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Beverly Cleary and the Art of Growing Up

klickitat_streetLike my own home street, I took Klickitat Street for granted until I had been gone for a long time and returned. I recently re-read the Ramona series and realized how many scenes had wormed their way into my memory and become indistinguishable from my own experiences. The paper-bag owl, Grandma Quimby’s proverbs, the dawnzer, Nosmo King — each awakened feelings of fondness and loss, as if I were sorting through a box of my own childhood mementos. I also realized how much of Cleary’s deft writing and dry humor I have tried to emulate in my own work, and how much better a writer I would be if I emulated her more.

cleary_ramona the pestI knew the books were laugh-out-loud funny, but I had remembered them as light, even slight. I’d forgotten that the Quimbys have some hard times, particularly when Mr. Quimby is out of work. I’d also forgotten that Ramona’s troubles never feel small to her, or to readers. Still, though the Quimbys make tough decisions and live on a tight budget, the girls are always provided for and — more importantly — cared for, so Ramona never seems as lost and alone as, say, a Betsy Byars or Cynthia Voigt hero can be.

But here is the great truth that courses through Beverly Cleary’s books: even a happy childhood is not an easy one. This is true for Henry Huggins, but it’s especially true for Ramona Quimby. Henry’s struggles lie in convincing adults that he’s mature enough for various endeavors. Ramona’s struggles are more interior: she wrestles with mood swings and impulses. She throws tantrums and makes mistakes. She is decidedly wicked at times, but later feels the pain of a troubled conscience and the relief of being forgiven. Through this emotional turmoil, Cleary conveys more insight into the child’s mind than any parenting book I’ve read:

People…did not understand that a littler person sometimes had to be a little bit noisier and a little more stubborn in order to be noticed at all. (Ramona the Pest)

cleary_ramona the braveCleary may not have reached these heights of insightfulness without public pressure and serendipity. In the early books centering on Henry, Ribsy, and Beezus, Ramona is merely a slug-toting, clubhouse-door-locking, library-book-ruining foil. But readers loved Ramona, and Cleary was asked by both kids and editors to give her a starring role. Cleary had already created this willful, volatile, and most of all (Beezus’s word) exasperating character, and now had to understand her from Ramona’s own point of view. With this challenge, Cleary made a decision that makes the Ramona books the iconic realistic middle-grade series of the twentieth century: Ramona would be her own antagonist. The books would chronicle an epic struggle between Ramona the pest (the person she is) and Ramona the brave (the person she is becoming):

For the first time Ramona looked into her very own mirror in her very own room. She saw a stranger, a girl with red eyes and a puffy, tearstained face, who did not look at all the way Ramona pictured herself. Ramona thought of herself as the kind of girl everyone should like, but this girl…(Ramona the Brave)

Children come of age in books all the time, of course, but rarely are their inner lives the primary narrative arcs, and rarely are these inner lives presented with such candor. The paradox of Cleary’s creation is that the author’s skill at documenting the challenges and rewards of growing up has preserved wonderful, terrible, lovable Ramona forever as a child, ready to smash bricks and stomp in mud puddles with every generation of children as they enter grade school. She’s there now with my own son, and she’ll be there when he returns to Klickitat Street in thirty years, perhaps with his own children in tow.

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.

Kurtis Scaletta About Kurtis Scaletta

Kurtis Scaletta is the author of four middle-grade novels and teaches at the Loft Literary Center. He lives in Minneapolis with his wife and son.

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