Beverly Cleary refused to teach kids how to be good — and generations of young readers fell in love with her rebel Ramona

Beverly Cleary’s beloved characters, including Ramona Quimby and Henry Huggins, have enthralled readers for decades.
AP Photo/Anthony McCartney

Kristin Girten, University of Nebraska Omaha

There’s nothing like being reasoned with by a 4-year-old girl.

“‘Stop it,’ ordered Beezus. ‘Stop it this instant! You can’t eat one bite and then throw the rest away.’

‘But the first bite tastes best,’ explained Ramona reasonably, as she reached into the box again.

Beezus had to admit that Ramona was right. The first bite of an apple always did taste best.”

The author of this scene is Beverly Cleary, who died on March 25, 2021, at the age of 104. The book is “Beezus and Ramona.” Most readers appreciate Ramona’s arguments, admiring the innocence, the free-spiritedness, the insight that inspires her to take a whole carton of apples and indulge in one first bite after another, only ever tasting “the reddest part.”

Many fans love Cleary’s work for a lifetime – first as young children, then as adults. As a mother of twin boys, I have been surprised at how her writing continues to resonate. But what is it that makes Cleary’s characters so enduring?

Novels that teach

As a scholar of 18th-century British literature, I recognize the pressure on novelists to teach children through their writing. This expectation was set in the 18th century when it was assumed that the modern novel, newly developed, would teach as well as please. Reading was expected to be, in the words of Horace, both “dulce” (literally sweet, or enjoyable) and “utile” (literally useful, or instructive).

Though readers have, at least since the early 20th century, generally let go of this expectation for authors who write for adults, the expectation persists for those who write for children. With a writing career beginning in the early 1950s, Cleary directly challenged such a notion.

Beverly Cleary wearing a red suit and gold medal
Cleary was a 2003 recipient of a National Medal of Arts, which honors artists and patrons of the arts.
Getty Images/Time Sloan

Cleary once told PBS that her fans love Ramona “because she does not learn to be a better girl.” She went on to explain what inspired her to create Ramona’s character: “I was so annoyed with the books in my childhood because children always learned to be better children, and in my experience, they didn’t.”

In fact, Cleary’s Ramona doesn’t just challenge the assumption that readers must learn “from” and “with” fictional characters; one of Ramona’s distinguishing characteristics is rebelliousness.

Take, for example, the time Ramona’s parents are disappointed by her report card:

“‘Now, Ramona.’ Mrs. Quimby’s voice was gentle. ‘You must try to grow up.’

Ramona raised her voice. ‘What do you think I’m doing?’

‘You don’t have to be so noisy about it,’ said Mrs. Quimby.”

The scene continues:

“Ramona had had enough. … She wanted to do something bad. She wanted to do something terrible that would shock her whole family, something that would make them sit up and take notice. ‘I’m going to say a bad word!’ she shouted with a stamp of her foot.”

Then, in the culmination of the scene: “Ramona clenched her fists and took a deep breath. ‘Guts!’ she yelled. ‘Guts! Guts! Guts!’ There. That should show them.”

Gendering Ramona

So exactly where does Cleary’s Ramona fit? She doesn’t. She’s an outlier of school standards and gender expectations. Before there were terms like “gender nonbinary,” “gender nonconforming” or “genderqueer,” there was Ramona. Ramona defies categorization. Her friendship with Howie offers one of many examples:

“‘At my grandmother’s,’ said Howie. ‘A bulldozer was smashing some old houses so somebody could build a shopping center, and the man told me I could pick up broken bricks.’

‘Let’s get started,’ said Ramona, running to the garage and returning with two big rocks. … Each grasped a rock in both hands and with it pounded a brick into pieces and the pieces into smithereens. The pounding was hard, tiring work. Pow! Pow! Pow! Then they reduced the smithereens to dust. Crunch, crunch, crunch. They were no longer six-year-olds. They were the strongest people in the world. They were giants.”

This passage is from “Ramona the Brave,” which both is and isn’t of its time. Published in 1975, the novel may be seen as an expression of second-wave feminism, which sought to recognize gender as a social construct and to challenge how mainstream society kept women from fulfilling their potential. However, it also previews third-wave feminism by insisting that women need not abandon their femininity to claim equity for themselves.

Ramona, though quite boyish, insists on writing her last name, “Quimby,” with the “Q” shaped into a cat “with a little tail,” reminding the reader of her feminine side.

I see in Cleary’s writing a nostalgia for the time in childhood before gender is clearly defined. By looking back to that time, children and adult readers alike may imagine a future in which people are able to think beyond gender.

Cleary now

Most of Cleary’s books are set in the mostly white Grant Park neighborhood of Portland, Oregon, where she grew up. The lack of racial diversity in Cleary’s work is a likely consequence of her having followed the adage adhered to by many writers: “Write what you know.” However, current readers might wish that she had stretched herself and her abilities a bit further to have imagined a more racially or ethnically diverse cast of characters.

Nevertheless, many assert the “universality” of Cleary’s stories. One such reader is young-adult author Renee Watson, who, upon Cleary’s death, commented that Ramona “wasn’t afraid to take up space.”

“I needed a friend like Ramona,” Watson said. “Cleary introduced to me this rambunctious girl, and I love her. … The power of her storytelling is the respect she had for young readers. She had a deep understanding that a girl articulating how she feels is an asset, not a flaw.”

