HER MANY FRIENDS will rejoice to know that on the precarious journey toward growing up, Ramona Q has somehow slipped through the double binds of Mrs. Griggs' first grade into grade two her gutsy soul intact. She can read now without mentally buzzing all the unknown words, and while her spelling may leave something to be desired, it's quite sufficient for signs like.
Which are vital in her campaign to save her father's life.
Ramona Quimby, once known as Ramona the Pest, is the kind of child that drives her elders to the brink. If they could only understand that the hair full of burs which must be cut out one by one started out as a magnificent crown rather like the one which magically appears on the head of the boy in the margarine commercial. Ramona had placed the crown of burs on her head while practicing earnestly for a career in television advertising. She needs to make a million dollars to save her family, especially her father, who has lost his job and is starting to get crabby and smoke too much Ramona, like many of her tribe, never, or hardly ever, sets out to be malicious, and she's certainly not thoughtless. Her schemes are painstakingly crafted and bravely launched, only to be dashed again and again on the uncharted rocks of the grown-up world.
Beverly Cleary, Ramona's creator and winner of the Laura Ingalls Wilder Award for her contribution to children's literature, has written more than 20 books for young readers over at least that many years. She is, and I do not exaggerate, wildly popular with children. So I came to her books, not only as a reviewer but as a writer, to ask why.
Is it because she is easy to read?She is, but so is "Run, Spot, run." Is it because her settings are contemporary and her characters familiar? They are, but there are thousands of books fitting both descriptions which never capture a fraction of Cleary's devoted readership.
Last week I carried home a stack of Cleary books from the local library to see if I could discover her secret. My two teenagers spotted the books on the dining room table and smiles spread across their faces. "Oh, yeah," one said, as though hearing the name of an old friend after many years. "I remember reading those." "Yeah," said the other. "They're funny."
When I was young there were two kinds of funny - funny ha-ha and funny peculiar. A lot of funny ha-ha things happen in Cleary's books, but her real specialty is another kind of funny, which is a cross between funny ha-ha and funny ahhh. Cleary has the rare gift of being able to reveal us to ourselves while still keeping an arm around our shoulder. We laugh (ha-ha) to recognize that funny, peculiar litter self we were and are and then laugh (ahhh) with relief that we've been understood at last.
The librarian from whom I borrowed the books said that Cleary is loved becaused she can describe simply the complex feelings of a child. But even more, Cleary is able to sketch clearly with a few perfect strokes the inexplicable adult world as seen through a child's eyes. Ramona the Brave should be required reading for all teachers just as Ramona and her Father should be read by all parents, though Ramona's parents are, in my grandmother's phrease, "far above the average." (I take the liberty of quoting my grandmother because Mr. Quimby, of whom I am particularly fond, is always quoting his.)
Amidst the traps and hurdles strewn along the path toward growing up. (People are always telling Ramona to "Growup!" and she's trying really she is!) there are rare patches of undiluted joy. Cleary captures these as gently as my 11-year-old catches fireflies. Who will ever forget the day Ramona and her friend Howie make tin can stilts and clank clank through the twilight, singing "Ninety-nine bottles of beer on the wall" all the way down to the last bottle." Or the Christmas pageant for which Ramona's harassed mother has whonly had time to devise a sheep costume out of faded pajamas upon which prance, sometimes upside down, and army of pink bunnies? Howie's grandmother has made him and his bratty baby sister, who doesn't even need one, glorious sheep skins of woolly acritic with zippers up the front. I won't tell you how this particular mortification is transformed into joy. Read it aloud with someone you love. I've asked my nine-year-old to read it to me. She loves Cleary, too, and is less likely than 1 to spill tears alll over page 186.