Columnist William Newman: Remembering Beverly Cleary, 1916-2021

The recent front page New York Times article about the passing of children’s book author Beverly Cleary had a mistake — and in the very f...

The recent front page New York Times article about the passing of children’s book author Beverly Cleary had a mistake — and in the very first sentence no less! A rebuttal is required!

But first, in the spirit of generosity with which Ms. Cleary treated her characters and readers, let’s pause to praise the Times for what its lead got right: “Beverly Cleary … enthralled tens of millions of young readers with the adventures and mishaps of Henry Huggins …[and] Ramona Quimby and her older sister Beezus….” And tens of millions of adults, too, we should note.

What the first sentence got wrong was the adjective it used to describe Ramona — “bratty.” As one of my favorite local writer-journalist friends put it in our back-and-forth texts about this, Ramona was anything but bratty. She was spunky.

Later on, the Times’ article contained this clarification: “(Ramona’s) credo: ‘A little person sometimes had to be a bit noisier and a little bit more stubborn in order to be noticed at all.’” (And in the Henry Huggins story in which Ramona makes her first appearance she was, to be sure, unabashedly super annoying.)

Last summer I wrote a column for this space titled “Remembering Ramona,” which — given Beverly Cleary’s passing last week at the age of 104 — I wanted to share again. I have edited it a bit and shortened for space considerations.

Remembering Ramona

Thirty years or so ago I met a young girl, Ramona. For years my wife and our two daughters spent more time with her than with most of our relatives or friends although, technically speaking, Ramona is not actually a person.

Ramona Quimby is the hero (of sorts) in the eponymous children’s books by Beverly Cleary. We read the Ramona books to our kids, and later they’d read them to us — “Ramona the Pest,” “Ramona Forever,” “Ramona the Brave” — over and over and over again. Cleary wrote eight books in her Ramona series.

For sure, other books would compete for our hearts — “Fudge” and “Superfudge” by Judy Blume, for example, and almost any story about horses. But Ramona Quimby remained dear to us.

Reading Ramona had two purposes. The first was to get the daughter to fall asleep. The second was to share stories about — I thought — adults doing a reasonably good, if fallible, job of taking care of kids and making them feel safe. But, it turns out, the stories I thought I was reading were not the stories our daughters were hearing.

Recently I asked our elder daughter Jo, whose name was inspired by Jo March in “Little Women,” why she loved Ramona Quimby. Jo explained that Ramona made kids feel understood because the stories reflect the perspective of that little girl. For the adults in her world, Ramona’s antics feel annoying, but from Ramona’s perspective — and the stories are often told from her point of view — her thoughts and behavior make perfect sense.

Jo explained that Ramona’s heart and imagination are always in the right place. Unfortunately, her execution rarely lines up neatly with her intentions and often lands her in trouble. What the stories illustrate is that adults, however well-intended, really don’t get it when it comes to understanding kids. Jo related all this to me while wrestling a sharp object away from her toddler.

For example, in “Ramona the Pest,” Ramona and her family are sitting together in their living room one evening when the power goes out. Ramona suggests that her parents turn on the dawnzer, a statement that confuses everyone present. Ramona is exasperated. Why does she have to explain everything to the older generation? The dawnzer gives “lee light.” She knows this from the first line of “The Star Spangled Banner” that her class sang in school every morning. Turn on the dawnzer already!

Ramona’s dawnzer lee light story has stayed with me, probably because I still remember as an 8- or 9-year-old at summer sleep-away camp confusedly singing the last words of “Taps” — “God is nice.”

Ramona shows us what the world looks and feels like when you know in your bones that you don’t see things the way everyone tells you that you should. That’s a big reason Ramona wriggles into our hearts and consciousness –— that and the fact that she accepts herself and her foibles and in the end finds herself “winning at growing up.”

In late July our daughter, Jo, and her husband, Dean, had their second child, their second daughter, our second granddaughter. They named her Ramona.

Ramona — our granddaughter Ramona, that is — has a sister, the aforementioned 2-year-old with the sharp object. Ramona’s big sister’s name is Kobin, my late mother’s family name.

One afternoon this past week Kobin wanted her mother. “Now, Mama!” But Mama couldn’t pay attention to Kobin at that moment. Mama was busy with baby Ramona.

Being 2, Kobin was fully capable of dissolving at that moment into a complete meltdown. But she didn’t.

Instead, 2-year-old Kobin, who apparently has a keen sense of the world today, pronounced matter-of-factly, “Times are hard. Oh well.” Ramona Quimby and Beverly Cleary would have been proud.

Bill Newman, a Northampton-based lawyer and radio show host, writes a monthly column.

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Newsrust - US Top News: Columnist William Newman: Remembering Beverly Cleary, 1916-2021
Columnist William Newman: Remembering Beverly Cleary, 1916-2021
Newsrust - US Top News
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