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A little bit noisier and a little bit stubborn: Life with Ramona

My Beverly Cleary collection

We now live in a world without Beverly Cleary.

I keep choking up when I think that. Sure, she died at 104, and lived a long, wonderful life. But to be without her? Seems impossible.

The books about Ramona were among the first I ever really, really loved. My grandma was a third grade teacher (and was, indeed, my husband’s third grade teacher) and I often found books at her house that I would take home and read and eventually be allowed to keep. My other grandma often took me to the Mankato library. She was a voracious reader and would disappear to look in fiction while I would poke around the children’s room, collect what I wanted, and wait back at the giant rocks near the circulation desk for her. I’d often have Ramona books in my pile, even though I owned most of them at that point. It’s funny, because in my normal non-pandemic year life, I work in an elementary library, and often kids will check out a book and gleefully tell me, “I have this at home!” And there are many people who would think, “Okay… so, why check it out if you own it?” But I get it. It’s like you bumped into a friend you know and you’re just so excited to see them and can’t imagine leaving them behind when you go home, so you bring them with. That’s the same reasoning behind why I own multiple copies of some Betsy-Tacy books—I ran into them somewhere in the world and needed to bring them home with me. I get it.

From my grandma’s classroom collection

At this time in my life, we were living in a tiny, tiny, TINY town (seriously TINY, like population less than 300 tiny). I was allowed to bike by myself to the nearby small library. It was one room in some kind of all purpose building. It had a Care Bear mural on the side and a miniscule children’s section, that I made my way through, in alphabetical order, during first and second grade. Again, I would feel a sense of glee when I saw friends waiting there like Ramona, or Anastasia Krupnik, or Encyclopedia Brown.

Ramona and her life were far from mine. I had a dog, not a cat. I had a little brother, not a big sister. My mom stayed home with me, so I didn’t have to go to some place like Howie’s for babysitting. She was loud and unrestrained and wild in a way I envied as a measured and careful child with undiagnosed anxiety. My life in small town Minnesota (by now a bigger small town, but still only 9,000 people) was filled with friends and fun. It was the 80s and I grew up with the freedom that came from some naïve idea that the world was safe. I biked all over town, disappeared into neighborhood kids’ houses, played in the woods (even though we weren’t supposed to because of a flasher there—a flasher that no one I knew ever saw, a flasher story that came standard with every town in the 80s), and came home when the street lights came on or when I heard my mom’s piercing whistle. But I so often thought of Ramona’s various adventures and hijinks, burned into my brain from reading them dozens of times. I wanted to find rope and paint cans and stomp around like Ramona and Howie. I thought how satisfying it would be to squeeze an entire tube of toothpaste into the sink. I was jealous of her unique last initial and how she could make a little cat out of that Q. You couldn’t make anything with an H. I still think Chevrolet is the most beautiful name for a doll.

Friends I’ve kept all these years

I got older and still kept going back to Ramona. I became a still relatively careful and anxious teen who started to embrace her inner Ramona and be louder, wilder, more herself. My life was punk and riot grrrl and I stole Ramona’s image for a cover of my zine and a friend made that into stickers that I plastered everywhere. I would reread Ramona every so often, a comfort move I still do with so many things because it somehow alleviates my anxiety—there’s no uncertainty about what’s happening, it’s just a familiar world. I went to college and didn’t haul all my books with me (there would’ve been nowhere for me to live in a dorm room then) but would study in the children’s book area of my college library. When I needed a break, I’d get up and wander the stacks, reading a little about Harriet or Margaret or Claudia and Jamie Kincaid or Ramona. By senior year of college, my professors were encouraging me to apply to graduate school programs in literature and, at that point, fully obsessed with the work I was doing for an undergraduate research grant I had gotten for a project about feminism and depictions of women and girls in picture books, I started to look into children’s literature programs. I had just spent four years drowning in books for both my English degree and my women’s studies degree, but I’d also spent four years reading children’s books in my spare time.

My zine from my teenage punk days

Now an adult (or whatever you are in college), I was amazed at how truly wonderful and profound so many of those books from my childhood were. I didn’t just reread Ramona all those years solely because of comfort; I reread those books because they were great. They were well-written, full of empathy and indelible characters, and I just wanted to move from a classroom where we discussed Joyce, Bradstreet, Shakespeare, and so on to one where we dove deep into children’s books. So I went to Simmons in Boston and fell in love—with the city, the school, my professors, my classmates, my program, the children’s book store where I worked, everything. On my first day at work at The Children’s Book Shop, Lois Lowry called and I answered. I played it cool but wanted to scream, “TELL ANASTASIA I SAY HI!”

I read and read and read, sometimes having to take a literal rolling suitcase to the BPL to bring home all the books I needed for school and for research. I read at work, I read at school, I read at home, I read and read and read children’s books. Then I spent the next twenty years working with children’s books. And I still go back to Ramona, all the time. I have moved a ludicrous amount of times over the years. With every move, I pared down my book collection, eventually learning to stop thinking of them as trophies I accomplished and only keeping my very best friends around. Naturally Ramona stayed.

By far the best of my many tattoos

A year and a half ago, I got a Ramona tattoo (from my lifelong friend Sara). Now in my 40s, I love to look at that tattoo and remember everything she means to me, the path she helped put me on, and I let Ramona guide the way I treat children. I look at Ramona and make sure I try to respect the “pest” in children, to see them as complicated people with complicated real and inner lives. I tell girls to be loud, to disagree, to say what they feel, to make some noise.

I spent last night scrolling Twitter, seeing the endless tributes from writers and readers. Beverly Cleary and Ramona shaped so many of us. Thank you, Beverly Cleary, for Ramona and all your other characters. Thank you for understanding children, for seeing us as who we were and who dreamed of being. Thank you for my childhood. We now live in a world without Beverly Cleary, but we will always have her books. What a gift she has given us.

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