Sunday , July 25 2021

Opinion: Beverly Cleary’s Ramona is a force for all us beautiful pests

The summer after third grade, long, hot, school-free days loomed ahead — I had no camp or planned activities. Relief came in the form of the summer reading program at the local library, where the air-conditioning slapped my sun-stroked face and books lifted me to other dimensions. I read and read and it was my form of travel, a portal into what life might offer beyond my little world.

That was the summer I met Ramona Quimby, the heroine of “Beezus and Ramona,” “Ramona the Pest,” “Ramona the Brave” and others in a series of novels that author Beverly Cleary, who passed away Thursday, created for a character spun out of her earlier “Henry Huggins” books.

Cleary’s was a long and rich life, but it is also true that a part of Cleary will live forever — because her words endure in the millions of girls-turned-adults who carry her brilliant words with us. The follies and triumphs of that “pest” of a girl Ramona are woven into the fabric of our own senses of self and place in the world. Cleary helped to shape the coming of age of so many for decades, and for that, we owe her a debt of gratitude — and a permanent place on our bookshelves.

Cleary’s timeless protagonist, Ramona, was a girl who felt so intimately familiar that there were times when I could no longer separate the character in the well-worn pages of the library book from the real-live me. She was my age and had scraggly long brown hair like mine. She wore her heart on her sleeve. She also wore baggy clothes and didn’t care about the girlie things the characters in other books or TV shows always seemed to talk about. She felt real.

To me, she was real.

In “Ramona the Pest,” Ramona navigates the first day of kindergarten. She manages to chase a potential friend away by coming on too strong and disrupts the whole class during nap time in her attempts to be “naptime wake up fairy.” Her vanguard and often outlandish actions mirrored my own budding sense of self. Ramona resonated with girls who felt too much, put too much of ourselves out there and tried to run the show even when the show didn’t need or want someone to run it.

Ramona was headstrong and foolhardy, like so many of us. We pulled on girls’ curls because we couldn’t resist (although my intentions might have blossomed into slightly different ones than Ramona’s as a queer person) and we didn’t always think about who we might bulldoze along the way. When Ramona’s teacher sends her home for continuing to pull her classmate’s curls, she vows never to return to school again, heartbroken that her teacher no longer adores her. We felt deep attachments to our teachers and role models and tied our sense of worth to how we perceived their treatment of us. There are deeply resonant echoes of this person in so many women today.

Cleary also wrote other books, including “The Mouse and the Motorcycle,” “Henry and Ribsy” and “Ralph S. Mouse,” and took home the most prestigious children’s book awards for her work, including the Newbery Medal and the National Book Award. She is also one of the most celebrated and successful authors of all time, with 91 books sold in 20 different countries and 14 languages. Her Ramona Quimby books, though, stand out as the most prolific and captivating series of children’s books in her repertoire.
Beverly Cleary ca. 1955
Cleary lived through the Great Depression and favored literature class to sewing, which worried her mother because at the time women weren’t expected or encouraged to pursue professions that were generally reserved for men. Cleary injected her own fearless girl spirit into her protagonist, an authenticity that still resonates for girls of all ages for going on three generations even as gender norms have shifted.

When I was a kid in the 1980s and early 1990s, there weren’t a lot of examples of female characters who didn’t conform to stereotypical feminine tropes. I devoured the “Nancy Drew” series, but always connected more with “The Hardy Boys.” Little orphan Annie could hold her own and even beat up the boys, but she still wore a dress and heeled shoes. She-Ra was a fierce 1980s cartoon superhero, but she sported long, flowy blond hair and skimpy skintight outfits. They all had hints of the girl I knew myself to be inside, but their outer girlishness rendered them inaccessible to me. They made me feel like an outsider. In contrast, Ramona Quimby made me feel like “one of them.”

To all the girls out there who don’t quite fit in, Ramona Quimby sees you. To those who prefer mohawks to pigtails, Ramona Quimby thinks you’re swell. To the girls who don’t feel they need to fall in line behind boys or other girls who might be prettier or blonder or even behind adults whose priorities might be misguided, Ramona Quimby has your back.

Ramona is there for all of us pests who speak up in the meetings even when the men interrupt to talk over us. For us pests who show up unabashedly sporting our soccer shirts and our short hair and our big personalities and our we-don’t-take-crap-from-anyone attitude.

Thanks to Beverly Cleary, Ramona Quimby will still be there to fuel the spirits of the future female presidents and CEOs, rock stars and scientists; she’ll keep guiding us with that little voice Cleary helped in our psyches, telling us, “we can do it.”

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