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The Stories Behind 15 Poems We All Learned in School

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Poetry can seem impenetrable for many readers, but the best examples usually have a simple message behind all the flowery language and symbolism. Whether they're tragic or funny, romantic or frightening, the timeless ones are always anchored in the real world—you might just have to give them a careful read to find the meaning.

Part of the reason why certain poems can endure for centuries is because the poets themselves are inspired by the same types of issues we endure every day: love, loss, fear, rage. The best of these works have a backstory that's just as interesting as the verses themselves; here's the story behind 15 poems we all learned in school.

1. "INVICTUS" // W.E. HENLEY

Perhaps no other poet on this list put their struggles down on paper as succinctly as W.E. Henley did with "the age of Invictus." At 12, Henley was diagnosed with arthritic tuberculosis, which eventually required the amputation of one leg during his late teens, and the possibility of losing the other. Refusing this fate, when Henley was in his mid-twenties, he instead turned to Dr. Joseph Lister, who performed an alternative surgery that saved the leg.

It was during the years spent in the hospital that Henley wrote "Invictus," a stark proclamation of his resistance against life's trials and tragedies. "Out of the night that covers me," it starts, "Black as the pit from pole to pole/I thank whatever gods may be/For my unconquerable soul." The poem famously ends with "I am the master of my fate/I am the captain of my soul."

It's a poem that endures across all races and cultures. It was an inspiration to Nelson Mandela during his imprisonment and has been referenced in countless movies, television shows, and books ever since its publication in 1888.

2. "THE RED WHEELBARROW" // WILLIAM CARLOS WILLIAMS

A picture of a red wheelbarrow
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It was originally published without a title—simply known by the number XXII—but "The Red Wheelbarrow" has grown into one of the most memorable short poems of the 20th century. It sprung from the mind of William Carlos Williams, whose day job was as a doctor in northern New Jersey. It's only 16 words, but it paints an unforgettable picture:

"so much depends
upon

a red wheel
barrow

glazed with rain
water

beside the white
chickens."

Williams had said that the imagery was inspired by a patient of his that he had grown close to while making a house call. "In his backyard," Williams said of the man, "I saw the red wheelbarrow surrounded by the white chickens. I suppose my affection for the old man somehow got into the writing."

It took some research and census records, but William Logan, an English professor at the University of Florida, finally discovered in 2015 that the man was Thaddeus Lloyd Marshall Sr. of Rutherford, New Jersey.

3. "IF—" // RUDYARD KIPLING

Rudyard Kipling portrait
Elliott & Fry, Hulton Archive/Getty Images

There may be no more fitting national mantra for the British people than Rudyard Kipling's "If—." The poem, which champions stoicism, is routinely one of the UK's favorites in polls, with lines like "If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster/And treat those two impostors just the same" and "If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew/To serve your turn long after they are gone" serving as a rallying cry for the stiff-upper-lip crowd.

For everything that Kipling put on the page, the story behind the poem is just as notable. Kipling was inspired by the actions of Leander Starr Jameson, a politician and adventurer responsible for leading the infamous Jameson Raid, a failed attempt over the 1895-96 New Year holiday to incite an uprising among the British "Uitlanders" in South Africa against the Boers, or the descendants of early, chiefly Dutch, settlers.

The raid was a catastrophe, and Jameson and his surviving men were extradited back to England for trial as the government condemned the attempt. He was sentenced to 15 months (though he was released early), but his actions had gained the respect of the people of England—Jameson was punished, but it was felt that he was betrayed by his own government, including Colonial Secretary Joseph Chamberlain, who was widely suspected of having supported the raid during the planning but denounced it when it failed.

This theme can be read in Kipling’s words "If you can keep your head when all about you/Are losing theirs and blaming it on you" and "If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,/Or being lied about, don't deal in lies,/Or being hated, don't give way to hating."

4. "JABBERWOCKY" // LEWIS CARROLL

Statue of Alice in Wonderland
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Long before Lewis Carroll introduced the nonsensical "Jabberwocky" in 1871's Through the Looking-Glass, he wrote a rough version of the poem in 1855 under the title "Stanza of Anglo-Saxon Poetry." It appeared in the periodical he created to amuse his friends and family called Mischmasch.

