A lot of the writing advice out there focuses on what NOT to do. “Why it works” is my occasional series where I take books I love and try to pinpoint what the author does especially well.
Beverly Cleary’s recent passing led me to revisit one of my favorites from my childhood: Ramona the Pest.
All these years later, it really holds up. Ramona is a thoroughly engaging and entertaining protagonist and there are some moments that are almost transcendent.
After my years working in publishing, I’m also amazed that Beverly Cleary broke one of the now-almost-ironclad convictions in children’s publishing that kids only want to read about characters who are as old or older than them. Cleary had me enraptured by a kindergartner’s antics when I was an 8 or 9 year old reader.
How does she do it? Here are some of my takeaways.
Ramona is thoroughly in charge
When adults look at kids or imagine their lives, they often see them through the lens of all the restrictions placed on them. Cleary, however, understands that kids still very much have agency and can and do assert themselves despite the limitations. From the very start of the novel, where Ramona is deciding who she is going to let take her to kindergarten, to the very end, where Ramona is deciding whether she will continue to attend kindergarten entirely, Cleary lets Ramona be the one to decide her own destiny as much as possible.
One of the absolute best passages in Ramona the Pest arrives when Ramona is reflecting on why it’s so annoying when her classmate Susan calls her a pest (bolding mine):
“Susan could not have chosen a word that Ramona would resent more. Beezus was always saying she was a pest. The big boys and girls on Ramona’s street called her a pest, but Ramona did not consider herself a pest. People who called her a pest did not understand that a littler person sometimes had to be a little bit noisier and a little more stubborn in order to be noticed at all. Ramona had to put up with being called a pest by older boys and girls, but she did not have to put up with being called a pest by a girl her own age.”
I’m not sure if there’s a better ode to a child’s sense of agency.
Having active protagonists in fiction is totally crucial no matter the age group, but adults who write for children sometimes forget this imperative because they still view the adults as being the ultimate deciders in kids’ lives. Cleary wrote a novel where a five year old is the one who feels like she’s in charge.
Cleary empathizes without moralizing
Another one of my favorite moments in Ramona the Pest happens when Ramona is terrified by the prospect of having a substitute teacher. Rather than face the interloper, she ditches class, hides outside the classroom, and nearly freezes. When she’s discovered by the older kids at recess, she’s sent to the principal’s office and it seems like she’s headed for a great deal of trouble.
There’s a happy surprise when the principal, Miss Mullen, immediately grasps that Ramona is just scared of the change, and rather than punishing her, pledges to personally introduce her to the substitute teacher.
But instead of making this moment about the wisdom of kindly adults or teaching kids a lesson about the dangers of cutting class, no, Ramona is still upset. Miss Mullen failed to appreciate the bravery of hiding until recess and how cold and miserable she had been. Ramona doesn’t recognize the good fortune bestowed by a wise principal or learn a heavy-handed lesson, she just wants to be understood.
Any learnings to be had in Ramona the Pest flow from Ramona grasping toward navigating the challenges on her own. They don’t come from wise adults bestowing lessons.
The narrative voice stays childlike
Ramona the Pest is written in an omniscient voice that sticks almost entirely with Ramona, but occasionally dips to show the motivations of other characters, and even Henry Huggins’ dog Ribsy.
What it doesn’t show: what the adults are thinking. And Cleary is very studious about constraining the narrative voice to the authentic thoughts of the children, rather than imposing an adult lens onto them.
For instance, oh the indignity: “Howie was even gloomier than usual, because he was the only boy in the morning kindergarten who wore jeans with only one hip pocket.”
There’s no adult judgment and not even a hint of poking fun or minimizing the everyday indignities the children feel. Cleary keeps the voice childlike, but also conveys deep respect and affection for the characters.
Did you also love these books growing up, and have you revisited them as an adult? What did you take away?
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I love this “why it works” series! Thank you for sharing.
Caroline Starr Rose says
Beverly Cleary was the master and Ramona her masterpiece! The best middle-grade character ever created, hand down. Here’s my tribute at Cleary’s passing: https://carolinestarrrose.com/dear-beverly-cleary/
Reyna Favis says
Along with Beverly Cleary’s books (especially Ramona), there are many books I have wonderful memories of reading as a child. I confess I am fearful of ruining these memories by approaching these works again as an adult. But I’m glad you don’t have the same reluctance. Beverly Cleary deserves to have her work appreciated by both old and new fans. Writing about her stories will help remind readers of these treasures.
Great analysis! I’m rereading the books now as my six-year-old has been reading (and rereading!) them for the first time, and I’m in awe at how timeless they seem. The emotional core is so true to the real life of childhood.