(Editor’s Note: This piece was originally posted on Avidly, one of our LARB Channels, and was featured on USA Today this morning. What they said: “If you read Beverly Cleary’s Ramona books as a kid like I did, you’ll want to read this piece.” We’ve reproduced it in full below; read it here, or read it on Avidly.)
I always knew Beverly Cleary was a great writer. I read every single one of her books growing up — even the lesser-discussed ones like Otis Spofford and Ellen Tebbits with all the angst over something called “long underwear” that was mystifying to me as a kid in the 80s. I read most of them multiple times, and certain, VERY IMPORTANT aspects of those books have stuck with me for life. I still want to make Fong Quock’s rice “so that each grain was separate and fluffy and there was a crisp brown crust on the bottom of the kettle,” I still want to know how Emily’s crust rose through her custard pie for the church potluck, and I still really, really want to squeeze an entire tube of toothpaste into the bathroom sink.
So, yeah, Beverly Cleary: great writer, as certified by 10-year-old me. However, I didn’t realize just how great a writer she was until I reread her books as an adult. Or, more specifically, as a parent.
Cleary is just one example of an author who wrote for a certain age range, but whose writing can benefit and engage the ages beyond. As a kid reader, Mr. and Mrs. Quimby’s worries about money and jobs and childcare was brushed aside by me as “boring parent stuff,” because while Cleary was validating the idea that all kids worry about their parents on some level and while her books could be a way for kids to talk to their parents about these anxieties, I just wanted to get back to Ramona putting burrs in her hair. Now, as an adult re-reader of Beverly Cleary, those bits of the books that I pushed aside as a kid are almost too painful to read as a parent.
Running throughout the entire Ramona and Beezus oeuvre, and illustrated by Mr. Quimby’s ill-fated career, is the recognizably adult theme that quite often, parents set aside pre-kid dreams for post-kid necessities because making their kids’ dreams come true is the new dream.
What we learn in the Ramona books is that Mr. Quimby was once an art major, but when Mrs. Quimby got pregnant with Beezus, he dropped out of school and got a job. We can acknowledge that some of the Ramona books were a product of their time (Cleary wrote them between 1955-1999) when getting married while in college was not as mind-boggling as it might be today, yet also still recognize that having a baby at any stage of life forces a family to completely change their life around in order to accommodate it. Dropping out of college and not finishing his art degree is the first data point in Mr. Quimby’s realistic if depressing career trajectory.
Bit by bit we find out about all the jobs Mr. Quimby has held. In Beezus and Ramona, he has an unnamed position at Pacific Gas & Electric, and in Ramona and Her Father he loses his job in an office of a small moving and storage company, and everything appears to go downhill from there. For what feels like a painfully extended time (all of Ramona and Her Father), Mr. Quimby is standing in line at unemployment, waiting by the phone for interviews and job offers, and smoking. By the close of Ramona and Her Father, Mr. Quimby has finally secured a job as a checker at a grocery store chain with management potential. In other books, we’ll learn how much he hates his checker job — once again a concept which may not mean much to the kids for whom the books were written but one which resonates far too loudly for adults — and how he’ll leave that checker job to go back to art school and then get a teaching certificate while also working part-time at another hated job in a frozen foods warehouse.
For a time, it feels like things are looking up for the Quimby family… until Mr. Quimby can’t get teaching job and now also has a third child on the way (Ramona Forever). When offered a job in a one-room schoolhouse in the Oregon boondocks that he actually finds sort of tempting, Mr. Quimby decides against moving the family away from friends, schools, and accessible public libraries and instead goes back to the hated grocery store chain. Once again, the parent gives up on a dream to ensure the comfort and happiness of his family.
I didn’t pick up on any of that as a kid, and now as an adult I can’t stop thinking about it and holding up my own life and choices by comparison and feeling incredibly lucky.
As for Ramona herself, the child that all children could relate to because she wasn’t some namby-pamby “good girl.” Cleary very specifically didn’t want to create a child who “learned to be a better girl.” Instead she wrote a character who had real emotions. A character who had multiple frustrations that she frequently couldn’t put into words but she still felt keenly. Ramona absorbed the injustice of older sisters, girls with curly hair, teachers, neighbors, and parents and let them out in tantrums or a sink full of toothpaste. For kids who experienced the same difficult-to-verbalize injustices and frustrations, reading Ramona was cathartic. Ramona understood.
On a recent re-read of all the Ramona books (from Beezus and Ramona and Ramona the Pest to Ramona’s World), I remembered everything I felt as the kid who read those books in her yellow Minneapolis bedroom, but as an adult with kids now, I felt even more. Reading these books as a parent whisked me far beyond my own childhood experiences, which I nodded at in passing, and dropped me down in the middle of my son’s five-year-old brain.
Every kid who read how Howie’s mom went all Judgment of Solomon on Miss Binney’s ribbon and cut it in half for Ramona and Howie shook their head over this stark exemplification of how parents just don’t get it. In fact, as a kid I was so in Ramona and Howie’s corner over the ribbon that I am incredibly disgusted with myself that my initial adult reaction was to be like, “Well, yeah, sharing!” Well, no, actually.
Now, it’s true that even now I can’t think up what would have been a better solution to share the ribbon, which, let’s face it was a no-win situation no matter what, but luckily I don’t have to because that’s not what ended up being the greater takeaway of my adult reread of Ramona. The greater takeaway was that a sudden and unexpected fusing occurred between my childhood memories and my new point-of-view as a parent, and it was one that allowed me to see the situation from a third perspective: that of my own child.
Now that I have children, I no longer read these books from the perspective as a kid or even from the perspective as an adult, I read these books as though my own kid is going through everything Ramona is going through. I recognize my own son’s frustrations in Ramona’s, I see my son’s brain working the way Ramona’s did, and not only do I understand and sympathize, I understand and empathize.
With all the worries we have as adults, it’s natural to look at childhood as idyllic and worry-free and it’s far too easy to forget how hard it is to be a kid. True, child worries about a prized ribbon being cut in half don’t measure up to adult anxieties about job security or rent increases, but that doesn’t make them any less valid or real.
It’s true that Beverly Cleary is classified as juvenile fiction rather than young adult, but if you think for one second that I don’t seek out the young adult books that exemplified my teenage condition and will put me back in direct emotional touch with it once my kids reach that age, you’re crazy. Any parent would welcome that emotional blueprint.
Reading books outside of our age range and emotional experience can only deepen our understanding and appreciation of the world and the people around us. And if growing up means avoiding those kinds of books, call me Peter Pan.