We haven't read any new Ramona Quimby adventures in about 15 years, but she is back, and she is more fun than ever. Ramona's World finds Ramona entering the fourth grade, longing for a best girlfriend, and still being happily disgusted by Yard Ape. BookPage had the delightful opportunity to talk to Newbery Medalist Beverly Cleary about her writing, her life, and her beloved Ramona Geraldine Quimby.
Cleary became interested in writing for children because reading meant so much to her as a child. "I was a great reader of fairy tales. I tried to read the entire fairy tale section of the library: Andrew Lang's Blue Fairy Book, Red Fairy Book, and so on, probably down to the Puce or Chartreuse fairy tales," she laughs. These days, Cleary reads biographies and some fiction by English women writers.
Ramona was first introduced to readers in the 1950s as a peripheral character (Cleary interjects "a nuisance") in the Henry Huggins books. Had she visualized developing Ramona's character, or did Ramona take on a life of her own? "Well, I didn't visualize anything more about Ramona. In fact, she was an accidental character. It occurred to me that as I wrote, all of these children appeared to be only children, so I tossed in a little sister, and at that time, we had a neighbor named Ramona. I heard somebody call out, 'Ramona!' so I just named her Ramona."
There are many similarities between Ramona and Cleary as she describes herself in her autobiography, A Girl from Yamhill. For example, both struggled with reading and were puzzled about the "dawnzer" song (also known as our national anthem). However, "People are inclined to say that I am Ramona," Cleary laughs. "I'm not sure that's true, but I did share some experiences with her. I was an only child; I didn't have a sister, or sisters, like in Ramona's World. Oh, there are many differences. Writers are good at plucking out what they need here and there." Cleary indeed "plucked" here and there, but were any of her Klickitat Street characters specifically molded after anyone? "Well, probably Otis Spofford. Otis was inspired by a boy who sat across the aisle from me in sixth grade who was a," she pauses, "lively person. My best friend appears in assorted books in various disguises. She was Austine in Ellen Tebbits. And in my new book, Ramona's World, she appears as the woman who is concerned about children waiting for the school bus in front of her house. She lives in Portland, and we talk about once a week."
Cleary took a departure from Klickitat Street to write four books for teenagers, "but girls read them younger now." Books such as Fifteen and Jean and Johnny were inspired by a group of junior high students who "said to me, 'Why don't you write like you write, only about our age?' So I wrote, like I write, about high school. I re-read Fifteen not long ago. I usually don't read my books, but I picked that up, and it's absolutely true to the period. Some people have said that those books are dated, but they're not. They're true to the period. If I were writing Fifteen today, I would write it exactly the same way, except I wouldn't have Jane's father smoke a pipe, and I wouldn't have Jane quite so pleased that Stan was tall. Of course," she laughs, "she would be pleased, but I wouldn't say that in the book. Jean and Johnny takes place in my own high school. I guess Jean's best friend was my best friend." Cleary's best friend seems to fill a lot of character's shoes. "She's a very warm and friendly person; the sort of person everybody likes. I've known her since we were in the first grade. I don't think we've ever exchanged a cross word."
Ramona has been around since the 1950s, and this is the first Ramona book in 15 years. What challenges did Cleary face in keeping the story consistent, yet contemporary? "I'm writing about growing up. What interests me is what children go through while growing up. Some people think the books are more serious, but I think children, as they grow up, are more aware of life's problems than they were when they were in kindergarten. Quite often somebody will say, 'What year do your books take place?' and the only answer I can give is, 'In childhood.' They take place in a very specific neighborhood in Portland, Oregon, where I grew up. It must be the most stable neighborhood in the United States. In many ways, it's changed very little since I lived there."
The Quimbys' third child, Roberta, is now a toddler in Ramona's World. Generations of readers have watched Ramona grow up book by book. Will we be following Roberta's life in the same way? "Oh, I rather doubt it. I guess I was influenced by readers who asked that Ramona have a baby sister. It just started me thinking of how she would react." Ramona is a caring older sister because "she's old enough not to be consumed with sibling rivalry. She's more charmed with Roberta's tiny hands, etc. I think if they'd been closer in age, there would have been a problem." Cleary agrees that Ramona's relationship with Roberta is much different than that of Ramona and Beezus.
Henry Huggins, who was once a staple in Cleary's books, has faded into the background. What ever happened to Henry and Scooter McCarthy? "Well, they're floating around, but Ramona isn't particularly interested [in them]." Ramona is quite interested, however, in Jeremy, the older brother of her new best friend. "Oh yes," Cleary agrees, and adds that Beezus is very interested in Jeremy as well, but continues, "I don't know, I just became interested in Ramona. I once had a letter from a child that said 'Don't ever put Henry in anything else'." No reason was given for the reader's anti-Henry stance, but Cleary does add that, in a previous book, Mr. and Mrs. Huggins make an appearance at a neighborhood brunch.
When asked for her concerns about the future of children's literature, Mrs. Cleary responds, "I feel sometimes that [in children's books] there are more and more grim problems, but I don't know that I want to burden third- and fourth-graders with them. I feel it's important to get [children] to enjoy reading."
Cleary credits her mother for encouraging her love of reading. "She read to me a lot and of course, we didn't have television in those days, and many people didn't even have radios. My mother would read aloud to my father and me in the evening. She read mainly travel books. [Parents need to] read aloud to your children and let them see you enjoying books. Children want to do what the grownups do. Children should learn that reading is pleasure, not just something that teachers make you do in school."