“Now, Ramona.” Mrs. Quimby’s voice was gentle. “You must try to grow up.”
Ramona raised her voice. “What do you think I’m doing?”
-Ramona the Brave
“God DAMN it. Everybody dying.” With these words film critic Eileen Jones shared the New York Times obituary for Beverly Cleary, who died on March 25, 2021. When a friend noted that, to be fair, Cleary had lived to see 104, Jones wrote back: “I know, the cursing is not a rational reaction. STILL.” Beverly Cleary would understand. After promising a quick turn-around on this essay, I went to the shelf, scanning for the Ramona books. I knew exactly where they were. Except they weren’t. They’d been packed up for college. Because, who would you want with you more for the college equivalent of kindergarten, during a whole pandemic, than Ramona?
The Ramona series started in 1955 with Beezus and Ramona and ended with Ramona’s World, published in 1999. The eight books span from my mother’s generation to my daughters’. A journalist friend, a stair-step older than I am, said she’s kept the series alongside first-edition art books and feminist theology. I grew up with Ruth Chew’s magic and Phyllis A. Whitney’s mysteries, but I found Beverly Cleary’s Ramona while raising two girls. The world Cleary described for and with Ramona was a godsend. I read the Ramona books to help me grow up and to grow them up, both.
Beverly Cleary was a genius with words. I teach about words, and I often suggest students read Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish’s parenting classic, How To Talk So Kids Will Listen and Listen So Kids Will Talk, because, if they pay attention, they may have a prayer of being decent in any job involving communication with human beings. There’s a particular art to using words with young human beings such that they keep using words around you.
Beverly Cleary was a genius at writing words for human beings navigating life while little. In Ramona the Pest (1968) Ramona is starting kindergarten, yearning for shoes snazzier than the requisite oxfords. She considers for a blink pretending they don’t fit, but “she knew she could not get away with this trick, because the shoe-store man understood both children and shoes.” Cleary understood children, shoes, school, words, and how it feels to be heard, or misunderstood.
Her books for children are often about understanding children as they learn words. When Ramona’s kindergarten teacher tells Ramona on her first day, “Sit here for the present,” Ramona knows she’s in for a treat. “A present! thought Ramona . . .” Ramona won’t budge, eager to follow directions and receive her reward. Readers follow along with words as Ramona misunderstands words, repeats them, and learns also to read them. From Ramona the Brave (1975): “best of all, Ramona was actually learning to read. Words leaped out at her from the newspapers, signs, and cartons. Crash, high-way, salt, tires. The world was suddenly full of words that Ramona could read.”
Cleary’s stories about the wrong words—including Ramona’s attempt at a shocking curse word (“Guts!”)—are sometimes funny, but her books are the opposite of “Kids Say the Darndest Things.” Isn’t it funny when children try on words? Maybe. And, if you laugh at them, they may stop talking to you. In Ramona the Pest, Ramona thinks she’s mastered the Star Spangled Banner. She knows the words are important, grown-up sorts of words: “Here was an opportunity for Ramona to show off her new kindergarten knowledge.” Her older sister Beezus is reading to herself while Ramona is coloring. Their mother warns of eye strain as the evening dims. “Why don’t you turn on the dawnzer.” Her parents are confused. Ramona explains the “lee light” will help Beezus see the words. [“Oh say can you see by the dawnzer lee light…”] Beezus figures out the word puzzle and laughs, more with delight than derision. That her parents (barely) refrain from laughing with Beezus at Ramona is a key to their abiding sisterhood. Cleary draws you in to hear Ramona’s feelings and, as a grown-up, to think alongside grown-ups trying not to squish her.
Ramona often muses on what adults don’t understand. From Ramona Quimby, Age 8: “All summer, whenever a grown-up asked what grade she was in, she felt as if she were fibbing when she answered, ‘third,’ because she had not actually started the third grade . . . Grown-ups did not understand that summers were free from grades.” She also catches grown-ups speaking earnest nonsense. Virginia Lee Burton’s 1939 classic Mike Mulligan and the Steam Shovel may be about, as her teacher tells her, “digging the basement of the town hall,” but Ramona knows that her pressing question, namely, “how did Mike Mulligan go to the bathroom when he was digging the basement of the town hall?” stands:
Ramona knew and the rest of the class knew that knowing how to go to the bathroom was important. They were surprised that Miss Binney did not understand, because she had showed them the bathroom the very first thing. Ramona could see there were some things she was not going to learn in school.
Cleary concisely describes the adult’s reaction to Ramona’s initial question: “Miss Binney’s smile seemed to last longer than smiles usually last.” She has used one word, “seemed,” to help a reader understand a child watching an adult closely for even a subtle cue of approval or displeasure. That Ramona persists is just one reason we cheer for her. Mrs. Whaley, Ramona’s third grade teacher with (at last) a sense of humor, laughs to a co-worker that Ramona is “my little show-off” using the word “nuisance.” Ramona, sitting in the office with actual egg on her face (and hair) is stricken: “Her body felt numb and so did her heart. She could never, never face Mrs. Whaley again. Never.” She can, and she does, of course.
Although, also, not of course. Eileen Jones wrote in our exchange on social media:
Simply LIKING children is not as common as people assume. I felt intensely when I was growing up that a lot of adults—relatives, teachers, neighbors— really hated kids, and tried to disguise it with a lot of for-your-own-good lecturing and gratuitous punishment, plus nasty aggressive humor that was supposedly “just kidding.” Meeting a benevolent adult was always a great relief to me. Cleary was benevolent, and genuinely seemed to like children.
The adults in Ramona’s world are basically decent, or at least not mean. (If there is a villain in the series, it’s Mrs. Kemp, who uses Ramona for free babysitting while being paid to babysit Ramona.) But Cleary’s stories are delicate enough to reveal the stakes. In Ramona the Brave, she describes a feeling that adult readers may recognize: “Ramona was startled, then embarrassed. Once more she felt as if she were standing aside, seeing herself as someone else, a strange first grader at the front of the room, laughed at by her class.” The ways that adults use words and hear words from a child may make all the difference in how a little one is able to see herself and continue forming her own brave words. That may sound trite, but it’s also true.
Ramona and Her Father (1975) opens with the word: “Yeeep!” Ramona is singing “Yeeep!” on repeat as she prints “mice or ginny pig” [sic] on her Christmas list. “What’s all this yeeping about?” her mother asks. “I’m making a joyful noise until the Lord like they say in Sunday school,” Ramona explained. “Only they don’t tell us what the joyful noise sounds like so I made up my own.” One reason to take Ramona to college, and to read these books until you have gray hair and the pages are worn, is that Cleary has written a world where a little girl grows up trusting that her joyful noise, made up as her own, will be genuinely heard. May it be so.