As we discussed on last week’s Ramona episode, author Beverly Cleary is widely recognized as having made significant contributions to the world of children’s literature, specifically in realistic portrayals of children and the ineffable experience of childhood. In her career as a children’s librarian, Cleary spoke to children about what they wanted to read and realized that there was a gap between what they were interested in and what was available for them to read. She reflected on what she might have liked to read as a child and set out to create stories that portrayed childhood and the emotional life of children with realism and humor.
Generations of readers have responded to her stories. We read this quote from a 2021 piece by The New York Times on the pod, but it’s worded so perfectly that it’s worth repeating. While discussing artists we had lost that year, the writer stated:
This was Cleary’s great gift. The ability to map the strange Newtonian physics of childhood, its bizarro laws, proportion, and gravity, its warped space-time. She loved, especially the spots where kids in her worlds, urgent, intimate and self evident conflicted with the outer world of adults, cold foreign, and often arbitrary. Cleary understood that to a child. 30 minutes often feels like 30 years and that small setbacks can feel like an apocalypse. The irrepressible, Ramona Quimby and her lens onto the landscape of childhood made her relatable to both children who saw themselves in her and adults who remembered what it was like to be small, full of energy and struggling to understand the mysterious world of the adults who run it.
Cleary set out to capture this feeling and not shy away from the messiness and chaos that childhood often embodies. She was not interested in adding more stories about well-behaved, quiet children to the canon of kidlit. Cleary may have been remembering her own early childhood experiences. Further down in the same piece, we find the following:
Beverly Cleary was put on academic probation after first grade. Her biggest problem was reading: It didn’t interest her. The assigned books were all bland educational stories about polite children. Why, she wondered, didn’t anyone write stories about real kids — funny, angry, joyful, unruly vortexes of love and chaos? Kids who felt anxious, broke the rules, threw tantrums, pulled one another’s hair? Kids like her and her friends? What was the matter with authors?
Her irrepressible Ramona Quimby could be considered one of the classic archetypes of the rambunctious little girl in literature. In Rachel Vorona Cote’s Lithub article, “How Ramona Quimby Taught a Generation of Girls to Embrace Brashness”, she compares Ramona characters such as Pippi Longstocking, Arya Stark, and Moana. Unlike in the stories of these other girls, however, Ramona’s story contains no fantastical elements. Its magic lies entirely in the mundane but not dreary portrayals of the lives and problems of everyday people. The realism of the Ramona books is never pedestrian — acting instead like an enchanted mirror that Cleary holds up to our world to capture the essence of what it is like to be very small.
This blog is created by Hannah and Ella in conjunction with the These Books Made Me podcast, a Prince George’s County Memorial Library System production. Check out the corresponding episode, Ramona, on Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, or wherever you normally listen to podcasts. Or you can simply click on the link to the episode to listen.