Cleary, who died on March 25 at 104, had written so many treasured books – the Ramona novels, the Ralph S. Mouse series and more — books I’d devoured as a child and shared with my own children. (My family was particularly fond of the audiobooks; the residents of Klickitat Street make excellent company on summer road trips.) There was just too much ground to cover, too many nerves to shake off. We chatted for nearly an hour before I finally asked Cleary the question I’d long wondered about: How much of Ramona is you? She sighed before informing me, firmly: She loved Ramona, but she did not like being compared to her. “I thought like Ramona,” she said, “but I was a very well-behaved little girl.”
Little girls (and boys), well-behaved (and not), have fallen in love with spirited Ramona Geraldine Quimby for decades. When she appeared in the series, in 1955’s “Beezus and Ramona,” she was a four-year-old rascal riding a tricycle around her living room, a harmonica between her teeth. Nothing could stop her, not even the coffee table she crashes into, or the book she orders her older sister, the ever-irritated Beezus, to read. “Ramona always managed to get her own way,” Beezus wisely concedes in that very first chapter – and over the course of eight books, she pretty much did.
“It’s not that she’s naughty,” Cleary told me, it’s that “things just didn’t work out the way she thought they should.”
What a perfect excuse — and a very Ramona thing to say.
I think what Cleary meant was this: We all think of Ramona as a pest – pulling on a classmate’s curls (and getting suspended from kindergarten as a result), taking a single bite out of each apple in a box (before throwing them away), inviting friends to her house for a party without telling her parents (“because when I ask you don’t let me do things”). But she was merely trying to live in the world as she thought it should be. Isn’t that an essential experience of childhood? We adults, so used to living in the world as we find it, sometimes forget we weren’t always this way.
Anyway, by the time Ramona reaches age 9, she has matured. When her father loses his job, in “Ramona and Her Father” (1977), she spends a lot of time trying to help her family, even if her efforts to get her dad to stop smoking involve very Ramona tricks, like replacing his cigarettes with papers with anti-smoking slogans on them. By the end of the series, in “Ramona’s World” (1999), she has become a big sister and even refers to herself as “a potential grown up.”
Cleary — who also published two splendid, overlooked memoirs, “A Girl from Yamhill” in 1988 and, seven years later, “My Own Two Feet” — understood children. After all, she began her career as a children’s librarian and was a mother of twins (the inspiration for “Mitch and Amy”). Yes, the kids in her books were White, suburban and middle class, but their struggles were universal: sibling rivalry, school bullying, worries about their parents. And yes, some of the books feel a little dated – would it be acceptable today to call a spitfire girl character a “pest”? But Cleary’s compassionate and funny portrayal of childhood will always feel timeless.
Cleary, anyway, didn’t have much interest in lit crit, at least when it came to her own work. “Don’t expect me to analyze my books,” Cleary told me during our phone conversation five years ago. In her honor, let’s not. Let’s just enjoy them.
Nora Krug is an editor and writer in Book World.