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Ramona in the 21st-Century Library

klickitat_street“‘Oh, did people write that in those days, too?’ Beezus was surprised, because she had thought this was something very new to write in an autograph album…” (Beezus and Ramona)

Sometimes a book becomes quickly dated, and sometimes it easily crosses decades or generations. Beezus finds this is also true for autograph albums, and she makes an important parallel discovery that brings her much hope for the future: her mother and beloved aunt grew up to be close, though they fought as children as intensely as she and Ramona do. (Aunt Beatrice ruined Mother’s autograph album by signing every page!) It is okay not to love one’s little sister all the time. These days, autograph albums may be out of fashion, but the theme of sibling rivalry never goes out of style.

cleary_beezus and ramona redBeverly Cleary published Beezus and Ramona sixty-one years ago. At the Cambridge Public Library in Massachusetts, where I manage youth services and oversee youth collection development, I checked in on Ramona in the twenty-first century.

The city of Cambridge has a diverse population that truly supports and uses its public libraries. The Children’s Room in particular is a fantastic community gathering space where kids from all backgrounds come alone or with friends or family to read and make discoveries. For the past decade, our Children’s Room book circulation has grown significantly every year, and almost fifty percent of the total number of items goes out every month. We strive to have something for each reader, with multiple copies of the books that “everyone” is reading. We want all children to find books with characters and situations they can relate to and recognize as well as books with characters and situations unlike those they know. As much as possible, we want readers to be able to find both the book they came in for (even if it is very popular) along with the one they did not know they wanted.

How does Ramona fare in such an environment?

cleary_beezus and ramonaEach of our six branches owns copies of Beverly Cleary’s books, and the Main Library owns extra copies of each — ten copies of the most popular titles — and audio editions and some versions in other languages. Beverly Cleary’s books all circulate multiple times a year, with Ramona’s titles going out more than the others. The Ramona audiobooks, engagingly performed by Stockard Channing, circulate even better than the printed books. Twenty-first-century characters who are often compared to Ramona — such as Sara Pennypacker’s Clementine, Lenore Look’s Alvin Ho, and Megan McDonald’s Judy Moody and Stink — are in high demand at our library, but over the past year the print versions of Ramona held ten to twenty percent higher circulation figures than those other series.

CPL_clearybooks

Cleary shelves at the Cambridge Public Library. Photo: Lolly Robinson.

Numbers can only tell so much, so I asked the parent/child book group I facilitate what they think. This group consists of about twenty people, ten kids between the ages of seven and ten and usually their ten grownups (although we can and do have kids who join solo). The group includes boys and girls from different schools and a wide range of backgrounds, and everyone — child and adult — reads and participates. Their varied takes on the books we read consistently blow my mind, and they are quite practiced at telling me how they really feel about what they are reading.

I let everyone know about the article I was writing and casually asked, “Have any of you ever read the Ramona books?”

All hands shot up and enthusiastic chatter erupted around the table.

When I asked if they remembered how they first discovered the Ramona books, I got an interesting assortment of answers. One girl’s mom read them to her. Another found out about them from a school friend.

cleary_beezus and ramona updateOne boy said, “My librarian at school gave me that book about Ralph. The mouse? And then I found the Ramona books next to it on the shelf. And I really liked those.”

While I was taking in this response, absorbing what insight it might offer about assumptions, shelf order, and readers’ advisory, another girl brought me back to the present in a pitying tone:

“There was the movie, you know…” [2010’s Ramona and Beezus]

Right.

“Well,” I told them, “Beverly Cleary, who wrote the Ramona books, is celebrating a big birthday this year. She’s going to be one hundred years old…”

Gasp.

“Is she still alive?!”

“Is she coming here!?!”

“Let’s have her come here!!!”

“She is very much alive! But she wrote the Ramona books a long time ago. I read them when I was your age. The first one was written in 1955…[dramatic pause] Do they seem old-fashioned to you?”

Silence and thinking and looking around at each other.

