|Illustration by Louis Darling|
I am sure I read every book of fairy tales in our branch library, with one complaint—all that long, golden hair. Never mind—my own short brown hair became long and golden as I read and when I grew up I would write a book about a brown-haired girl to even things up.
~ Beverly Cleary
As wonderful as Anne Shirley or the American Girls or Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm or Alice in Wonderland are…no one, not even Laura Ingalls Wilder (who was REAL) is as real and relatable as Ramona Quimby. At least for me.
When we meet Ramona, she’s the pesty preschool sister of Beezus, the best friend and proto-love interest to Beverly Cleary’s other hero, Henry Huggins. Beezus got her own spinoff from Henry in Beezus and Ramona. But Ramona, being Ramona, quickly took over, spinning off in Ramona the Pest. She didn’t stay a pest, though. By third grade she’s Ramona Quimby, Age 8 (which happens to be the first book by Cleary I ever read, and remains my favorite to this day), and by the conclusion of her series it’s Ramona’s World.
I always go by C.S. Lewis’ maxim on what constitutes a great children’s book: to paraphrase, if both children and adults can enjoy it, it’s great. By this definition Beverly Cleary is a master of children’s literature, because I am constantly drawn back to her books (particularly Ramona) and am always finding fresh nuance or vivid details that I hadn’t recognized as a child.
As a child, I related to Ramona’s quest for popularity while striving for individuality. It’s hard work being a kid, especially when you look at other kids and they make it look so easy. It’s hard to be yourself when you know, if you changed yourself, if you essentially lied, you’d get so much more acceptance from others. Now as an adult, I still empathize with Ramona, but I also have new appreciation for her parents and the other characters. Not one character, from Ramona’s sensible parents to the annoying Willa Jean to Yard Ape* to the longsuffering Henry Huggins is a fully developed identity complete with motivations and individual perspectives. The first book was written in 1955…that’s 58 YEARS AGO!...and yet these stories are not out of date, the characters aren’t stale, and the humor is still funny. That, in itself, is proof that these books hit the mark on something universal about the experience of childhood.
*Who I swear is destined to marry Ramona when they’re grown up, and not even Beverly Cleary could convince me otherwise.
Parental Notes: May incite your children to threaten to eat people’s erasers, to crack eggs over their heads, to taunt their older sister’s best friends with marriage by putting worms on their fingers, to get stuck in the mud rather than lose their nice rubber boots, to quote old T.V. commercials, to squeeze the toothpaste all out in the sink, to sew slacks for their stuffed elephant, to throw Kleenex tissues everywhere, and to name their dolls after cars.
Availability: Any bookstore of any decency should carry these books. Sadly most of the availability here is the newly revamped illustrated paperbacks; I’m not all that crazy about the new Tracy Dockray illustrations that make Ramona all cute and adorable:
I prefer Alan Tiegreen’s (admittedly-seventiesish) line drawings that make the adults look normal while the kids are cartoonish and everything’s a little messy:
The original Louis Darling line drawings are actually better (see the first image of this post), but only the first few books had these and it’s always preferable to get a series with matching illustrations.