The poem featured the stanza: "Twas bryllyg, and the slythy toves/Did gyre and gymble in the wabe/All mimsy were the borogoves;/And the mome raths outgrabe," which would remain (though slightly tweaked) in Looking-Glass years later as both the first and final stanzas.

When he wrote Looking-Glass, Carroll returned to the basic foundation of the poem, but he added the five middle stanzas that introduced the Jabberwock. The inspiration behind the monster itself has been said to be anything from Beowulf to a local folk monster called the Sockburn Worm from the village of Croft-on-Tees, where Carroll wrote.

So where did Carroll get the name Jabberwock from? The author himself later explained it by saying "The Anglo-Saxon word 'wocer' or 'wocor' signifies 'offspring' or 'fruit'. Taking 'jabber' in its ordinary acceptation of 'excited and voluble discussion,' this would give the meaning of ‘the result of much excited discussion.'"

If all that still sounds like nonsense to you—well, that's probably how he wanted it.

5. "WE REAL COOL" // GWENDOLYN BROOKS

A picture of a pool table
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Gwendolyn Brooks was the first African American to win the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry and became "Poet Laureate" in the 1985–86 term (back when the position was properly called Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress). Despite all the accolades, Brooks might be best known to casual readers for the poem "We Real Cool," a brief, four-verse piece that depicts the lives of young people playing pool, drinking gin, and "singing sin."

Brooks was inspired to write the poem when she was walking through her neighborhood and noticed seven young boys at the local pool hall during school hours. As she said during a live reading of the poem, she wasn't so much concerned with why they weren't in school, she was more curious with "how they feel about themselves."

Apparently the answer is "real cool."

6. "THE RAVEN" // EDGAR ALLAN POE

The front of Edgar Allan Poe house
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A lot of real-life inspiration went into Edgar Allan Poe's "The Raven." First, there was the fact that his wife was deathly ill with tuberculosis during the time of writing and publication. Then, the raven itself was partly inspired by one owned by Charles Dickens, who had also been inspired to include it in his own book, Barnaby Rudge. (Rudge's raven even coaxes a character to exclaim "What was that? Him tapping at the door?" Similar to Poe's "rapping at my chamber door" raven.)

But while so many great works have backstories that are more legend than fact, Poe detailed his writing process of "The Raven" in the essay "The Philosophy of Composition." Here he revealed in meticulous detail how he came up with the tone, rhythm, and form of the poem, even going as far as to claim he decided on the refrain of "nevermore" because "the long o as the most sonorous vowel, in connection with r as the most producible consonant."

7. "THE ROAD NOT TAKEN" // ROBERT FROST

Poet Robert Frost posing for a photo
Library of Congress, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

For "The Road Not Taken," poet Robert Frost found inspiration in his friend, English literary critic Edward Thomas. It was originally conceived as sort of an inside joke at Thomas's expense, a callback to the fact that Thomas would always regret whatever path the two of them would take when out walking together.

It's a very human instinct to regret or overthink our choices and wonder—often in vain—what the alternative would be like. While many people tend to think the poem is about the triumph of individuality, some argue that it's really about regret and how we either celebrate our successes or blame our misfortunes on our seemingly arbitrary choices.

When you read it like that, saying "And that has made all the difference" smacks of a bit more irony than it did back when you first read it in high school.

8. "THE NEW COLOSSUS" // EMMA LAZARUS

An image of the Statue of Liberty
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When Emma Lazarus wrote "The New Colossus" in 1883, it was only meant to be part of an auction to raise money for the foundation for the Statue of Liberty. It sold for $1500—not bad for a 105-word sonnet written in two days—but though it was printed in some limited-release pamphlets by the fundraising group, the poem wasn't read at the dedication of the statue in 1886.

Unfortunately, Lazarus never got to see how far and wide her words would resonate—when she died in 1887, her New York Times obituary didn't even mention the poem. It was only well after the statue had been completed that "The New Colossus" was added to its base, thanks to the urging of Lazarus's friend and admirer Georgina Schuyler. Then, slowly, "Give me your tired, your poor/Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free" entered the public lexicon and became ingrained as part of America's national identity.

