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Celebrating Ramona Quimby’s enduring appeal, in honor of Beverly Cleary

Beverly Cleary has died at 104. Her Ramona Quimby books gave us one of the sharpest characters in American kid lit.

Constance Grady is a senior correspondent on the Culture team for Vox, where since 2016 she has covered books, publishing, gender, celebrity analysis, and theater.

"Don’t pester, Ramona," said Mrs. Quimby. "I’ll get you there in plenty of time."

"I’m not pestering," protested Ramona, who never meant to pester. She was not a slowpoke grownup. She was a girl who could not wait. Life was so interesting that she had to find out what happened next.

Ramona Quimby was not meant to be a main character, not at first. She first appeared as a minor character in the Henry Huggins books by beloved children’s author Beverly Cleary. But when Cleary passed away on Thursday at age 104, Ramona was left as her most iconic creation.

"It occurred to me that all the children appeared to be only children," recalled Cleary. It was 1950 and Cleary was a school librarian, writing her first book, at the urging of a little boy who marched up to her and demanded, "Where are the books about kids like us?"

Henry Huggins and the many books that followed were meant to be an antidote to the sugary, sentimental children’s stories that were fashionable in the 1950s; Cleary was writing about real children. And real children do sometimes have siblings, of course — so Cleary invented Ramona, the pesky younger sister of Henry’s friend and neighbor Beezus.

But Ramona, that unstoppable ball of energy and excitement, was not willing to idle on the sidelines as a minor character. She demanded her own stories.

First came 1955's Beezus and Ramona, the story of poor, long-suffering elder sister Beezus, who just wants to sit quietly and embroider potholders. Instead, she is forced to run interference on Ramona, trying and mostly failing to keep her from baking her dolls with her birthday cake (so she could practice being the witch in Hansel and Gretel) or taking a single bite out of every apple in the house (because the first bite always tastes the best).

It’s a similar dynamic to the one that had worked so well in the Henry Huggins books, where the main character wants life to be calm and orderly (Henry, Beezus), but winds up saddled with a disruptive, unruly sidekick who trails chaos in their wake (Henry’s dog Ribsy, Ramona). Eventually that dynamic grows unsatisfying, because you’re left with a purely reactive main character and a side character who’s a lot better at driving a story.

Ramona Quimby is part of the pantheon of unruly kid-lit heroines

So with 1968's Ramona the Pest, Ramona steps into the spotlight for the first time. She becomes a protagonist in her own right, joining the pantheon of the unruly, disruptive, tomboyish heroines of kid lit: Laura Ingalls, Harriet the Spy, Jo March, and other untidy girls who function as walking wrecking balls to the status quo.

From Beezus and Ramona to 1999's Ramona’s World (the last of the Ramona books), Ramona crashes through ceilings, throws her shoes at scary dogs, smashes eggs in her hair, paints her nose black with mascara, and squeezes an entire tube of toothpaste into the bathroom sink. She never acts out of malice — Ramona is sometimes angry but never cruel — but rather out of sheer curiosity and enthusiasm for life.

Part of the pleasure of reading about Ramona comes from the deep satisfaction she gets from all of her pranks. It never occurred to me as a child to want to squeeze out an entire tube of toothpaste (I was a Beezus), but when Ramona eyes the tube and thinks, "How smooth and shiny it looked with only one little dent where someone had squeezed it once," and at last gives into temptation, I understand the appeal on a deep and visceral level.

As Ramona squeezes, "the paste coiled and swirled and mounded in the washbasin. Ramona decorated the mound with toothpaste roses as if it were a toothpaste birthday cake." Who wouldn’t want to get creative with toothpaste after reading that?

The coziness of Ramona’s world gives her room to act out

Of course, while unruly kid-lit heroines can be appealingly disruptive, they never cross the line into being outright threatening. Instead, they’re always nested in warm, nurturing domesticity. Laura Ingalls has her variety of Little Houses, Harriet the Spy has her cozy routine with Ole Golly on the Upper East Side, Jo March has Orchard House and Marmee — and Ramona Quimby has the house on Klickitat Street.

Ramona fairly wallows in the security of her home and her family. It’s just as satisfying for her to revel in a pair of fresh new pajamas as it is to make toothpaste roses: "Oh, how soft and warm and cozy they felt, like the fur of a baby rabbit," she thinks as she puts them on. Besides pajamas, there are burgers to be eaten, "soft and juicy," and always consumed "close together in a booth [that] made Ramona feel snug and cozy." There are beds with "clean white sheets," and there are hugs with her mother, who always has "a good smell of clean clothes and perfumed soap." Ramona’s pranks can be exciting and messy and noisy in part because her home and family are there to provide a dependable, clean, and calm backdrop.

The Quimbys’ financial troubles are the dark underbelly of the Ramona books

But as profoundly cozy as the house on Klickitat Street is, the Quimbys have their troubles. Lurking in the background of Ramona’s clear-eyed account of her family life is what could, if told from her parents' point of view, be a domestic tragedy. Ramona’s father, who dropped out of school after Beezus was born, spends most of the seven Ramona books shuttling in and out of jobs he hates. He briefly returns to school to become an art teacher — but then Mrs. Quimby gets pregnant again and he returns to work he can't stand.

Meanwhile, Mrs. Quimby yo-yos back and forth between staying at home with her children and working part time, and depending on the book she is either tired and stressed from tending two small children and working an office job or bored out of her skull from being stuck at home. By the time we reach Ramona’s World, she’s back at home and listlessly joining a book club in an attempt to "exercise her brain."

Ramona’s slowly growing awareness of her parents’ unhappiness creates the emotional underbelly of the books: She is not entirely clear on why, exactly, her parents keep coming home tired and grumpy and ordering her to clean her room, but the fact of it hurts her deeply. It also adds emotional stakes to the comfortable domesticity of her world, which prevents it from getting cloying.

If the Quimbys’ financial problems put their family in danger, it also makes them even more fiercely protective. And as the books develop, Ramona takes on more and more responsibility for keeping everyone happy, going from resentfully trying not to antagonize Beezus in her first few books to proudly looking after her own little sister in Ramona’s World. The warmth and coziness of the Quimby family is an oasis of calm against the uncertainty of the rest of the adult Quimbys’ lives — and it gives Ramona the freedom she needs to run wild.

That, ultimately, is the bliss of the Ramona Quimby books: a safe and happy space, and a little girl running wild within it. It’s what makes the books such uncontested classics.

Thank you for everything, Beverly Cleary.

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