I am newly obsessed with looking back on my childhood and trying to pinpoint events or even cultural landmarks in my life that made me who I am today. There’s one thing I almost always come back to: Ramona Quimby.
From the ages of seven to thirteen, I would wager, I Ramona weaved in and out of my life. I listened to Beverly Cleary’s “Ramona” books on cassette tape to go to sleep almost every night. I feel bad for the other kids in the New Albany/Floyd County area who might have wanted to listen to those tapes, because I almost always had them checked out of the library. I also owned all the books. I especially remember “Ramona Forever,” which was perhaps my favorite. My copy of it was slender and narrow, and it fit in my back pocket perfectly. I carried it around everywhere.
Ramona appears in twelve of Cleary’s books, first starting out in the Henry Huggins series as Beezus’s annoying little sister, and then growing into her own series of novels. In order, they are:
Henry Huggins (1950)
Henry and Ribsy (1954)
Beezus and Ramona (1955)
Henry and the Paper Route (1957)
Henry and the Clubhouse (1962)
Ramona the Pest (1968)
Ramona the Brave (1975)
Ramona and Her Father (1977)
Ramona and Her Mother (1979)
Ramona Quimby, Age 8 (1981)
Ramona Forever (1984)
Ramona’s World (1999)
Tuesday was Beverly Cleary’s 95th birthday, and the New York Times did an awesome piece on her to celebrate. One of the things Cleary set out to do with her children’s novels was to write books that she would have wanted to read as a child. From the NYT article: “‘I longed for funny stories about the sort of children who lived in my neighborhood,’ Cleary wrote in one of her memoirs, My Own Two Feet.” Cleary treated the children she wrote about the same way she treated the adults, and I think that’s important. It was almost revolutionary in children’s literature at the time, and maybe it still is. The problems that characters like Ramona and Henry Huggins and Beezus had were very real; she never passed judgment or trivialized them because they were children and “children shouldn’t have serious problems.” She realized that kids aren’t stupid.
When Beezus and Ramona’s father is unemployed, it affects everyone in the family. Ramona and Beezus are all too aware of it, trying to make things easier on their parents, stressing about the situation as much as mom and dad are, and attempting to ignore their own wants and needs, feeling they are a strain on their parents. I think these are sentiments most children can relate to. Hearing my parents argue about money caused many of my adolescent stresses and concerns. Cleary scarcely differentiated between adult problems and child problems, and as a kid, it was refreshing to read that maybe me and my worries and opinions mattered more than I was originally led to believe.
Cleary also taps into the things that are almost universal about childhood. For me, I related to Ramona taking to the streets all day long, playing in the yard, biking around the neighborhood, hanging out with Howie Kemp, darting in and out of the house. I also connected to Ramona because she is such a weird kid, and aware of it, but ultimately unapologetic. From the strange names she gives to toys and animals (their cat is named Picky-Picky) to her favorite things, her dreams, her concerns, and her thoughts – she’s just a quirky child. I not only related to that, but I found solace in the fact that I wasn’t the only weird one out there.
But in many ways, Ramona was the kid I wanted to be, and Beezus was the kid I was most like. Older sister, very practical, was a bit afraid to stand out, very much a bookworm, eager to please and to develop companionship with adults she admires. She had a favorite aunt she wanted to be just like, Aunt Beatrice, a single woman who was pretty and lived on her own and had a real job as a schoolteacher (this was the ’50s, that was a big deal). I too had that in my Aunt Stacie, who went to COLLEGE and was pretty and seemed to have such a fun life and I wanted to be her so badly. While Ramona scarcely cared whether she annoyed the adults around her or not, Beezus was very careful not to upset.
Ultimately, both girls were role models. They let me know that it was okay to be who I was, and that I should be unapologetic about it. Beezus’s struggle to feel comfortable in her own skin was my struggle. Ramona’s struggle to contain her weirdness and ground herself in reality was my struggle (even though we both eventually learned it’s okay to be weird and imaginative).
The girls were never really shoved into constricting gender roles, either. Ramona doesn’t wile away her days playing house. She goes outside, gets skinned knees, likes to read books about dump trucks. Beezus is a bit more conventional, sure, but really she just wants to live for herself. Looking back, I think having the Quimby sisters during my formative years meant more to me than I’ll ever fully realize. They were my first feminist role models, really. What’s more, Cleary’s writing helped me cultivate my sense of humor. She is able to create humorous situations and to recognize the humor in the girls’ actions and words without casting a judgmental adult gaze on them. She taught me how to be funny without putting someone else on the chopping block.
Oddly, as much as I don’t want kids, I think that I could do a good job raising them if I just had Beverly Cleary’s books by my side. Sometimes I think that I should find as many little girls as I can and introduce them to Ramona. I owe her and Beezus such a good chunk of my personality and identity, and it’s hard for me to imagine a childhood that doesn’t include the Quimbys.
**I would be interested in hearing from readers and the other Chickz about the books or films or TV shows they experienced as a kid that made them who they are today. It’s something I’m interested in, and oftentimes when I have that conversation with people who are my age, we end up sharing similar experiences.**