9. "O CAPTAIN! MY CAPTAIN!" // WALT WHITMAN

A photograph of Walt Whitman
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Walt Whitman witnessed the Civil War up close. Though he was already in his forties during the fighting, he volunteered at hospitals in the Washington, D.C. area—sometimes he would bring food and supplies to the soldiers, other times he just kept them company.

Seeing the schism the war had caused, Whitman began to take a genuine interest in, and found a deep respect for, the burden President Abraham Lincoln was dealing with. When Lincoln was assassinated in 1865, Whitman channeled his grief into a number of poems, the most famous being "O Captain! My Captain!"

The poem was a metaphor for what the country had just been through—America itself as the ship that had just weathered a great storm, and Lincoln as the fallen captain, whose "lips are pale and still."

10. "SHE WALKS IN BEAUTY" // LORD BYRON

A row of books by Lord Byron
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The story behind the lyrical poem "She Walks in Beauty" is as lovely as the verse Lord Byron weaved. In June 1814, Byron attended a London party where he first saw Anne Wilmot, his cousin's wife. She was wearing a striking black mourning dress that was adorned in spangles, and her beauty inspired Byron's poem, most famously its first four lines:

“She walks in beauty, like the night
Of cloudless climes and starry skies;
And all that's best of dark and bright
Meet in her aspect and her eyes.”

Some have interpreted the "cloudless climes and starry skies" as a description of the famous dress that drew Byron's attention to Mrs. Wilmot.

11. "THE NEGRO SPEAKS OF RIVERS" // LANGSTON HUGHES

Poet Langston Hughes

He was just 19 when he published this poem, but Langston Hughes's "The Negro Speaks of Rivers" is one of his most well-known works. The idea came to him while he was traveling by train to Mexico City to visit his father—specifically, as he was crossing the Mississippi River near St. Louis, Missouri.

In the poem, the narrator speaks of rivers—how they're ancient, older than humans themselves. He also says, despite this, he knows rivers. "My soul has grown deep like the rivers." He's bathed in the Euphrates, built a hut on the Congo, looked upon the Nile, and heard the singing of the Mississippi. These rivers have important links to human history, to new societies, to African Americans, and to slavery. And all it took was a simple train ride to find the ties that bind them all together.

12. "TULIPS" // SYLVIA PLATH

A field of red and white tulips
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"Tulips" has a simple enough backstory—it was inspired by a bouquet of flowers Sylvia Plath received while in the hospital recovering from an appendectomy. But Plath turned the event into one of her most renowned poems, beginning with the line "The tulips are too excitable, it is winter here."

Sprinkled throughout are visuals of the red tulips and the white, sanitary hospital, staffed with a never-ending army of nurses.

"The tulips are too red in the first place, they hurt me.
Even through the gift paper I could hear them breathe
Lightly, through their white swaddlings, like an awful baby.
Their redness talks to my wound, it corresponds."

So much of Plath's life and work revolved around tragedy, and "Tulips" is one of the most discussed windows into her personality.

13. "OZYMANDIAS" // PERCY BYSSHE SHELLEY

A crumbling statue
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Poet Percy Bysshe Shelley traveled in an elite literary circle that included the likes of Lord Byron and John Keats. So what would a group of young intellectual writers do to stimulate their interest and spark their creativity? Well, they'd compete, of course.

One of Shelley's most famous poems, "Ozymandias," was likely born out of a competition between himself and writer Horace Smith (very similar to the 1816 competition between Shelley, his soon-to-be wife Mary Shelley, Byron, and physician John Polidori over who could write the best horror story—Mary's Frankenstein was the winner there). The goal was to write dueling poems on the same concept—the description of a statue of Ramses II (also known as Ozymandias) from the works of Greek historian Diodorus Siculus. Most important was the statue's inscription: "I am Osymandias, king of kings; if any would know how great I am, and where I lie, let him excel me in any of my works."

