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Everyone Needs a Ramona

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I was a voracious reader growing up. I gorged on heaps of nonfiction from the public library, signing out all the shark books one day, clearing out every last volcano title the following week. I read Archie comics from the drugstore and dusty poetry books borrowed from the barn of the antique-books dealer who lived next door. I tore through series: the Bobbsey Twins, Nancy Drew, and the Hardy Boys. I savored novels about witches, dragons, princesses, time travelers, sleuths, and adventurers who lived in places more exciting than my small, blue-collar town could ever be. I loved the way those books carried me away, and I loved the way, in all of them, I found bits of myself, and bits of the person I hoped I’d grow to be.

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Kate Messner and Ramona at the Beverly Cleary sculpture garden in Portland, Oregon. Photo: Tom Messner.

But what I loved more than anything were Beverly Cleary’s Ramona books, because while it was thrilling to read about characters with more exciting lives than mine, it was even more magical to read about a girl who felt just like me. Ramona wasn’t a perfect princess. She was a little sister who yearned to feel bigger. She was curious in all the messiest ways. Ramona loved her family, annoyed her sister, made mistakes, got in trouble, and was forgiven. She gave me hope, and she gave me ideas.

Like Ramona, I once stuck burrs from a weedy field into my hair. My mother, like Ramona’s, had to cut them out. Like Ramona, I worried about my father smoking. How could he not understand how dangerous it was and how much we loved him? So when Ramona threw out her father’s cigarettes and replaced them with rolled-up papers warning him of the dangers of smoking, I did that, too. Like Ramona, I got in trouble. But today, Dad admits that Ramona probably played a role in his decision to quit smoking.

cleary_ramona quimby age 8 updateRamona felt like a mirror to me, with her rumpled brown hair and messy emotions. She reflected back all of my feelings of not quite fitting in, and she let me know that I wasn’t alone. I always think about Ramona when I hear some adults in our world say that stories don’t need to be mirrors; that we don’t need quite so much diverse representation in kids’ books; that everyone should be able to find themselves in any well-written story. I think about how much Ramona mattered to me, how privileged I was to have her in my library, in my classroom, and on the bookshelf in my room. I think about how much I would have missed her, and how my life might have been different without her in it.

gino_georgeI’ve met kids who feel the same way about the Dyamonde Daniel books by Nikki Grimes and about Lisa Yee’s Bobby Ellis-Chan books and about Alex Gino’s George.

So while I believe that great stories can feel universal, there’s something extra-magical about a book that truly speaks to you, with characters who look like you and share some of your background. Beverly Cleary taught me that. And I believe every child deserves a Ramona.

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.

Kate Messner About Kate Messner

Kate Messner is the author of such picture books as Over and Under the Snow and Up in the Garden and Down in the Dirt (Chronicle); the novels Wake Up Missing and All the Answers (Bloomsbury); and the Marty McGuire and Ranger in Time chapter book series (Scholastic). Kate lives on Lake Champlain with her family.

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Comments

  1. Thanks Kate. Where do you find the time to write such articulate pieces on writing and reading as well as writing books? (I seem to remember reading something about you getting up at 4am which may answer my question.) You’re a great advocate for literacy.

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