Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Viva Ramona!


FROM SEPTEMBER 2006

“The only reason for the existence of a novel is that it does attempt to represent life.” - Henry James

Reading to children daily (or almost daily) means you end up reading many of the same books over and over again. Constant revisiting of the same texts gives one a special appreciation of the great and an intense loathing of the hacks. I’ve been meaning to make a big list of each, but maybe I shouldn’t get nasty (though I don’t mind saying that if anyone ever decides to publicly incinerate all books about a certain large red dog, I’d be happy to furnish the matches). But I do want to praise a great one: Beverly Cleary.

I don’t remember reading her books until my daughters got old enough to have chapter books read to them. Once I read Ramona the Pest, Ramona the Brave, and Ramona Quimby, Age 8, I realized what I had been missing all those years: the great comic realist of childhood. Nobody renders the inner lives of a six, seven, and eight-year-olds with less sentiment and more gritty truth (or with more wit and poignancy) than Beverly Cleary. Ramona is not impossibly mature like Nancy Drew or cutesy/obnoxious like Junie B. Jones. She seems like a real little girl, a hilarious bundle of charm and flaws. In Ramona’s life nothing more dramatic happens than getting stuck in the mud in new boots or the family cat dying in the basement, yet whenever we’re in the middle of one of these books I find myself looking forward to bedtime and disappointed when its Becki’s turn to read to the girls.

Tonight I was reading them chapter two of Ramona Quimby, Age 8. Ramona, now thriving in the third grade, has to spend her afternoons at her friend Howie’s house, under the care of his stick-in-the-mud grandmother and forced into being a playmate for Howie’s obnoxious four-year-old sister, Willa Jean. She winds up as Mister Rat in an annoyingly manic game of “Froggy Went a Courtin.” As Ramona struggles to keep her sunny side up during these degradations, Cleary reveals her concealed resentments with a verisimilitude that strikes me as somehow beautiful. And it’s funny, too. The chapter contains one of my favorite funny bits in any of the Ramona books. Willa Jean has two friends named Bruce: “Bruce who pees in the sandbox” and “Bruce who doesn’t pee in the sandbox.”

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