In a delightful twist of irony, my girls started listening to Beverly Cleary’s Ramona books about six months ago – and now the author turns 100 this month. I have been enjoying the resurgence of love for these books and the publicity handed to us by the celebration of this remarkable woman’s milestone birthday. I never knew much about the author of the books, probably because Google didn’t exist when I was six and by the time it did, there were other books I was reading who had other authors to stalk. But thankfully, the media has seen fit to provide me with all sorts of tidbits about the woman – making the stories and my enjoyment of them come alive once again.
I love the CS Lewis quote, “A children’s story that can only be enjoyed by children is not a good children’s story in the slightest.” Normally I think of books written by Lewis himself, Madeleine L’Engle, or other, more high level authors when I hear that quote. But as we’ve listened to the Ramona Quimby escapades in the car for the last six months and I’m finding myself more than slightly enjoying the stories – and with good reason.
A friend mentioned her daughters enjoyed the audio versions of the Ramona books, so I grabbed the audio version of Beezus and Ramona off a library shelf last fall, on a whim, not sure if my girls were even old enough to enjoy them. I hadn’t thought of Ramona Quimby in years. I had no idea Beverly Cleary was even still alive or how old she would be if she were.
The stories and details came flooding back to my mind with uncanny clarity. I could see words on the pages, I could remember where I had been sitting as I read certain sections of the books. The humorous interaction between the older and younger sister made me smile, as I remembered reading these stories. Ironically, I felt myself bristle defensively for Ramona when my five year old said, “Mom, I’m more like Beezus, aren’t I? Ramona isn’t really that good, right?” I wanted to rush to poor Ramona’s side, to defend her against the perfectionistic older sister and my suddenly goody-goody older child. I did laugh when the five –year- old continued, comparing her own little sister to Ramona. I gave her a pass, realizing she does have to contend with a smaller person who likely messes up play times and contented imaginings. The Ramona loyalty made me question my memories. Had I been a silly child in my remembered affinity for Ramona? Maybe my perceptions had changed in the last few decades. I thought for sure Ramona had been a bit more my favorite, but I doubted myself slightly, as if something I had remembered clearly had become distorted with time.
We continued listening. I remembered the stories, the dolls Bendix and Chevrolet, the party that Ramona throws for herself, the frustration of the oldest daughter Beezus with her precocious little sister. One day I heard the five year old explain to the two year old that the world was round like an orange. I looked over and realized they were eating oranges. Perplexed at how she knew this information, I asked her where she learned that. She looked up and told me they were pretending to be Beezus and Ramona. I started realizing how the Ramona books had been one of my earliest conscious “reading as learning” experiences. There were numerous phrases and life experiences that I suddenly remembered had come from reading Beverly Cleary’s books.
I remembered the phrase “exchanged glances” was a phrase I learned from those books. I remembered that the aunt has a fight with her fiancé the night before their wedding. I remember wondering if my aunt was going to have a fight the night before her wedding when I was ten. I remember thinking about that book when I had a fight the night before my own wedding. I’ve been listening to the wording and understanding the brilliance of Mrs. Cleary – interweaving instruction and explanation and psychology into dialogue and story plot. Unlike the Little House on the Prairie books that drag on and on with pages of explanations of how to cook maple sugar, (can you tell I got a bit bored in those sections?) Ramona and Beezus somehow keep the audience’s attention as they adventure on, thinking and talking exactly as normal children, conversing and learning while going about their day, interacting with parents and friends and teachers and their own books. I realized that the books must have some years on them when I heard things like “car coat” and “can’t go outside with wet hair,” the meals that the family sometimes ate for dinner, the children going to school and the library alone, unsupervised by helicopter parents, and other quaint and dated lines. But still the stories were holding my daughters’ attention, and as book after book ended, the simple, subtle truths were still relevant. “You don’t always have to like your sister, but someday she’ll be your best friend.” “You will always meet difficult people, but you must be brave and hold your head up.” The internal struggles are still similar, the fears commons, the growing pains normal, even today in a very different society.
We moved on to the books that focused on Ramona and her escapades. I noticed my daughter’s attitude change toward Ramona. So much so that she now writes her own name and I frequently see a “Q” behind it. It makes me smile that she’s come around to identifying with Ramona.
We listened to Ramona the Brave last week in the car. My daughter’s questions ranged “what does scowl mean?” and “what is spunk?” to queries about the difference in intensity between kindergarten and first grade. I listened to the woeful tales of misunderstanding between Ramona and her first grade teacher, so well articulated that I could feel the injustice as if I had received her progress report and as if the adult was standing misunderstanding ME. It made me wonder if Beverly Cleary ever had a teacher who didn’t quite understand her.
I began to hear CS Lewis in his wise strains, saying this wasn’t just a children’s tale, even though written for children. No, the injustice of being misunderstood can last long past elementary school. One may bear its’ brunt more fully as a defenseless child, but that struggle is life long. We long to be understood, to have our intentions approved of, to know that our ways are affirmed. We grapple all our lives to get along with people who work and think differently than we do. We feel the sting of indignation when wrong is praised and right is denounced (even if only from our own point of view). I appreciated when Ramona’s father tells her that she can’t switch classes because she will have to deal with difficult people who don’t quite “get” her all of her life, rather than just letting her take the easy way out. My daughter asked what “spunky” meant. I tried explaining it to her, giving her a few general meanings and and had to fall back on the more contextual, personal, “it means being exactly who you are no matter what and bring brave enough to be you, despite what others want you to be.” My daughter will run into her share of people in life who will want to squelch her spunk, calm her spirit, or make her be something she isn’t. I want her to be brave and to have characters and people in her life who inspire her to be her strong self, no matter how misunderstood she is. I sometimes think I’ve spent far too much time in life trying to make myself someone whom everyone accepts instead of just being brave and being me. Temperance and self control are virtues to acquire and practice, but inside, bravery and personal spunk need to be immovable. Ramona reminded me that no matter how frustrating the people around me can be, I must be brave and be better and be me.
I’ve read several articles that interviewed Cleary about her writing, in honor of her 100th birthday. She mentioned how she didn’t particularly love reading as a young child and that most of the books written for her age group at the time were about “prams and nannies and ponies” and that they were not very entertaining at all. She talked about how she wrote books she would have liked to have read. Another article talked about a boy who inspired her writing. He came into the library looking for books about kids like him. She realized that kids needed books about everyday life and not always books that send kids off on huge other- worldly adventures. And reading these author point of views made me understand why these books are so relatable and beloved.
It has been almost 20 years since I first pulled Ramona off the shelf in our small library. I am that person who wanted adventure and constant movement and excitement, adventure on the high seas, really. But when it came to reality, I settled down and picked a boring life and most days its just fine for me. The every day can be pretty interesting and fascinating if you think about it. The repetition of life can be boring if you let it, or it can be fascinating. And here I am with, on paper, an unadventurous life, sharing the every day feats of girls long ago with my own daughters. I am happy to have that chance and happy that these books have now come into the ears and hearts of the newest generation.
My daughter will be 5 ½ on the day Beverly Cleary turns 100. I am pretty sure we will listen to one of the Ramona books in honor of Mrs. Cleary that day. And I know for certain, from experience, that we will carry parts of Ramona around with us for the rest of our lives. Lewis was right – the best children’s stories are not simply for children.
And I’m adding this article today, as it came out after I posted but I enjoyed it