Author Beverly Cleary passed away at age 104 this past Thursday
Beverly Cleary
Beverly Cleary
| Credit: Terry Smith/The LIFE Images Collection/Getty

Beverly Cleary knew exactly how to capture the spirt of childhood — and actress Sarah Polley says that in real life, playing Cleary's most indelible character was "like walking into the world of my imagination."

"I remember the day I got the part in Ramona, running to the bookshelf," says Polley, who played 8-year-old Ramona Quimby in the 1988 TV adaptation of Cleary's beloved children's series. "I remember picking [the book] up and going, 'I'm going to be her! I'm going to be her!'"

The director, now 42 and a mother of three, only met Cleary, who passed away at age 104 this past Thursday, once — but the author and her iconic characters have stayed with her.

"It was incredibly memorable," Polley tells PEOPLE of meeting Cleary on the set of the Canadian show, Ramona. "I was only seven at the time, but I remember it really clearly. She came to set, she was incredibly warm, she was incredibly engaged. She spent a long time with both me and Lori Chodos, who played Beezus, signing all of our books."

At one point, the author clasped Polley's hands in hers.

ramona (1988)
Sarah Polley as Ramona

"I remember her saying, 'You're the perfect Ramona,' like I'd basically been knighted or something," says the actress. "She really made the whole experience magical by being there."

Cleary, a former librarian, released her first children's book, Henry Huggins, in 1950. Since then, her 40-plus books have sold more than 85 million copies. While many of her characters have left an everlasting mark on her young readers, Ramona — plucky and, as Cleary once described her, "curious" — is one of the most memorable of them all.

"She was not a slowpoke grownup," Cleary wrote in Ramona the Pest. "She was a girl who could not wait. Life was so interesting she had to find out what happened next."

For Polley, playing Ramona was one of the only "positive experience[s]" she had as a child actor.

"I lived in those books when I was 7 and 8, and so when I got the part it was like walking into the world of my imagination," says Polley. "I loved that she wasn't just a nice little girl. I felt like so many of the cultural messages coming at you as a child are to be nice and compliant and obedient, and quiet, and do what you're told."

sarah polley
The actor and director
| Credit: Sonia Recchia/Getty

She continues: "And here was this character who you fell in love with for not being any of those things. [Ramona] was creative, and she had an imagination, and she could be difficult, and she could be in a bad mood. She could express what she felt. She wasn't always easy, but she was magical because of those things, not in spite of them."

Cleary's power as a writer was her ability to form relatable, fully fleshed out characters, the actress explains. In the wake of the author's passing, that's become her legacy.

"What she did is create whole characters for children, with all of the mess, and all of the magic, and she didn't leave anything out," says Polley. "Beverly Cleary acknowledged that [being a kid is] really hard sometimes, and you sometimes feel trapped in a body that's not big enough to contain you and all the things that you can do, and that you want to do."

runaway ralph by beverly cleary

Kids of every era, Cleary once said, "want a home with both parents living in it. They want friends to play with. Nice teachers. The same things we wanted as children."

Polley made sure to share the magic of Cleary's stories with her kids — and got caught up herself.

"We got to the end of the Ramona series, I think when my oldest was 6 or 7," she says. "When I said, 'This is the last book,' there were a lot of tears. I was so involved in the books again, that I had literally forgotten I had been in the TV show, or that there was a TV show!"

After she remembered her starring role in Ramona, Polley shared the exciting news with her children.

"I suddenly just looked at my kid and went, 'You know what? There's actually a TV show of this we could watch,' " Polley remembers. "And they went nuts, they were like, 'What? There's a TV show?' And I was like, 'And you know who plays Ramona?' "