It's hard to believe that some of author Beverly Cleary's beloved characters are nearly 50 years old. Little Ramona Quimby, who got in trouble for pulling one of nemesis Susan's curls, middle-aged? Henry Huggins, owner of beloved dog Ribsy, ready for AARP? Could Ramona's big-sister Beezus actually be old enough to be Grandma Beezus?
But it's true, and Cleary herself turned 101 on April 12.
In a 2016 interview to celebrate her 100th birthday, Cleary was asked by TODAY's Jenna Bush Hager about her centennial birthday. Cleary responded with true Ramona spirit, saying, "Well, I didn't do it on purpose!"
She'd never assumed she'd make it to the century mark, Cleary said. "I remember a very earnest conversation my best friend and I had when we were, I guess, freshmen in high school, about how long we wanted to live," the author recalled. "And we decided that 80 was the cut-off date."
Two decades after that cut-off, it's not the awards or critical reviews that please Cleary the most, but how much her work delighted its young audience. She's proudest, she told TODAY, simply of "the fact that children love my books."
Growing up in rural Oregon, she herself came to books slowly, and didn't begin reading until second grade. She found children's books of the time uninteresting.
Cleary was born in McMinnville, Ore., moving to Portland at age six. She attended Fernwood and Gregory Heights grade schools and Grant High School, where a nearby park features a sculpture garden of the characters she created.
Fernwood has since been renamed Beverly Cleary School. Ramona Quimby's last name is a street in Northwest Portland. Ramona lived on Klickitat Street, a road just blocks from where Cleary grew up in Northeast Portland.
Books in those days, back in the 1920s, had been published in England, and the children had nannies and pony carts and they seemed like a bunch of sissies to me," she told TODAY.
Cleary's books have no pony carts or nannies. They burst with lively characters living in a real, recognizable world, tackling the experiences and emotions of actual American children. From getting stuck in new boots in a muddy parking lot to drawing up posters to convince a father to stop smoking, Ramona and her pals were as recognizable as a mirror.
She inspired other authors as well. "Beverly.. you were my inspiration when I started to write all those years ago," said legendary writer Judy Blume, author of "Are You There, God, It's Me, Margaret?" and many other young-adult novels. "You remain my inspiration today."