Like many other girls my age, I grew up reading Beverly Cleary.
Her books about Ramona Quimby spoke to me like no other books did. While I always told people that my favorite book was Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (a trip to a land of chocolate? Yes, please), I was always inevitably drawn back to Ramona and Beezus and Henry Huggins. While I loved the fantasy world of Willy Wonka, it was the realism of Klickitat Street that always called me back.
It’s a credit to Cleary’s writing that, as a child, I never questioned the time period in which her books were set. Of course, they were set in the present time — for me. I was later shocked (and by “later,” I mean “fifteen minutes ago”) to discover that the first Ramona book I ever read, Ramona and Her Father, was written in 1977, the same year that I was born.
Ramona was just like me. Her family was down on their luck. Her dad, like mine, was really an artist, but had to resort to working at a store in order to make ends meet. She wasn’t that cute. People thought she was a pest more often than not. She got into plenty of trouble when she didn’t mean to. I could identify with Ramona.
Reading Cleary’s memoir of her childhood was like a window into her writing process. You always hear that you should write what you know, and Cleary did just that. But she did it with a rare combination of matter-of-factness and sympathy that no one else seems to be able to do.
Writers these days seem to depend wholly on magic and adventure and angsty drama to captivate the reader. Cleary’s writing is remarkable simply for how unremarkable her subject matter is. She writes about ordinary kids living ordinary lives. But she writes in a way that kids can identify with, and it makes them feel understood. To me, that makes her worth ten J.K. Rowlings.
But I digress. Back to the book I’m supposed to be reviewing. Cleary writes about herself in much the same way that she writes about her characters: matter-of-factly, yet sympathetically. Many of the circumstances in which her characters find themselves were adapted from her own experience.
Despite her unassuming writing style, she lived through some remarkable times. She grew up during the Great Depression. Her father’s having to work at jobs he hated in order to support the family was the inspiration for Mr. Quimby’s job at the local ShopRite.
Cleary relates the stories of her childhood and adolescence in much the same way that she tells her audience about Ramona Quimby and Henry Huggins. The book was a compelling read, and I thoroughly enjoyed every page.
Now, I want to indulge myself for a moment, here, and take a minute to rant about a movie that’s scheduled to come out tomorrow. Ramona and Beezus claims that it’s going to show you Ramona like you’ve never seen her before. “This summer, imagination runs wild!” claims the trailer announcer dude.
Here’s the thing: Ramona didn’t have all that much imagination. Seriously, the extent of her imagination was to make an owl looking off to the side at anything but another owl, or to create a crown for herself out of burs. She didn’t take these huge flights of fancy. She got into scrapes, sure, and her dad thought she had spunk.
The Ramona in this movie seems to fit the generic Hollywood mold of “special” — that is, she has an overactive imagination, an annoyingly irrepressible spirit, and gets through all of her young life’s troubles on sheer sparkle.
But what allowed generations of kids to identify with Ramona was that she was so refreshingly ordinary. It made kids feel as though they were free to be normal. This new Ramona has little in common with Cleary’s Ramona.
And don’t even get me started on Beezus. Beezus is supposed to be depressed and afflicted with acne, not some generically pretty Disney drone.
Thanks, Hollywood, for reducing some of my most treasured childhood memories to a generic Hollywood fluff piece.
For the discerning reader, go read The Girl from Yamhill. If you’re anything like me, you’ll hope that our current recession will at least breed more writers like Beverly Cleary.