One of the all-time greatest chroniclers of growing up is doing it herself: Beverly Cleary, the prolific author of children’s literature including the Ramona series and the Ralph Mouse trilogy, celebrates her 103rd birthday on April 12.
Cleary has won numerous awards for her writing, and was named a Library of Congress Living Legend in 2000. One of her greatest creations is Ramona Quimby, the “pest.” Ramona first appeared in Cleary’s debut novel, 1950’s Henry Huggins, as the irritating little sister of Henry’s friend Beezus. From there, Ramona spawned her own series of children’s books, starting with 1955’s Beezus and Ramona and ending with 1999’s Ramona’s World, the eighth novel in the series.
Though Ramona is lively and loved and has a happy life, Cleary’s understanding of the pains of childhood and the difficulties of growing up is evident on every page. Ramona’s classmates can be mean, her teachers impatient, and her parents dismissive of her emotions. She is so real and familiar it’s impossible not to identify with her, but it’s just as hard to miss how infuriating she can be to those around her. As Cleary writes with the perspective of an adult but enormous empathy for children, it’s no wonder that Ramona has charmed readers for more than six decades.
In honor of Cleary’s birthday, here are some of the most hilarious, heartbreaking, and memorable moments from Ramona the pest, Ramona the brave, Ramona the unforgettable.
When Ramona brings a hard-boiled egg to lunch in Ramona Quimby, Age 8, she is very excited to break the shell on her head, which is the trendy thing to do among her fellow third-graders. She is in for a rude awakening, however, when she discovers that her mother accidentally put a raw egg in her lunch, rather than a hard-boiled one. Her nemesis, an obnoxious boy whom she has unflatteringly nicknamed “Yard Ape,” starts calling her “Egghead,” and her teacher calls her a nuisance. Ramona, naturally, is mortified.
Ramona gives her favorite doll, whose hair has turned green from repeated washings with a variety of household products, the most beautiful name she can think of: Chevrolet, after her aunt’s car. When she brings Chevrolet to school for show and tell, the whole class laughs at her. And while we laugh, too, at the doll’s ridiculous name, Cleary’s understanding of how cruel children can be is painfully familiar, and it’s impossible not to feel for poor Ramona, who never thought there was anything funny about it.
Cleary doesn’t shy away from difficult real-life topics in her children’s literature, though her young characters don’t always understand what’s going on around them. In Ramona and Her Mother, for which Cleary won the National Book Award in 1981, Ramona’s parents both forget to turn on the crock-pot in the morning, and so there’s no dinner waiting for the family when they all get home. Seeing the argument that ensues, which culminates in Ramona’s father slashing the undercooked pancakes that her mother hastily made, Ramona becomes convinced that her parents are going to get a divorce. The fight is quite minor and ridiculous, rationally speaking, but through Ramona’s perspective, it’s truly devastating to read.
The crate of apples
While Beezus is babysitting in Beezus and Ramona, Ramona goes down to the basement, where she finds a huge crate of apples and eats one bite out of every single one of them, because the first bite is the best, of course. Not wanting to validate this behavior with the attention Ramona seeks, Beezus and their mother pretend not to notice the bites taken out of the apples, and make a huge batch of applesauce with them instead.
Sitting for the present
On Ramona’s first day of kindergarten in Ramona the Pest, her teacher brings her to her seat and tells her to “sit here for the present.” Ramona, not knowing the various meanings of the word “present,” thinks that she will be given a gift for occupying that seat. All day, as her classmates play games and do group activities, she refuses to budge, thinking that if she only sits still, she’ll get “the present” she was promised. The humiliation of her misunderstanding adds insult to the injury of the crushing disappointment she feels when she learns that there is no present, and she wasted the day waiting for one.
Pajamas in school
When Ramona is given some brand-new pajamas, she is so thrilled by them she doesn’t even want to take them off to go to school. So she doesn’t. Rationalizing that it’s the same thing as when firemen sleep in their underwear so they’re ready at any time to put on their uniforms and go put out a fire, Ramona wears her pajamas under her clothes to school, where she eventually becomes so overheated and is so visibly uncomfortable that her teacher gets her to admit her secret and change.
Destroying the owls
When Ramona’s first-grade class makes paper owls in Ramona the Brave, Susan, Ramona’s “perfect” enemy at school, copies Ramona’s creative design. As if that weren’t bad enough, the teacher sees Susan’s first, and praises her for it in front of the whole class. Ramona, whose sensitivity to injustice cannot be overstated (and is often trivialized by the adults around her), determines that she would rather not have an owl at all than allow her owl-making to be plagiarized, and throws both owls away.
We would be remiss to leave off a mention of Ramona’s long-suffering older sister Beezus — so nicknamed, much to her own chagrin, by Ramona, who couldn’t pronounce “Beatrice” as a small child. Cleary’s writing of sibling relationships is as perceptive as the rest of her portrayal of the plight of the little girl; much as Ramona envies the admiration her sister receives and Beezus’ bond with their mother, Beezus is eternally annoyed by Ramona’s antics, and also resents her little sister for attracting so much attention. Despite the chaos that Ramona incites in Beezus’s art class on her birthday, and in her life in general, the sisters share a close bond.