As I’ve read Cleary’s books to my own Gen-Z sons, I have been particularly struck by how her writing has gotten them interested and invested in female as well as male protagonists. They love the books about Henry and Ribsy, but they love the Ramona books too. When it is so common for boys and men to ignore–or merely “glance” at–women’s writing about girls, this is significant. Through Cleary’s work, my sons can see that the big guys don’t always know best or win. Such perspectives can create new normals that are less, well, normative.

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Kristin Girten, Assistant Vice Chancellor for Arts and Humanities/Associate Professor of English, University of Nebraska Omaha

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Brittany Higgins’ memoir will join a powerful Australian collection reclaiming women’s stories of trauma. Here are four

Marina Deller, Flinders University

Brittany Higgins has signed a book deal with Penguin Random House Australia. Not just any book — a memoir.

Higgins says her book will be a chance to tell “a firsthand account of what it was like surviving a media storm that turned into a movement”.

Memoir can help readers explore and understand trauma from a very personal perspective. Research suggests writing can be used to work through, or even heal from, trauma. It is a chance for a writer like Higgins,
who alleges she was raped in a senior minister’s office, to reclaim her story.

Here are four powerful Australian examples of women’s memoirs about trauma and abuse.

1. Eggshell Skull by Bri Lee

book cover: eggshell skull

Allen & Unwin

Sydney-based author, writer, and researcher Bri Lee witnessed justice and heartbreak while working as a judge’s associate in the Queensland District Court. Two years later, she took her own abuser to court.

Although the abuse occurred in childhood, Lee pursued a conviction for the perpetrator (a family friend) in young adulthood. In her 2018 book, she acknowledges that the longer the time between an incident and investigation, the more potential hurdles may arise; her journey for justice is far from straightforward.

Lee acknowledges this in the way she explores personal, public, and legal discourse surrounding abuse. She jumps back and forth in time, and weaves her story with others in the Australian legal system in a blend of journalistic and personal storytelling. This approach also acknowledges trauma can affect memory. Details can be unbearably clear, difficult to remember, or both.

Through poetic reflection, and searing critique, Lee carves a space for her story.

Read more:
This week’s news has put sexual assault survivors at risk of ‘secondary trauma’. Here’s how it happens, and how to cope

2. No Matter Our Wreckage by Gemma Carey

book cover: No matter our wreckage

Allen & Unwin

From age 12, Gemma Carey was groomed and abused by a man twice her age. In young adulthood, Carey discovers her mother knew about the abuse. When her mother dies, the enduring effects of this betrayal surface.

Family memoirs are often taboo; family memoir about child abuse and complicity even more so. Despite fraught themes, the Sydney-based author and academic writes with rigour and honesty. Her 2020 memoir asks us to examine social — and family — structures which allow these injustices.

Carey’s tone is dark but inquisitive. She speaks directly to readers, incorporating research, and unpicking the threads of trauma and grief.

Carey emphasises writing about abuse doesn’t always fit a mould. In an interview, she explains, “Writing trauma stories that will change societal narratives around abuse and victims involves showing the contradictions that exist in trauma and grief”.

In her book, she reflects on her younger self,

I was broken and trying to work out how to fix myself … no one had ever given me the tools… I had to figure it out on my own.

This rebuilding took time. At 12, Carey buried her experience, at 17 she successfully took the perpetrator to court, in adulthood, she wrote her memoir.

Read more:
Friday essay: why we need children’s life stories like I Am Greta

3. The Anti-Cool Girl by Rosie Waterland

book cover: the anti cool girl

Harper Collins

In The Anti-Cool Girl (2018), comedian and writer Rosie Waterland reveals a turbulent childhood; drug and alcohol-addicted parents, absent family, death and loss, poverty, mental health struggles, and sexual abuse experienced within the Australian foster care system.

Waterland writes unflinchingly. She tackles difficult subjects with intelligence and humour. Each chapter is addressed to herself: “You will be in rehab several times before you’re ten years old”, or “Your foster dad will stick his hands down his pants, and you will feel so, so lucky”. Like Carey, Waterland acknowledges trauma often manifests in ways which might seem “odd” or “unconventional” to others.

While comedic throughout, Waterland approaches her trauma with care and, understandably, anger. She later lamented that she was unable to name her abuser, due to fears of litigation.

The Anti-Cool Girl, blending humour and pain, remains a testament to Waterland’s endurance and survival.

4. The Girls by Chloe Higgins

book cover: the girls

Pan Macmillan

Chloe Higgins’ sisters — Carlie and Lisa — died in a car accident when Higgins was 17. In her 2019 memoir Higgins — a Wollongong-based author and academic — asks us to consider the nature of ongoing grief and the way trauma stretches over different experiences.

Higgins’ grief influences her sexual experiences in often troubling ways — but the way she discusses it is revolutionary. She explores the weaponisation of sex, how it is a form of self-harm; sex and substance abuse, and the pleasures and pressures of sex work.

She jumps between stories of gentility (caring lovers, exploration, sex clients who felt more like friends) and horror stories featuring coercion and fear, threats, and sex without consent. Higgins examines her own experiences and links them to memory, identity, and control.

In her Author’s Note, Higgins reflects: “Publishing this book is about stepping out of my shame”.

These are not the only parts of me, but they are the parts I’ve chosen to focus on … Since that period of my life, I have begun to recover.

These books signal the importance of memoir as a platform where personal trauma stories are told, reclaimed, and witnessed. They are a valuable (and intimate) contribution to the conversation about trauma and sexual abuse in Australia.

Read more:
Inside the story: writing trauma in Cynthia Banham’s A Certain Light

The Conversation

Marina Deller, PhD Candidate, Flinders University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.