When my siblings and I entered the Chestnut Hill branch of the Free Library of Philadelphia, the librarians greeted us by name. “The Wattenbargers are here,” the librarian at the front desk would call to her colleague in the children’s section. I’d spend as long as I could browsing the shelves, first checking for new books by authors I’d enjoyed before, then scanning for curious titles or conspicuous jacket designs. (I very much judged books by their covers.) Usually I’d pick out more books than I could carry; I’d stumble up to the counter with ten or twelve volumes spilling out of my hands. I’d read in the car on the ten-minute drive home. By my 8:30 bedtime, I’d usually finish at least one and start another. Two or three days later, I’d have completed my selection, and I’d beg my mom to take me back.
Because of my reckless reading pace — I wish I could match that rate today — I don’t remember when I first encountered Ramona Quimby. It’s not just that the haze of all childhood memories includes that one; I can recollect the moments in which I met nearly all of my close childhood friends. I don’t remember ever not knowing Ramona. The protagonist of six of Beverly Cleary’s chapter books, Ramona Quimby lives in Portland, Oregon, with her two parents, her older sister Beezus and, as of Ramona Forever, the penultimate book in the series, a younger sister, Roberta.
Ramona first appears as a peripheral character in the Henry Huggins books, as the pesky younger sister of Beezus, Henry’s friend. She begins to come into her own in Beezus and Ramona. Nine-year-old Beezus narrates this story of sibling rivalry; the book turns on her frustration with her four-year-old sister. It’s a testament to Ramona’s strength as a character that, despite her role as a comical antagonist, she stole the show. She also stole my heart. Beezus seemed irritatingly uptight to me; she attributes her exasperation to the following: “If Ramona drank lemonade through a straw, she blew into the straw as hard as she could to see what would happen. If she played with her finger paints in the front yard, she wiped her hands on the neighbors’ cat.” I would love to get a drink with any grown woman who blew into the straw like that, and I actually did semi-accidentally watercolor my friends’ cat’s paws a few months ago.
What peeves Beezus charmed me: Ramona rides her tricycle around the living room, while playing a harmonica and closing her eyes. She wears homemade bunny ears to the library. She decides to host a party without telling her mother, who’s understandably fazed when throngs of preschoolers descend on their home. A cripplingly shy child, I aspired to Ramona’s audacity. I identified with her desire to stray from the norm, to rebel, to enact my whims with a sense of impunity, but I didn’t have the spunk to act on those urges.
As the series unfolds, Ramona loses some of her pluck and gains the self-consciousness that accompanies growing up. She starts to realize, in little ways, as children do, how hard life is. This comes partially through insights into the world of adult anxieties. In Ramona and her Father, her dad loses his job, sinks into depression and starts smoking. This turn of events distresses Ramona. She feels it deeply, as children do and as I did. Ramona’s emotional life captures the way that disruptions teach children simultaneously of their terrifying lack of control and of the great scale of hurt in the world. Each mild upheaval seems a crisis. Ramona responds how I, too, only knew how to respond: huddled in grave conspiratorial whispering with her sister.
Ramona falls prey, too, to the little humiliations of school and social life. One day, she loses a shoe on the way to first grade, the day she’s meant to lead the salute to the flag. She compensates by standing on one leg; she hides her bare foot behind the other and she attempts to construct a sandal out of paper towels. When I remember this incident, I remember, too, the time in second grade that my tights ripped at the beginning of ballet class; my eyes burned with tears as my teacher offered me a tulle skirt to partially conceal the hole in the crotch. Ramona’s rites of passage, her embarrassments and social faux pas, stirred my empathy.
Childhood is a time of whimsy, but also of great fear. Ramona, like me, is a girl of extremes, and she experiences both glee and dread to their depths. In one of my favorite episodes, Beezus, charged to watch her sister after school, notices Ramona has gone missing. She finds Ramona sitting in the basement surrounded by apples, each marred by a single bite. The first bite of an apple, she insists, always tastes best. To this day, I aspire to live with Ramona’s delight and spunk.
Written for a reading of the Sensible Nonsense Project at the University of Pennsylvania’s Kelly Writers House, February 5, 2015.