Beverly Cleary died yesterday and a part of my childhood died with her.
Cleary was the author of some of the greatest books for children ever written. She wrote Socks, a book I used to read, finish, then start reading again. She wrote the Mouse and The Motorcycle trilogy, featuring Ralph. If you’ve never read them, they’re a fun time.
Most importantly, though, for me, was Ramona. Beverly Cleary wrote Ramona, and in doing so she changed how I saw the world.
Ramona is a scrappy kid. She’s always done her own thing, and her thing isn’t always the best. She had stringy brown hair, like me. She had scuffed-up knees and stains on her school dresses. The worst thing in her life was having to wear ugly second-hand rain boots. When her dad lost his job and decides to go back to school, her mom goes to work.
Ramona wasn’t anything like the characters in other kids’ books and shows. But she was very much like me.
Much like Ramona, I was a stringy-haired little girl who didn’t always get the world. When Ramona draws cattails on her Q’s, I remember getting in trouble for doodling loops all along my practice papers. When she squeezes out all the toothpaste in the tube or takes just one bite out of every apple in a bin, I want to do those things. Even though as an adult who understands money, those things make me want to cringe. Wasting a whole tube of toothpaste, when they’re not cheap!
Ramona was awkward, messy, loud, selfish. She was a pain in the ass. But so was I as a kid. We all are. And too often as kids we’re left wondering what it was we did that has everyone so mad.
There are a million real moments in these books. Some are awful but relatable. Like when Henry’s grandmother is fine taking the money to watch Ramona but doesn’t seem to care for actually watching her. These sorts of moments make the good times all the better. Like when Ramona finally learns to ride her bike, with the ribbon laced through the spokes to create a bright red circle when she rides.
One scene that comes back to me over and over is this. Ramona’s had a hard day. When she gets home, she finds that her mother’s had one too. Her mother says they should go out for burgers for dinner. This is the light at the end of the tunnel for Ramona. She has a vision of sitting in a snug booth with her family, enjoying hot fries and bubbly soda.
Then her dad comes home, and he’s been laid off.
There’s no way the family can go out for burgers. So, instead, the parents make do and make pancakes.
And you know what? I’ve been there. I’ve been there as a kid who has to settle for pancakes after a hard day. And I’ve been there as the adult who’s just happy they were able to scrape together some kind of dinner after a hard day. It’s life.
What Ramona did was tell me I wasn’t alone. I wasn’t bad, or wrong. I was just human. We’re all just humans.
Thank you for that, Ms. Cleary. Thank you for giving me books full of struggles and joys that I could see myself reflected in. Thank you for brightening my childhood and giving me the tools to handle adulthood. Thank you for giving the world Ramona, Ralph, Socks, Henry Huggins and Ribsy. Thank you for every time I found one of your books in a second-hand store, battered but whole. Thank you for every moment I spent reading them laying out on the grass, or in my childhood bedrooms.
At over 100 years old, we couldn’t have asked you to stay. You’ve earned your rest. May we carry your torch.
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