Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Being Ramona (an appreciation of Beverly Cleary)

I don't have a sister. I have an older brother, which I think is the least fraught sibling dynamic there is, but I could be biased. Until I became a mother, everything I knew about sisters I knew from literature or some facet of pop culture: Pride & Prejudice. The Brady Bunch. The Roches. Little Women. King Lear.

But now I have two daughters, three and a half years apart, whose relationship, depending on the moment, fascinates, amuses or frightens me. I also have different sister source material: the oeuvre of Beverly Cleary, whose books I've amassed at my usual haunts—library sales, estate sales and thrift stores. I'm sure I read a good chunk of the Ramona series when I was kid, but the stories didn't make any lasting impression—a fact I attribute to her lack of equine characters. I also didn't have a sister, and the Ramona books are about a lot of things, but mostly they're about Ramona and Beezus, two sisters, about five years apart, whose relationship in turn fascinates, amuses and frightens.

Cleary is a miniaturist, a crafter of tiny domestic dramas. This has become a bad word in contemporary literature—purportedly a way of denigrating women writers. Like, why is a novel considered "miniature" when [insert female novelist who rarely or never gets reviewed by The New York Times here] writes it, but when, say, Jonathan Franzen makes the foibles of an affluent suburban hausfrau his subject, then it's a novel of Big Ideas (probably helps to give big-idea-sounding titles like Freedom. Just sayin'). Anyway, I don't consider miniaturism to be a negative. I live my life in miniature; my dramas are mostly domestic, quotidian affairs, and when a novel mirrors my experience and makes it universal, that's a good novel, whatever you want to call it.

The Quimby family saga is nothing if not universal, even if the scale is small. Anxiety about money pervades all. In the Quimby household, nothing is disposable. Making one pair of oxfords last a whole school year is paramount. Buying and then losing a pair of red rain boots is a very big deal. Mr. Quimby loses his job and the family can no longer afford a weekly dinner at the local hamburger joint. Mrs. Quimby gets a job as a receptionist at a doctor's office. Ramona throws up at school. Ramona doesn't think her teacher likes her. Ramona is babysat. Beezus becomes a babysitter. Ramona ruins a library book. The family cat dies. Beezus goes to her first party with boys. A surprise third child is born. A stray dog is acquired. A bike is procured. An aunt gets married. Dad quits smoking. Etc. Etc. All the stories are about learning how to negotiate relationships—with our immediate family and distant relations, our friends and frenemies, our neighbors, teachers and babysitters. They're all about getting along.

And what better way to illustrate that point than with the story of two (competing-bickering-loving-hating) sisters?

Around here, we use Ramona as shorthand. We tell my younger daughter, when she is being pesty for the sake of pestieness, "Don't be such a Ramona." When the older one's sense of injustice and outrage is made palpable by a quivering upper lip, we say, "No need to get all Beezus on us." When our cat died, we talked about Picky-picky and how the girls buried him themselves in the backyard and what that must've been like. When they complain about dinner, they're reminded of the time Mr. and Mrs. Quimby put the sisters in charge of making their own damn dinner. If they make a new friend who's a boy, we wonder if he's a Henry, or more of a Howie? There is a subtle difference...

When my elder daughter was in first grade, we started reading the books together. By second grade, she was reading them on her own and in school. The younger one, eager to get in on any of her sister's action, became hooked on the audiobooks in preschool. For about a year, the husky, cultured voice of Stockard Channing, who plays every role in every Ramona book ever written, could be heard booming from the kid side of the house. (I always thought Rizzo was the best part of Grease, but Channing's work in these audiobooks might be her best ever.)

Then the Ramona & Beezus movie came out, starring that cute brunette who just broke up with Justin Bieber and the soap-opera guy who's married to Fergie from the Black-eyed Peas and the guy who was Carrie's second-to-last serious boyfriend on Sex and the City and the chick who plays one of the sisterwives on that Mormon show on HBO. And I was worried. I didn't want my kids' appreciation of Beverly Cleary's elegant prose (or Stockard Channing's amazing voice) to be tainted by some watered-down Hollywood bullshit. I'm so principled! Until it came to HBO one rainy day and I was like what the hell? We're paying for HBO for god's sakes—watch it.

I think they watched it 17 or 18 times before I was finally able to delete if from the Tivo.

My only real problem with the movie—a harmless enough travesty, as these things go—is the repackaged movie tie-in paperback, which features the actresses on the cover. My elder daughter insisted on buying this version for her little sister, despite the fact that we already have an extensive Beverly Cleary collection. There are many, many versions of Cleary's many, many books out there. Once I snapped up the 1975 first edition hardback of Ramona the Brave pictured here, which features the awesome illustrations of Alan Tiegreen, I was on a mission to find them all. Along the way, of course, I had to buy all the other versions, like the Dell Yearling paperbacks from the mid-’80s, illustrated by my second-favorite Louis Darling. We have a bunch from the ’90s, and then my daughters' favorite—the HarperCollins reissues from the early 2000s. They prefer these covers because the idealized, longer-haired version of the characters make them look "prettier." Ugh.

But I get it. They identify with Ramona and Beezus and they want them looking the way they want to look, Disney Channel-ready, not like some kid from the cast of Zoom. Which I realize is why I like Tiegreen's knobby-kneed tomboy Ramona best: that's the version that most reminds me of myself circa 1975, when we sported bowl cuts and wore overalls and ruled the sidewalks on our rollerskates and banana-seat bikes, just like the kids from Klickitat Street. I'm pretty sure that everyone who's read and loved these books can answer the question: Are you a Ramona or a Beezus? I may be a Mrs. Quimby now (alas) but once upon a time I was definitely a Ramona. Just ask my brother.


  1. I love the sound of these. A bit like The Family From One End Street but American. I think I'll get one for my sons. Do you mean Jack Burger? Considering the amount of times I've watched SATC, I should know her second last bf, but I don't!

  2. Hmm maybe Jack Burger was second to last-I was referring to dim but lovable carpenter Aiden, last seen in one of the SATC movies sporting a baby bjorn... and definitely check out ramona--the henry huggins/ribsy books are more boy-centric, but also feature ramona and beezus


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