A few years ago, when casual dinners out at indoor restaurants were a frequent occurrence rather than a fervent dream for the future, a friend of mine mentioned that she had been reading a book to her daughter recently and they had both ended up in tears.
“What book?” I asked, already having a hunch.
“'Ramona and Her Mother,'” she replied.
“The scene where Ramona packs her things, right?”
My friend’s eyes widened. “Yes! How did you know?!?”
I knew because I had recently read the same book to my daughters and the three of us had all ended up with tears in our eyes as well.
Such was the magic of Beverly Cleary, who passed away last week at the age of 104.
For those who haven’t read the Ramona series, Ramona is a spirited young girl with a well-behaved older sister, Beezus, who lives with her mom and dad, Mr. and Mrs. Quimby, on Klickitat Street.
Like most kids, Ramona finds many things about her very ordinary childhood difficult.
In the scene we were discussing at dinner, Ramona has had an especially trying few days: her secret scheme to wear her comfy pajamas to school under her regular clothes backfired, resulting in the need for embarrassing explanations to her teacher; she sees her mother and sister sharing a few moments together and feels jealous; she has overheard her parents having quiet conversations which she (like all kids) assumes are about her. She’s being forced to do chores when her teacher calls the house and Ramona assumes (incorrectly, it turns out) that she is telling her mother about the pajamas.
It’s all too much and a meltdown ensues.
I remember reading this book as a kid and how true it all felt. Yes! Adults laugh at things that aren’t funny, usually at the expense of kids! It sometimes seems like they are all in cahoots to make kids feel dumb. All these things that you know will seem small and silly to grown-ups feel huge and overwhelming and so you struggle with them yourself until you can’t take it anymore.
Ramona’s rant here is one for the ages:
“Nobody likes me. Nobody in the whole world. Not even my own mother and father. Not even the cat. Beezus gets all the attention around here. You’ll be sorry someday when I’m rich and famous.”
After her father drolly replies, “I didn’t know you were planning to be rich and famous,” Ramona decides to run away.
Much to her surprise, rather than try to stop her, her mother helps her pack. And here’s the scene where, as a reader, you are right there with our troubled protagonist. Ramona’s shock builds as her mother keeps suggesting different things she will need in order to run away and the suitcase gets fuller and fuller: bananas, roller skates, rain boots, books, stuffed animals, clothes.
When the suitcase is packed, Ramona tries to lift it, but it’s so heavy it won’t budge. She looks at her mother and sees “a tiny smile in her eyes."
"You tricked me!" cried Ramona. "You made the suitcase too heavy on purpose. You don’t want me to run away!"
"I couldn’t get along without my Ramona," said Ramona’s mother. She held her arms out. Ramona ran into them. Her mother had said the words she had longed to hear.
I remember reading this part of the book to my daughters who were probably around 6 and 8 at the time. Their eyes got rounder and rounder as they heard about Mrs. Quimby helping her daughter pack. It’s every child’s worst nightmare: that your parents might not love you, might not want you around. Sure, you might accuse them of it now and then, but you never really think it might be true. And then my daughters experienced that moment — just as Ramona did — of deep relief and joy when they realized what Mrs. Quimby was up to.
Her ability to remember what it felt like to be a child, where so much is out of your control and no one thinks your problems are important, amazes me still.
The genius of Beverly Cleary was writing this all so beautifully, without ever talking down to the child reading. Her ability to remember what it felt like to be a child, where so much is out of your control and no one thinks your problems are important, amazes me still. She had a talent for deftly rendering the way things snowball: a bad day at school or an argument with a parent quickly turns into “Nobody likes me! I’m running away!”
Cleary’s writing in the Ramona series abounds with moments like these: beautiful, true, deeply funny. Ramona sewing pants for her stuffed elephant despite her mother’s gentle advice that a skirt might be easier, Ramona telling her downtrodden dad that he’s the best artist in the world, Ramona lying in bed at night trying to fall asleep and instead imagining being chased by a gorilla with no bones.
I’m so grateful to have read these books as a child because Ramona helped me feel less alone — she was like me. She always — well, mostly — tried to do the right thing, but it often didn’t work out the way she had pictured it. And I’m so grateful to have read them to my daughters because, along with providing them with that same reassurance, it also introduced them to great and timeless writing.
As I think about Cleary’s passing, I’m touched by how many children’s lives she improved with her writing and how many pleasurable hours she provided to children and adults — often as they read together — smiling through happy tears and somehow understanding themselves and each other a little bit better.