In Henry Huggins' neighborhood Tribute: A sculpture garden in Portland, Ore., honors beloved children's author Beverly Cleary and her classic characters.

Sun Journal

July 08, 1996|By Mark Hyman | Mark Hyman,SUN STAFF

PORTLAND, Ore. -- For nearly five decades, the only place to visit Henry Huggins, children's literature's most famous newspaper-delivery boy, was the shelf of a bookstore or a library.

Now, there's an artful alternative.

Fans of Henry can drop by the Beverly Cleary sculpture garden. In a city park, beside a row of well-worn tennis courts, they can poke Henry's arm, bark at his faithful dog, Ribsy, and wag a disapproving finger at their precocious pal, Ramona Quimby.

The garden is a tribute to Cleary, a longtime Portland resident and one of the world's most beloved children's authors.

Her books for young readers, beginning with "Henry Huggins" in 1950 and including such children's classics as "Ramona the Pest" and "Dear Mr. Henshaw," have sold 75 million copies, in 20 countries in 14 languages.

The sculpture garden is expected to open officially later this month. Committee members will turn on a fountain that squirts water between the life-size bronze statues, which were sculpted by artist Lee Hunt.

The project has been in the planning stages almost 20 years. The past five have been a whirl of activity for a group of local residents devoted to Cleary's work. During that time, they won the author's approval for their idea, enlisted city government support and mounted a national fund-raising campaign that netted $227,000.

Portland residents consider the money well spent.

"The average Portlander reveres Mrs. Cleary," says Doris Kimmel, co-chairman of Friends of Henry and Ramona, the nonprofit organization that raised the money. "She's like a great-aunt. Her books are so wonderful. For many children, they were the first chapter books they ever read."

Cleary, 80, says she's pleased the garden has become a local gathering place. Her mail tells her that it's also fast becoming a tourist destination.

"I've heard of schools in Oregon that have gone on field trips to see it," she says from her home in Carmel, Calif., where she has been living several years with her husband, Clarence. "I get letters from visitors to Portland who have been there. If it encourages children to read, it's wonderful."

Cleary has proved to be a children's author with staying power. ** Other writers connect with young readers for a while -- Judy Blume in the 1980s and R. L. Stine, whose "Goosebumps" series is the current rage. But Cleary's work is durable. She has never stopped writing. After "Henry Huggins," she turned out a book a year for the next 25, pausing -- for now -- at 39. The books rarely have been out of print and remain strong sellers.

The appeal of Cleary's books is simply explained: She creates believable characters. Then she places them in real, often amusing, situations. Like the time Henry sold night crawlers door-to-door to pay for his friend's football. Or Ramona baked a birthday cake, mixing her favorite doll into the batter.

"Mrs. Cleary gets into the minds of children to an uncanny degree," says Eric A. Kimmel, Doris' husband, who is the author of about three dozen children's books and a former professor of children's literature at Portland State University. "Her books are very funny, but her characters don't necessarily do stupid or silly things.

"It's children trying to cope with the difference between what adults say and what they mean. Or kids figuring out how to solve a problem and maybe not going about it in the wisest or most efficient way."

The idea for a sculpture garden honoring Cleary's characters was hatched by the Kimmels almost 20 years ago.

The couple had recently moved to Portland and were settling into their home on the city's northeast side. One day, Eric Kimmel went out for a walk, hoping to meet a few neighbors and learn street names.

He'd walked several blocks when he came upon a street sign that stopped him. It said, "Klickitat Street."

"I thought, 'I've never been here before, but I know Klickitat Street. Why do I know Klickitat Street?'

"All of a sudden it came to me: 'For Pete's sake, Henry Huggins lives on Klickitat Street.' "

The Kimmels learned that they had moved into the neighborhood of tidy, wood-frame houses where Cleary grew up in the '20s and '30s. In her books, they discovered dozens of references to the streets, schools and other landmarks.

"I was astonished," Eric Kimmel says. "It was all right there. I'd moved to Henry Huggins' neighborhood and never realized it."

The Kimmels began to discuss a tribute to Cleary and her books. Eric Kimmel mentioned the idea to his students, inviting them to join with him in launching a campaign to honor Cleary.

One student accepted, and the project was off and running.

Over the next decade, the group's biggest challenge was raising money. Foundations and corporate givers chipped in $90,000, but most of the money came in small donations from across the country.

Maxine Behling, a retired schoolteacher in Maryland, sent a donation after learning about the project at a convention for librarians.

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