This Is Us

Ramona Quimby and Me

A tribute to Beverly Cleary

Me, age two or three, 1979.

My childhood library was a mile from our apartment, a route that took my mother and me across an overpass that ran through thick woods, down the quiet streets of a New Deal-built neighborhood with tiny rowhouses and an Art Deco movie theater in the town square. My mother didn’t drive, even though it was the early 1980s and every other mother did, so it was always a walk, pushing my little sister in an umbrella stroller. Whatever books I wanted to bring home, I would have to carry.

We made that walk frequently, and I had no way of knowing, at age six or seven, how thick with ghosts that path would become. Here was the bridge where I’d skip school, 10 years in the future, to meet with a boy I liked. Just up that hill, there was the rowhouse I’d one day share with my husband and kids. On the right, the sandwich shop where, after my divorce, I’d stop and get lunch with my new fiancé. The High’s where my mother got hot dogs for me and my sister, which would turn into a Chinese restaurant long after my sister was gone.

I was a precocious reader, and that was a lucky thing. My class photos from those years all show me looking into the camera self-consciously, obviously ill at ease with my frilly dress and the proximity of my peers. I was good at all the academic parts of school, but the social parts were baffling, and I sure wasn’t going to learn that stuff from my parents. My mother once told me that when she and my father were dating, he warned her, “I tend to piss people off.” The two of them didn’t have much in common, but at least they had that.

In the fog of those early years, the Ramona Quimby books were my guide. Beverly Cleary and Judy Blume were the star authors of the era, and if your kid was too young to read about getting her first period or using binoculars for voyeurism, you handed her a Ramona book. And where little kids were concerned, Cleary got it.

Ramona lived out all my darkest, most harrowing fears. She humiliated herself in front of the whole cafeteria by cracking an egg against her head that turned out to be raw instead of hard-boiled. She threw up in class. She imitated a sassy little girl in a commercial by telling her teacher that her stockings wrinkled around her ankles like an elephant’s skin, and that didn’t go well. The other kids laughed at her. They taunted her with nicknames. The teacher called her parents.

She didn’t shrug any of it off. She felt her feelings, and I felt them right along with her. But she survived. You can puke on the floor in front of your whole class and still survive.

That’s a life lesson right there. A parable you can take with you into every decade that follows.

In Ramona and Her Mother, her parents get into a fight over whether the pancakes are done. One of them grabs the spatula and slashes the pancakes open. In Ramona and Her Father, Ramona’s dad is trying to quit smoking, and she catches him smoking a stale old cigarette in the bathroom because he just can’t help himself.

Your parents are human, and maybe you should sit with that idea now because it’s not going to get any better from here.

To a seven-year-old, this is horror theater. Parents who can’t hold it together. Whose feelings and urges get bigger than they are. You see it in your own household and it feels like a dark and terrible secret. But when you read it in a Ramona book, the truth comes into focus: Your parents are human, and maybe you should sit with that idea now because it’s not going to get any better from here.

There were beautiful moments, too, of course. The night when Ramona’s family goes out to a hamburger place, in Ramona Quimby, Age 8, is the platonic ideal of what a family dinner should be: warm, safe, tasty, full of comfort. The Quimbys are always tight on money, and when a mysterious stranger pays for their dinner at the end of the meal, it’s almost too much to bear.

And then there’s the moment, in Ramona and Her Mother, when Ramona decides to run away.

Her mother comes upon Ramona in her room, fed up and angry and theatrically packing her suitcase. Rather than yell at her, ridicule her, or order her to stop, her mother offers to help her pack. Bewildered, Ramona stands there as her mother hands her one item after another, culminating in her roller skates, “in case you want to travel fast.”

Ramona then tries to pick up the suitcase and realizes it’s too heavy. She looks at her mother and realizes this was the plan all along. Her mother seemed to be cooperating, even enthusiastic, but the whole time, she was working to make it too heavy for Ramona to go.

I thought about this scene a lot in the weeks after my husband told me he was leaving. Emotionally, practically, I put every damn pair of roller skates I could find into his bag. But in the end, I just couldn’t make the bag heavy enough.

That’s where the other lessons come in, though. All those little parables that broke the big world down into manageable pieces. That the worst thing can happen, the scariest thing, and yet the story keeps rolling forward. You can throw up in front of your classmates, watch them all file out holding their noses, and spend a couple of days in bed. But then, just like Ramona at the very end of the book, you can dig those roller skates out of your suitcase, tie them on, and get right back to it.

Because some things in life can be both a weight and a joy.

Like most of my ’80s peers, I eventually moved on to the Judy Blume books, with their teen protagonists wrestling with sexuality and peer pressure and cliques. Then came the grown-up literature: Toni Morrison, Cormac McCarthy, the weighty questions that hit at the core of how we live in this world. How we navigate those corridors of ghosts that, at age six, I couldn’t see or understand.

I loved those too. But I believed they could teach me things because I’d learned in my Ramona days that every good book is a kind of travel guide. How is a kid who grows up on Saturday morning cartoons to know that you don’t try out the punch lines from commercials on your teacher? That the sparkling pink fantasy world of the toy aisle isn’t the only way to be a girl? Ramona’s here to tell you.

Beverly Cleary said, “I think children like to find themselves in books.” She went out of her way not to moralize. But she didn’t need to; it was enough just to tell the truth about how it feels to be a kid in the world. And even though I haven’t walked that one-mile route home from the library in years and years, I’m still carrying those books with me.

Author of The Kingdom of Childhood.

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