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Reading Matters

Doug Wilhelm is a full-time writer and an independent publisher in Weybridge, Vemont. His newest book is the novel STREET OF STORYTELLERS (Rootstock, 2019). His 15 previous novels for young adults include THE REVEALERS (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2003), which has been the focus of reading-and-discussion projects in well over 1,000 middle schools.

My summer of story: homage to Ramona

A chapter book for kids came out in 1955 about a four-year-old girl, in an unexceptional but caring white family, who wants to make noise, be noticed, and have picture books read to her over and over and over about steam shovels. The third-person novel is told largely from the viewpoint of the girl’s dutiful older sister, whose name is Beatrice but whom everyone calls Beezus, and who is constantly being driven crazy by the noisy, creative, impulsive Ramona.
    Ramona became famous.

Author Beverly Cleary wound up publishing eight novels about her, and she grows a bit older with each one. As I’ve been reading and thinking this summer about stories in our lives, especially about written stories for younger readers, I’m realizing just how much influence and importance the Ramona books have had. This is not because they are great stories — they’re not, especially — but because they center on a beautifully human character.
    Ramona is more than realistic. She’s a real kid, from the moment in Beezus and Ramona that we meet her as she rides a tricycle around and around the quietly industrious Beezus while breathing in and out on a harmonica clamped in her mouth until Beezus finally gives up and agrees to read The Littlest Steam Shovel, aloud, for the hundredth or so time.
    And when Beezus misses a single word in the story, Ramona stops her. Just as real kids do.

    “One day Scoopy said, ‘I do not want to be a steam shovel. I want to be a bulldozer.’
    “You skipped,” interrupted Ramona.
    “No, I didn’t,” said Beezus.
    “Yes, you did,” insisted Ramona. “You’re supposed to say, ‘I want to be a big bulldozer.’”

Ramona wears her hair short and isn’t a girly-girl, but there’s nothing radical about her or revolutionary about her stories. Each book is a loosely framed series of Ramona’s creative yet disruptive adventures — and what makes them memorable, and is so very hard to do, is the way the adult author enters us into the anarchic, impulsive emotional intelligence of a child who is not a role model and is not what kids are supposed to be or should be, in some grownup’s eyes, but is just a kid.
    I read four Ramona novels, including the last one, 1999’s Ramona’s World, which was also the last of Cleary’s more than 30 children’s and YA books. And it seemed to me that Ramona, as she and her author grow older, becomes less authentically spontaneous and more of a conscious creation — less is and more should be. But the early books are great, and they gave rise to something of a standard in popular early chapter books.
    Most of the successful early chapter-book series of the 1950s through the 70s are stories that center on the school- and family-based adventures of a comically scampish, clever, and/or trouble-prone character — Judy Blume’s Superfudge, Barbara Parks’s Junie B. Jones, Marjorie Sharmat’s Nate the Great, Peggy Parish’s Amelia Bedelia, Megan McDonald’s Judy Moody and Stink. Even Kate DiCamillo’s wonderful Mercy Watson follows the formula, with a lovable pig in the central child’s character. 
    But of all these — and in the past few weeks I’ve sampled them all — I think Ramona, especially the early Ramona, still stands alone. A good story can’t be really good unless its central character or characters are very real: unless, whether realistic or fantastic, dark or light, black or white, they come to life. Ramona just does.
    Consider this scene, from 1975’s Ramona the Brave. She and her best friend Howie are first graders, it’s summer vacation and they’re “playing Brick Factory, a simple but satisfying game”:

Each grasped a rock in both hands and with it pounded a brick into pieces and the pieces into smithereens. The pounding was hard, tiring work. Pow! Pow! Pow! Then they reduced the smithereens to dust. Crunch, crunch, crunch. They were no longer six-year-olds. They were the strongest people in the world. They were giants.
    When the driveway was thick with red dust, Ramona dragged out the hose and pretended that a terrible flood was washing away the Brick Factory in a stream of red mud. “Run, Howie! Run before it gets you!” screamed Ramona. She was mighty Ramona, brave and strong. Howie’s sneakers left red footprints, but he did not really run away. He only ran to the next driveway and back. Then the two began the game all over again. Howie’s short blond hair turned rusty red, but Ramona’s brown hair only looked dingy.

Ramona is often scared, she tends to crave attention, she's inclined to think her teachers dislike her, and she often makes a big mistake out of envy or resentment. In all this, as in the Brick Factory that is the opposite of any real factory, she is just a real kid.
    Cleary’s America is an older, monocultural America — but so, in its way, is Tom Sawyer’s. Their stories have resonated through other writers’ work and so many readers’ lives because they are created characters that come to life. They are not kids as kids should be, or as we wish they would be. They just are who they are.

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