Tuesday, November 17, 2015

The Ones That Got Away: Ramona the Pest, by Beverly Cleary

Almost every good children's book has well-developed child characters, but there are certain authors whose works seem to exhibit a truly exceptional grasp on how children act, think, and feel. I think of authors such as Kevin Henkes, Louise FitzHugh, Rita Williams-Garcia, and Jack Gantos. And I certainly think of Beverly Cleary, whose characters are so clearly-written that I half expect to look up from one of her books to see Ramona Quimby, Henry Huggins, or Leigh Botts standing in front of me.

It's this quality, I think, that makes Ramona the Pest such a standout book. The novel is loosely arranged around Ramona's adventures during her first few months of kindergarten, but what makes the individual set pieces work is the richness and warmth of the characters. Perhaps even more importantly, the relationships between Ramona and the other characters feel natural and real. Ramona's sometimes-exasperated friendship with her neighbor and classmate, Howie Kemp; the mix of love and fear with which she regards her teacher, Miss Binney; the way in which Ramona interacts with her parents -- all of these are note-perfect.

Cleary wrote the Ramona series slowly, with some 44 years separating the first (Beezus and Ramona, 1955) from the last (Ramona's World, 1999). Several of the titles won major awards -- the fourth and sixth (Ramona and Her Father, 1977, and Ramona Quimby, Age 8, 1981) were Newbery Honor books, and the fifth, 1979's Ramona and Her Mother, won the National Book Award. Ramona the Pest, the second in the series, came out in 1968, but was shut out of the 1969 Newbery list.

Even if we were to re-award that year's medal today, Ramona the Pest wouldn't be likely to win; the 1969 Newbery went to Lloyd Alexander's The High King, which remains an undisputed classic. It's interesting to note, however, that the committee only named two Honor books: To Be a Slave, by Julius Lester, and When Shlemiel Went to Warsaw and Other Stories, by Isaac Bashevis Singer. If it were up to me, I'd be tempted to add Ramona the Pest to that number.

As it stands, although none of the Ramona books took the top honor, they're firmly in the pantheon of American children's literature regardless, and Cleary did eventually win the 1984 Newbery Medal, for Dear Mr. Henshaw. I suppose even every great book can't make the Newbery rolls, but I do remain in awe of Cleary's ability to honestly and gently depict the thoughts and feelings of children.