A long time ago, a little girl saved up her money so that she could buy something special: a book. It was a book that her teacher — first grade, maybe? — had read aloud to the class, and it was so funny and wise and wonderful that she knew she needed to own it. She saved quarters and dimes, from the tooth fairy and birthdays and chores, until she had enough to buy the book, the first she had ever bought with her own money. At the bookstore, after carefully sliding the coins across the tall counter, she clasped the book in her arms: Beverly Cleary’s “Ramona the Pest.” Decades later, it’s still on her shelves, her name written on the opening page in carefully formed letters.
That little girl was me, but maybe she was also you. Because the characters created by Cleary, the Oregon-born author who died March 25 at the age of 104, played a key role in so many of our childhoods. For so many of us, Ramona and Beezus and Henry Huggins and Ellen Tebbits and Otis Spofford were friends, keeping us company during the strange journey of growing up. They were kids who squabbled with their sisters, listened anxiously as their parents worried about money, and found joy in wearing bunny ears or trip-trapping like a Billy Goat Gruff. They were, in short, just like us.
Cleary, who worked in Yakima as a children’s librarian during the World War II era and studied library science at the University of Washington, wrote in her memoir of being frustrated with the books available to her as a girl — many of them period pieces about aristocrats or impoverished orphans. “I wanted to read funny stories about the sort of children I knew,” she wrote in “A Girl From Yamhill,” “and I decided that someday when I grew up I would write them.” She began with “Henry Huggins,” published in 1950: the story of a third grader who lived on Klickitat Street, had a paper route, and happily adopted a stray dog. (Klickitat Street is a real street in Portland, where Cleary lived for a time as a child; though she never lived on that street, she always loved the music of the name.)
When I first read “Henry Huggins,” I remember that Henry seemed old to me. That’s one of so many nuances of childhood that Cleary understood: How, to a kindergartner like Ramona, grade school kids seem impressively mature. She also understood that peculiar kid version of embarrassment; something that would cause shy Ellen Tebbits to dress in the janitor’s closet at ballet school so that the other girls wouldn’t see that she was wearing hated, bunchy winter underwear. (In doing so, Ellen found another girl doing the same thing — and found a friend.) She grasped how a child can simultaneously want to behave herself and yet still do things she shouldn’t, such as pull the hair of a classmate who has irresistibly boing-y curls, and reminded us that it was OK not to love our pesky siblings all the time. And she taught us, through Ramona, that “a littler person sometimes had to be a little bit noisier and a little bit more stubborn in order to be noticed at all.”
Funny thing: Cleary wrote a few young adult novels that now feel quite dated (I remember reading “Fifteen” and “The Luckiest Girl” and enjoying them, but feeling like they reflected a 1950s teenage world already gone), but her books for grade school readers feel ageless. Ramona, in particular, is an evergreen creation. There are eight Ramona books, published from 1955 (“Beezus and Ramona”) to 1999 (“Ramona’s World”). Though “Ramona the Pest” turned out to be a worthy investment so long ago — to this day, it makes me smile — I missed out on most of them as I aged out of the series. I’m remedying that this week, spending a little more time with Ramona and Beezus, thanks to the library. (Another treasured detail from the books: The Quimby sisters, appropriately, loved their local library.)
I read “Ramona and Her Father” (1977) cover to cover in an armchair the other day, engrossed by its depiction of a very real family. Ramona’s father has lost his job and “smiled less and less as the days went by”; her mother has taken on full-time work and can’t make Ramona’s sheep costume for the Christmas play; and Ramona and Beezus worry about their parents. And yet it’s a joyful book, full of that comforting Cleary wisdom. “No family is perfect,” Mr. Quimby tells Ramona, reminding her that theirs is a happy one. “Get that idea out of your head. And nobody is perfect either. All we can do is work at it, and we do.”