Shelley described Siculus's same statue but in decay, a boastful monument now left to rot. This would serve as a warning that no matter how powerful one may think themselves to be, we're all helpless to the scourge of time. For a political writer such as Shelley, the imagery was too perfect.

Shelley's version of "Ozymandias" appeared in The Examiner in 1818 almost a month before Smith's, which, by the rules of these arbitrary competitions, likely led to Shelley being victorious.

14. "DO NOT GO GENTLE INTO THAT GOOD NIGHT" // DYLAN THOMAS

Poet Dylan Thomas
Gabriel Hackett, Getty Images

In one of the most cherished poems about mortality, Dylan Thomas urged his dying father to fight back against the inevitability of death and immortalized the refrain "Do not go gentle into that good night." Published in 1951, the poem focuses on a son urging his father to be defiant ("Rage, rage against the dying of the light") and arguing that while all men eventually die, they don't have to do so resignedly. The poem was released shortly before Thomas's own death in 1953 at the age of 39 and is still studied in schools and referenced in popular culture.

15. "A VISIT FROM ST. NICHOLAS" // DISPUTED

Santa Claus leaving presents
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Everyone knows the poem—"'Twas the night before Christmas" and all that—but scholars can't quite agree on the author. Some say it was a poet and professor named Clement Clarke Moore, who allegedly wrote the piece for his kids before his housekeeper sent it in to New York's Troy Sentinel for publication in 1823 without his knowledge.

On the other side is Henry Livingston, Jr., whose family said they were reciting this poem 15 years before it was published in the Sentinel. Unfortunately, any proof they had was gone when their home—which allegedly contained handwritten versions of the poem that predate Moore's—burned down.

For now, it's Moore who officially gets credit for the cherished poem, but it's not without a bit of holiday controversy.

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15 Things You Might Not Know About Your Favorite Poets
English Romantic poet Lord Byron being visited by his muse.
English Romantic poet Lord Byron being visited by his muse.
Hulton Archive, Getty Images

When we think of poets, too often we imagine posh parlors, stoic sophistication, and austere attitudes. But the lives, hobbies, and eccentricities of some of the world's greatest poets made them much more than titans of the turn of phrase. Here are 15 fun facts about some of your favorite poets.

1. CHARLES BUKOWSKI WAS A CAT PERSON.

portrait of Charles Bukowski
GABRIEL BOUYS, AFP / Getty Images

This transgressive German-American poet was once declared a "laureate of American lowlife" by Time magazine. But Bukowski had a soft spot for felines, and owned a pet cat called Minx. In the poem "My Cats," he wrote, "when I am feeling/low/all I have to do is/watch my cats/and my/courage/returns."

2. ELIZABETH BARRETT BROWNING'S LAST WORDS WERE FITTINGLY SWEET.

Portrait of Elizabeth Barrett Browning
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Many of the Victorian-era writer's romantic poems, like "How Do I Love Thee?", were inspired by her beloved husband, poet Robert Browning. And even her death had an air of romance—at 55, she was dying of an undetermined illness (she had spent most of her life in poor health). Browning held her in his arms and asked how she was feeling. Her final word was simply, "Beautiful."

3. PABLO NERUDA PREFERRED TO HANDWRITE HIS POEMS IN GREEN INK.

portrait of Pablo Neruda
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The Pulitzer Prize-winner from Chile favored a fountain pen that he filled with his signature color. It's popularly believed that Neruda, who blended surrealism and politics into his poetry, saw green as the color of hope.

4. IN AN EYEBROW-RAISING DEDICATION PAGE, E.E. CUMMINGS ONCE CALLED OUT THOSE WHO SPURNED HIM.

E.E. Cummings
Hulton Archive, Getty Images

Even after releasing a novel, poetry collections, and plays, American writer E.E. Cummings's proposed collection 70 Poems was rejected by 14 publishers. With a loan from his mother, he finally managed to publish the book in 1935, but with two noteworthy revisions. First, he changed its title to No Thanks, a reference to the dismissal letters he'd received. And on its dedication page, Cummings printed a concrete poem—a poem written in the shape of a funereal urn, listing the names of every publisher who had rejected him.

