Saturday, June 20, 2009

Beverly Cleary Revisited

A while ago I was thinking that it's time to start reading my daughters (5 and 3) some longer books at bedtime. I went up to the attic and pulled out a trunk in which I've saved a heap of books from my childhood—lots of Hardy Boys and Beverly Cleary.

I started dipping into the Ramona books and reading to the girls parts that I remembered. When Ramona squeezes out the whole tube of toothpaste into the sink, for instance. When she throws up in class. When she and Beezus are in their aunt's wedding to Ramona's friend Howie's uncle. When Ramona gets her hair cut and it looks like a little heart framing her face. The girls seemed to like the stories.

I dipped into some of Beverly Cleary's earlier books that had Ramona in them. Beezus and Ramona, in which a bunch of boys at the playground start chanting, "Jesus, Beezus," and "Beezus, Jesus." That was probably a mistake, since my oldest daughter started repeating it out on the front sidewalk in front of the neighbors.

But then I read them a part from Henry and the Clubhouse that I remembered, in which Henry gets locked into his clubhouse and only Ramona can get him out. (He's got to get out so he can deliver papers on his route.) The clubhouse is "no girls allowed," and there's a secret chant the clubhouse boys know as a kind of password for admittance:
Fadatta, fadatta, fadatta,
Beepum, boopum, bah!
Ratta datta boom sh-h
Ahfah deedee bobo.
The girls got a kick out of repeating that. Eventually, in order to get out, Henry has to teach the chant to Ramona and apologize to Beezus for excluding her. What struck me as I read this passage was how out of date, at least for my daughters, the whole gender-exclusive clubhouse idea is. Their best friend on the street is Sammy, who's constantly borrowing their dollies to take home for himself. The boys a couple doors down play with them happily, even their oldest, who is especially sweet with our youngest daughter. 

It seems to me, dipping into these books, that Beverly Cleary evolved significantly over the course of her career. Henry and the Clubhouse, a lighthearted tale of suburban boyhood, was published in 1962. By Ramona Quimby, Age 8 in 1981, Cleary is writing intensely realistic novels about a working-class family, exploring a young girl's anxieties, relationships, dreams, and faltering understanding of the world around her. 

Cleary has become a kind of Raymond Carver for children. At the beginning of Ramona Quimby, Age 8, Ramona's father has quit his job as a grocery store checker in order to go back to school to get certified as an art teacher. In the meantime, he'll be working the frozen-food warehouse of Shop-Rite to help the family make ends meet, and "he would have to wear heavy padded clothing to keep himself from freezing." It's a job right out of Carver. Indeed, Cleary's novels, set in Oregon, are not too far from Carver country in Washington state. 

In the final chapter of Ramona Quimby, Age 8, "Rainy Sunday," the Quimbys are in a rough place, grumpy with each other, frustrated with the difficulties of their lives. Then Mr. Quimby suggests that they splurge and go out for dinner—to the Whopperburger. Even such a modest splurge is cause for worry; Mr. Quimby has to reassure his wife that over Thanksgiving he'll be putting in overtime.

While they're there, an eccentric but dignified old man is charmed by Ramona, and he ends up paying for their meal surreptitiously before he leaves, telling the waitress that they were a nice family. And, leaving the restaurant, the Quimbys feel good about themselves, reinvigorated to face the challenges of their lives. Sharing food, eating together, as in Carver's famous story (published a year after this novel), has been "a small, good thing." 

And the novel ends on a very Carver note, its hopefulness checked by a realistic awareness of life's difficulties:
"That man paying for our dinner was sort of like a happy ending," remarked Beezus, as the family, snug in their car, drove through the rain and the dark toward Klickitat Street.

"A happy ending for today," corrected Ramona. Tomorrow they would begin all over again.


Kate in Chicago said...

I'm so glad you're reading these books to the girls. I miss Ramona!

Muzition said...

I loved reading those books!