just weeks before her 105th birthday — I was a bit surprised to see so many of my friends, near and far, share their feelings about her on social media. It was gratifying to see how many people loved her work, but I have to confess that I felt a tiny bit of proprietary jealousy, since I grew up in the same neighborhood where several of her most popular characters “lived.”
When my brother and I were quite small, we walked with our Grammy along a street that was entirely wooded on the north side for a block or so. We called it The Quiet Peaceful Street, and only found out years later that its real name was Klickitat Street … the same street where Henry Huggins, his dog Ribsy, and neighboring sisters Ramona and “Beezus” Quimby lived. Henry attended Glenwood Elementary School, which was so very close in name to the Fernwood Elementary I attended from kindergarten through third grade. I only found out after Ms. Cleary’s death that she herself had been a student at the same school, which was renamed for her in 2008. It is lovely looking back now to think that she and I roamed the same halls when we were young.
Because I felt so close to the world she created … and had actually lived in herself … I set out to do a little sleuthing about where exactly Beverly had lived. Of course the census records would show that, and all genealogists know where to find those online. Soon I had created a tiny family tree containing the future author and her parents: Beverly Atlee Bunn and parents C. Lloyd and Mabel (Atlee) Bunn. There was a coincidence! My Grampy, whose house was just a block from Fernwood/Glenwood School, was also named Lloyd. Beverly’s father was an Oregon native, which was fairly unusual for someone born in 1887. My curiosity was piqued, and I had to go further back.
Beverly’s father was an Oregon native, which was fairly unusual for someone born in 1887.
I knew that when Beverly Cleary was very young she lived in the rural community of Yamhill, Oregon: in fact, the title of her autobiography is A Girl from Yamhill. I expected that her father might have been born there, but was slightly surprised to find that he’d been born in the nearby town of Carlton … the same place where my Grampy’s father Vasco had been born in 1876. When I checked the 1880 census for Carlton, sure enough, there were the Bunns and Christys enumerated in the same town. They weren’t next-door neighbors, or even listed on the same page, but in a community contained on just eleven census pages, there’s a good likelihood that the families knew one another. Small world, indeed!
Something I was surprised to discover about Beverly Cleary was that it took her quite a long time to learn to read. In first grade she was mortified to be placed in the lowest reading group, and mused in later years that no one ever seemed to think there might be a connection between her academic struggles and the fact that she missed many weeks of school that year due to several illnesses—including smallpox. Those challenges were exacerbated by a cruel teacher who whacked her knuckles with a cane when her mind wandered.
A good friend of mine had similar experiences in second grade, when dyscalculia (exacerbated by a terrible “new math” curriculum the previous year) earned him the scorn of a teacher who struck students’ feet with a yardstick. Following my friend’s miserable year in second grade, the offending teacher was removed from his school, but the damage had been done. Decades later I was asked whether I could track the teacher down using my genealogical sleuthing techniques, and I was successful. It turned out that the woman had recently been widowed for the second time when she’d been my friend’s teacher. That was certainly not an excuse to victimize small children, but the knowledge of what his teacher had been going through brought him some healing. A slightly unorthodox use for genealogical research, perhaps, but one which some may wish to try for similar purposes.
 I feel pretty safe in saying that she and New York Times writer Nicholas Kristof are the two greatest authors to come from that sleepy burg.