5. SAPPHO MIGHT HAVE BEEN THE ADELE OF HER DAY.

Sappho
Picture Post, Getty Images

This archaic Greek poet is touted as one of the greatest to ever work in the medium. However, ancient texts described her writing as melê, which translates to "songs." Historians still debate how Sappho's works were performed, but this description suggests they were lyrics set to music, meaning Sappho may have been a popular songwriter, more than a poet. It's speculated Sappho's fans copied her lyrics onto papyrus and pottery, unintentionally preserving her talent and verses for thousands of years.

6. SHEL SILVERSTEIN WAS AN AWARD-WINNING SONGWRITER.

A Shel Silverstein poem
Jabiz Raisdana, Flickr // CC BY-NC 2.0

Shel Silverstein is best known for his illustrated poetry books for children like Where The Sidewalk Ends and A Light In the Attic, but the American humorist also earned Golden Globe and Academy Award nominations in 1991 for writing the song "I'm Checkin' Out," which was performed by Meryl Streep at the end of the movie Postcards From the Edge. Two decades earlier, he won the Grammy for Best Country Song for penning the playful (if violent) "A Boy Named Sue," which Johnny Cash also won a performance Grammy for.

7. LANGSTON HUGHES MAY HAVE BEEN A KEY INFLUENCE ON MARTIN LUTHER KING, JR.

Langston Hughes.
Hulton Archive, Getty Images

The popular poet of the Harlem Renaissance and the bold Civil Rights leader were friends who exchanged letters, including one where King told Hughes, "I can no longer count the number of times and places … in which I have read your poems."

Scholars have long explored how this friendship shaped both men. But English professor Jason Miller illuminates striking similarities, which suggest Hughes' poem "I Dream A World" may have inspired King's iconic "I Have a Dream" speech. Hughes wrote, "A world I dream where black or white,/Whatever race you be,/Will share the bounties of the earth/And every man is free." In comparison, King's 1953 speech included, "I have a dream that one day … little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls and walk together as sisters and brothers."

8. FAMED CHICAGOAN GWENDOLYN BROOKS WAS AN INSPIRATION TO ANOTHER YOUNG CHICAGO CREATIVE.

sketch of Gwendolyn Brooks
Burns Library, Boston College, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

In an interview early in his career, Kanye West noted that Brooks—the first African-American to win a Pulitzer Prize, for her portrayal of a young black girl growing up on Chicago's South Side—was one of his favorite writers. West recounted how when he was in grade school, he'd met Brooks at a dinner for local students—she was an educator and longtime advocate for children's education. "They had a dinner and Gwendolyn Brooks was there and everyone was reading their poems," he said. "She said, 'Do you have a poem?' I said, [switches to a high-pitched voice], 'No, but I can write one real quick.' I went in the back, wrote a poem, and then read it for her and the 40 staff members."

9. ONE POEM HELPED EDNA ST. VINCENT MILLAY GAIN BOTH NATIONAL ATTENTION AND A PATRON TO FUND HER EDUCATION.

portrait of Edna St. Vincent Millay
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Growing up on the coast of Maine, Edna was an outgoing tomboy who preferred to be called "Vincent." Her parents had divorced when she was young, and her mother was raising three young girls on her own. They were quite poor, but her mother had long encouraged her writing pursuits, and when Edna was 20, Cora Millay insisted she enter a poem in a contest."Renascence" didn't win, but there was such an outcry from readers and columnists that it gave Edna instant clout. At a reading she gave not long after, one guest was so impressed that she offered to help fund Millay's college education and at age 21, Millay enrolled at Vassar College.

10. ELIZABETH BISHOP REFUSED TO BE INCLUDED IN GENDER-SPECIFIC ANTHOLOGIES.

Elizabeth Bishop
Elizabeth Bishop in 1934, in the Vassar College yearbook.
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Pulitzer Prize- and National Book Award-winning Elizabeth Bishop loathed when her gender was mentioned in connection with her talent as a writer. When she was asked in the early '70s if she would allow one of her poems to be included in an anthology called The Women Poets in English, Bishop responded that "(Men and women) do not write differently," adding, "Why not Men Poets in English? Don't you see how silly it is? … I don't like things compartmentalized like that." She echoed this belief throughout her career. "Literature is literature, no matter who produces it."