“Some things a little bit. But not the way she fights with her sister!” declared a boy, which inspired a lot of vocal solidarity from around the table.

ramona and beezus movie“Ramona is funny,” smiled another girl.

The mom who had read the books aloud to her daughter interjected an important point: “Some of the details in the first ones are a bit dated now. But they were written over such a long period of time…The last ones weren’t written all that long ago.”

Though Ramona only ages about six years in those eight books, the series itself spans forty-four years, from 1955 to 1999.

“Are we going to read Ramona next?” another boy wanted to know.

Inspired by their enthusiasm, I re-read the series myself. I have often revisited my old friend Ramona, whom I first met when I was in second grade, thanks to my own school librarian. The Quimby family taught me, an only child like Beverly Cleary, the nuances of a sibling dynamic better than a graduate-level psychology class could. Even now, I continue to make new connections and discoveries when reading these books.

Through all these years, nothing much has changed about being little and not having much control. The issues Cleary addresses in her books are ones our children still deal with, and they can be scary and isolating. What if my family is keeping a secret from me? What if my family doesn’t have enough money? What if my dad loses his job? What if I don’t like my sibling? What if there is a new baby coming? What if my parents get divorced? What if my teacher doesn’t understand me? What if I do something cruel? What if someone does something cruel to me?

Cleary_tattoo2

Beth McIntyre, former Cambridge Public librarian (now Madison County Public librarian, Wisconsin), shows off her Ramona Quimby Q tattoo. Photo: Beth McIntyre.

The plot points and details are honest and not sanitized for anyone’s benefit. Be it 1975 or 2016, sometimes a kid really does need to blow off steam by singing “99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall” in its entirety as loudly as possible for all the neighbors to hear.

When Cleary’s characters experience fear, love, jealousy, boredom, anger, or worry, we all recognize those emotions. She brings them sharply into focus. They are emotions we have felt and will keep feeling, but maybe up until that moment, we thought we were the only ones. What a relief to share the burden. What a relief to find that even if things don’t turn out as planned, there is hope and probably a really good laugh to be had as well.

Why, thought Beezus, Aunt Beatrice used to be every bit as awful as Ramona. And yet look how nice she is now. Beezus could scarcely believe it. And now Mother and Aunt Beatrice, who had quarreled when they were girls, loved each other and thought the things they had done were funny! They actually laughed about it. Well, maybe when she was grown-up she would think it was funny that Ramona had put eggshells in one birthday cake and baked her rubber doll with another. Maybe she wouldn’t think Ramona was so exasperating, after all. Maybe that was just the way things were with sisters. (Beezus and Ramona)

Maybe, Beezus. Maybe.

Happy birthday, Beverly Cleary! We love you in Cambridge, Massachusetts. You have brought us so much laughter and confidence — as we have grown both as readers and as humans. You have made our many troubles easier to bear. You have connected us, generation to generation, family to family, by showing us what we have in common as people.

We hope you have the best birthday cake — free of eggshells and baked-in rubber dolls.

We all want autograph albums.

We want you to sign every page.

From the March/April 2016 issue of The Horn Book Magazine. Happy 100th Birthday, Beverly Cleary! For more, click the tag Beverly Cleary at 100.

Julie Roach About Julie Roach

Julie Roach manages youth services at the Cambridge Public Library in Massachusetts. She also teaches children’s literature at Simmons College’s Graduate School of Library and Information Science and at Lesley University.

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Comments

  1. I love Beverly Cleary. I wanted to be Ramona when I was 8.

  2. I thought I was already a huge fan of the Cambridge Public Library, but now I love CPL even more. Keep up the great work! (and say hi to Tululah!)

  3. Megan Gerovac says:

    What a great article! Reading the clips from the story of Ramona and Beezus brought me right back to my childhood! Beverly Cleary has always been one of my very favorite authors…I think it’s time I introduce her to my boys. Happy Belated Birthday Beverly! May your birthday be as special as you are to all of us!!!
    xoxo
    Megan Gerovac

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