SEPTEMBER 18, 2021
REREADING BEVERLY CLEARY’S 1981 children’s novel Ramona Quimby, Age 8 reminded me of a moment I hadn’t thought about in decades. In the memory, I’m sitting by an open window in my third-grade classroom looking out at the street from two stories up. The hot sun was cut with a cool breeze that carried the smell of honeysuckle into the room. I’m filling out a multiplication worksheet and absolutely seething with anger over forgetting to bring money to buy a soft pretzel for lunch. Because of my mistake, I will not be eating a soft pretzel with everyone else or even waiting in line with them. My day, if not my whole week, was ruined. Small moments like this are a big part of childhood but aren’t always a big part of books about childhood.
Children’s author Beverly Cleary understood the importance of these seemingly small moments in the life of a child, and Ramona Quimby, Age 8 exemplifies the way she helped readers understand such earnest, if disproportionate, reactions to social pain. As the Ramona books came out from 1955 through 1999, the readers watched Ramona search for her place in her family, school, and neighborhood. Cleary’s clear-eyed view of this universal childhood soul-searching kept her work an essential read for children even a half-century after her first book’s release. Benjamin Schwarz posits in The Atlantic article “My Ramona” that Cleary’s books’ lasting appeal may be rooted in her “intense absorption in the quotidian emotions and non-events of kid life.”
The Ramona books have remained popular in part for Cleary’s realistic depiction of a white middle-class family. Beverly Cleary’s job at the library inspired her to start writing children’s books when she saw that kids wanted stories about middle-class families. Cleary wrote books that captured the ecosystem of these families. Her books feature Dorothy Quimby, a loving, working mother. Dorothy’s stresses naturally get folded into Ramona’s story. For example, in Ramona Quimby, Age 8 Ramona must get along with her babysitter’s annoying granddaughter because if the babysitter “didn’t look after [Ramona], her mother couldn’t work full time. And if Ramona’s mother didn’t work full time, her dad could not go back to school.” Finances are presented as a fact of childhood life, rather than an issue above children’s heads. When Ramona receives a small gift of an eraser on the first day of school, she cherishes it because “presents of any kind had been scarce while family tried to save money.” Ramona doesn’t exist in a vacuum but within a family and an economic class.
Ramona’s role in her family is a recurring theme throughout the book series. Another continuing conflict in the series comes from Ramona feeling misunderstood. In Ramona the Pest, Ramona doesn’t agree with her teacher’s assessment that she is a pest. In Ramona the Brave, Ramona struggles to understand why others don’t find her as brave as she finds herself. In my personal favorite, Ramona Quimby, Age 8, she’s upset that her teacher described her as a “nuisance” and a “show-off.” While the characters in the book didn’t see her the way Ramona wanted, it seems that readers did.
Readers and critics still celebrate inimitable Ramona. In reflections on Cleary’s work, Ramona is often described as fearless and praised for her integrity. My edition of Ramona Quimby, Age 8 has a foreword written by the beloved and Ramona-esque comedian Amy Poehler. Poehler describes Ramona as “a tiny warrior, a whirling dervish, and funny five-alarm fire.” Elizabeth Blair described Ramona as “well-intentioned” on NPR’s Morning Edition. Rachel Vorona Cote writes in her book Too Much: How Victorian Constraints Still Bind Women Today that “Ramona loves the world with ferocity,” and is “fiercely proud and protective of [her family.]” Beverly Cleary’s Ramona has proved herself to be a standout character in Cleary’s character-rich world.
Even decades later, Ramona is distinct from many other young girl characters. I find Ramona to be most similar to Junie B. Jones, the titular character from Barbara Park’s popular children’s books series. Much like Ramona, Junie B. Jones is rambunctious and incorrigible. Since the Junie B. Jones books came out well after the Ramona series had become popular, Park was likely influenced by Cleary’s work. However, the reception for the two series were markedly different. Junie’s pesty behavior resulted in Park’s work being placed on the Top Hundred Banned Books list for its poor social value, while Cleary’s Ramona books were critically acclaimed, winning the National Book Award and Newbery Medal. This is to say that even in the 1990s, writing impolite girl characters left little room for error when it came to critical reception. Great attention to the interiority of the girl is needed. Cleary’s tenderness to the emotional aftermath of moments of mischief helps make her character not just relatable but admirable.
In one especially tender moment in Ramona Quimby, Age 8, Ramona is sitting near the principal’s office after washing egg off of her face. Earlier, she slammed a raw egg on her head thinking it was hard-boiled. The already embarrassed Ramona hears her teacher chatting with the secretary about Ramona’s situation. Her teacher describes Ramona as a “show-off,” adding, “What a nuisance.” Ramona is crushed. In a small room, with egg still in her hair, she feels horrible, and the reader feels for her, too. Cleary writes, “She even wanted to forget herself and her horrible hair, now drying into stiff spikes. She no longer felt like a real person.”
As an adult rereading the scene, the instinct is to hug her and tell her she won’t remember this incident in a year or two. But the uncomfortable reality is that people do remember seemingly small moments of social pain from their childhood, sometimes for the rest of their lives. Cleary understood that in way few other authors did.
At one point, I thought I admired Ramona and her ability to feel her emotions bluntly, with a disregard for our culture’s hierarchy of importance. But now I realize the one I admire is Beverly Cleary, the one who translated the fishbowl emotions of childhood into something understandable, even commendable, to both children and adult audiences.
Ramona seems to exist fully, not constrained to stereotypically feminine behavior. She is messy, bossy, funny, and, as expressed in the title of her iconic novel, a pest. She’s not a little princess. She is more precocious than precious. Perhaps most importantly, because of Cleary’s insightful writing, Ramona has been loved for generations, not despite these traits, but for them.