11. DENIED A DOG, LORD BYRON MADE A BEAR HIS PET.

portrait of Lord Byron
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When the English nobleman was a young, cheeky student at Trinity College in Cambridge, the school had a rule against students keeping dogs. Byron—who so famously loved his Newfoundland, Boatswain, that he had a tomb inscribed with a poem for the dog after its death in 1808—obliged, but instead took advantage of the language and purchased a bear instead, which he would walk around the grounds on a chain leash.

In an 1807 letter to a friend, Byron wrote of his unusual pet, "I have got a new friend, the finest in the world, a tame bear. When I brought him here, they asked me what to do with him, and my reply was, 'he should sit for a fellowship'."

12. AFTER HER DEATH, DOROTHY PARKER'S ASHES SPENT NEARLY 20 YEARS IN A FILING CABINET.

Dorothy Parker
Evening Standard, Getty Images

When poet and satirist Dorothy Parker died in 1967, she left instructions for her entire estate be left to Martin Luther King, Jr. and for her body to be cremated—she didn't, however, specify where she wanted her ashes interned or scattered. After the executor of her estate failed to claim her ashes from the mortuary, her attorney collected them, put them in a filing cabinet, and left them there until 1987, when a Parker biographer mentioned wanting to visit her grave. Her remains were eventually moved to a memorial garden built by the NAACP (who now controls her estate, following King's death). The plaque above her urn aptly reads "Excuse My Dust."

13. AFTER HIS UNEXPECTED DEATH, PERCY BYSSHE SHELLEY'S WIFE KEPT A GRISLY MEMENTO.

Portrait of Percy Bysshe Shelley
Hulton Archive, Getty Images

This English Romantic was husband to Mary Shelley, author of Frankenstein. So perhaps it's fitting that when he drowned tragically at 29, Mary held onto his heart, literally. The story goes that the organ did not burn when the rest of his remains were cremated. So his loving widow wrapped it in a silken shroud, and took it with her wherever she went. Nearly 70 years later, Shelley's heart was finally buried in the family vault with the couple's son.

14. EZRA POUND CONCOCTED A PECULIAR PLAN TO CONVINCE T.S. ELIOT TO QUIT HIS DAY JOB.

Ezra Pound in Italy
Ezra Pound
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Ezra Pound was so in awe of fellow American ex-pat T.S. Eliot's 1922 masterpiece "The Waste Land," that he felt the London bank teller should devote himself completely to poetry. Pound even crowdfunded to make it happen, but without consulting Eliot first to see if he'd be game. This impulsive plan sparked a scandal when Eliot wouldn't leave the bank (he stayed in the job for another couple of years, before moving to a publishing house). But Pound was right about his instinct to help foster Eliot's career—20-some years later, Eliot won the Nobel Prize in Literature.

15. WILLIAM CARLOS WILLIAMS BELIEVED HIS WORK AS A DOCTOR MADE HIM A BETTER POET.

photo of William Carlos Williams
Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Yale University, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

While many artists bemoan their survival jobs, Williams relished his. Trained in pediatrics and general medicine, Williams found inspiration in his patients. And in his 1967 autobiography, he aimed to explain how he felt his two jobs served to benefit each other: "They are two parts of a whole. It is not two jobs at all … one rests the man when the other fatigues him."

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12 Things You Might Not Know About Beverly Cleary
Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons
Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

Moving, relatable, and frequently hilarious, Beverly Cleary’s stories have been captivating readers of all ages for more than 60 years. From Ramona Quimby to Socks the Cat, Cleary's characters—and the tales they inhabit—are still going strong all these decades later. Here’s what you might not know about one of the world’s favorite children’s authors, who turns 102 years old today.

1. SHE'S A FORMER LIBRARIAN.

After graduating in 1939 from the University of Washington with a Library Science degree, Cleary worked as a children’s librarian in Yakima. 

