I might have been a fool, but I was a scholar, desperate to see another monster in print. Even when literary little girls were considered disjointed, they were rarely as obnoxious as I was. I didn’t want an underdog you could fight for; I wanted to live vicariously through an unrepentant nightmare of a human being. There are very, very few books written for little assholes – except, perhaps, the Harry Potter series, if only for the pedantic fanbase it created – but there is almost no art for jerks with underdeveloped prefrontal cortices, and very few books dedicated to helping them. little children to master their own bad behavior. But then there was Ramona Quimby, arguably Beverly Cleary’s most famous creation.
Last Thursday, Cleary died at the age of 104. She wrote over 40 books before her retirement and sold over 91 million copies worldwide. His books were loved by children all over the world; they perfectly captured what it was like to be small, klutzy, and excited (though sometimes worried) about the big, weird world.
the Ramona the series was my favorite. I loved every book on this wayward goof, but nothing spoke to me like the second, Ramona the pest, which came out over 20 years before I was born. In the book, Ramona starts kindergarten, gets excited about her new teacher, learns to write Qs the cool way by turning them into little cats, and just can’t stop pulling her classmate Susan’s curly hair. . Ramona felt like a perfect character, written and designed for me and only for me: a tempestuous protagonist with a perpetually annoyed older brother, straight hair that made me obsessed with the Boing Boing of a curved lock, an unusual name and a strong desire to kiss someone aggressively.
After hearing about Cleary’s death I spent the weekend rereading Ramona the pest. My 1982 copy is worn out after being passed on to various children in the family. I think it originally belonged to a cousin’s cousin, who found Ramona obnoxious and difficult to identify. I’ve read the book so many times that the spine is brittle, and I’ve memorized most of Ramona’s lines, especially the one where she calls herself “the wickedest witch” on Halloween. But my favorite part of the book has always been an illustration of Ramona following Henry Huggins, the arrogant traffic cop, his foot ready to step off the back of his heel and a big Grinch smile on his face. “Ramona,” Cleary writes, “felt her day was off to a good start.”
There weren’t – and there still aren’t – many books on irritable little brunette girls with pointy tongues, bad attitudes, and a short attention span, but Ramona the pest was remarkably close. The best part about reading a book by Ramona Quimby was that she knew she was the worst. Ramona didn’t think she was a pest, but she knew how and when to change her behavior; she just didn’t want to. She wasn’t an improving character, nor a kid learning tough lessons about what it takes to grow taller. “Ramona wanted to be mean,” Cleary writes, “really mean.” It wasn’t just adults who thought Ramona was a pest. Other kids did too, a nice reminder for the rest of my life: some people will never do the job of figuring out who you really are. She rarely apologized and only when she was forced to. It wasn’t necessarily that she was a pest; she desperately needed to be heard and appreciated in every way possible.
When I was a child, there were countless forces extolling the virtues of kindness, generosity of spirit, and a gentler, gentler demeanor. Mathilde told me I could be saved from unread bullies if only a kind teacher adopted me. MadelineThe straight line fetishization at school just made me hate the French. I also distinctly remember my mother bringing home a book about a little girl trying to become more comfortable with her body, which was actually a parable about the effectiveness of eating disorders. So many books I read suggested that it would take extraordinary circumstances to change my life or that is should warp and get better somehow. But Ramona was perfect. She was awful. If I met her today, I would indeed find her unbearable, but boy, I would admire her common sense.
I wanted to be a good kid when I was little. I wanted to be a Susan – nicely dressed, ideally blonde, polished, tiny, precious. I never had it in me. Cleary’s books have shown me that better than being Susan is to be a Ramona: always the main character, always the funniest, always fair.
I inevitably grew up to be an adult asshole. I have known endless Susans in my life and I have settled into the comfortable certainty that I never will be. No one thinks it’s cute when I draw my Qs like cats, but I don’t care. I’ve never improved since my nasty childhood, but I’m not interested in that kind of refinement either. Last weekend I ran into a friend and told him how sad I was about Cleary’s death, kinda feeling like Ramona was gone with her. “Are you going to write about how Ramona has been the role model your whole life?” he asked, laughing like a real Henry Huggins.
“Yes,” I said smiling, thinking of how an adult Ramona would crush the back of that jabroni’s sneaker under his toe or pull his hair sharply, how she would make sure he didn’t forget. never this minor offense. “That’s what she would have wanted.” ●