2. SHE HELPED IMPROVE THE LEAVE IT TO BEAVER FRANCHISE.

Cleary once wrote a pair of original Leave It to Beaver tie-in stories starring Wally and The Beav which, according to several letters she received, many fans found much more enjoyable than the series’ film adaptation. (Her explanation? “I cut out dear old Dad’s philosophizing.”)

3. YOU CAN VISIT THE BEVERLY CLEARY SCULPTURE GARDEN IN PORTLAND, OREGON.

Many of Cleary’s best-known stories were partially set in Portland’s Grant Park (she grew up nearby) and, as a loving nod, the city unveiled statues of Ramona Quimby, Henry Huggins, and Ribsy the dog at the park in 1995.

4. SHE'S ALWAYS SYMPATHIZED WITH STRUGGLING READERS.

Getting put into the lowest reading circle in first grade almost made young Cleary resent books. Phonic lists were a drag and being force-fed Dick & Jane-style narratives was flat-out excruciating. “[We] wanted action. We wanted a story,” she lamented in her autobiography. It was an experience Cleary never forgot. Since then, she claimed to have always kept children who might be undergoing similar trials in mind while writing.

5. SHE'D WRITE AND BAKE SIMULTANEOUSLY.

Many authors crank up their favorite tunes during scribing sessions, but Cleary had a different approach. “I used to bake bread while I wrote," she once explained. "I’d mix the dough up and sit down and start to write. After a while, the dough would rise and I’d punch it down and write some more. When the dough rose the second time, I’d put it in the oven and have the yeasty smell of bread as I typed.”

6. THERE'S AN ELEMENTARY SCHOOL NAMED IN HER HONOR.

Beverly Cleary Elementary is an Oregon K-8 school with three campuses in Portland, Oregon.

7. DESPITE HER PARENTS' OBJECTIONS, CLEARY ELOPED WITH THE MAN SHE LOVED.

“Gerhart” is the pseudonym her memoirs give to the fellow Beverly’s folks actually tried setting her up with, though the pair shared virtually no chemistryClarence Cleary, her future husband, was a kind-hearted economics and history student she met in college. He was also Roman Catholic, which didn’t sit well with her Presbyterian parents. Undaunted, Beverly Atlee Bunn eloped and became Beverly Cleary in 1940. The couple would remain together until Clarence’s death in 2004.

8. HARPER COLLINS PUBLISHING CREATED A HOLIDAY FOR HER BIRTHDAY.

Kids reading outdoors
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It's called D.E.A.R. (Drop Everything And Read), and though they encourage you to celebrate all the time, April 12 is the official date in honor of Cleary's birthday.

9. THE LIBRARY OF CONGRESS DECLARED HER A "LIVING LEGEND."

This award is exclusively granted to “artists, writers, activists, filmmakers, physicians, entertainers, sports figures, and public servants who have made significant contributions to America’s diverse cultural, scientific, and social heritage.” Cleary received her title in 2000, joining the ranks of Judy Blume, Muhammad Ali, and Madeleine Albright.

10. SHE HAS A VERY WISE WRITING MANTRA.

When she was still a little girl, Cleary’s mother, an ex-teacher, gave her this advice: “The best writing is simple writing. And try to write something funny. People enjoy reading anything that makes them laugh.” Another tip that stuck with her came from a college professor, who often said, “The proper subject of the novel is the universal human experience.”

11. SHE'S A CAT LOVER.

Cleary has owned several cats over the years, one of whom used to resent having to compete with her typewriter for attention and would sit on the keys in protest.

12. SHE HAS A THEORY ABOUT WHY KIDS LOVE RAMONA QUIMBY SO MUCH.

“Because [Ramona] does not learn to be a better girl. I was so annoyed with the books in my childhood, because children always learned to be ‘better’ children and, in my experience, they didn’t. They just grew, and so I started Ramona … and she has never reformed. [She’s] really not a naughty child, in spite of the title Ramona the Pest. Her intentions are good, but she has a lot of imagination, and things sometimes don’t turn out the way she expected.”

A version of this story originally ran in 2014.

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