Happy Birthday, Beverly Cleary

Ramona the Brave – Beverly Cleary and Alan Tiegreen, William Morrow and Company, 1975

ramona cover

This is not a review of Ramona the Brave, but, since my blog is named after an incident in the novel, I thought it would be a fitting way to pay tribute to an author for whom no tribute could be adequate.  In Chapter Six, “Parent’ Night,” six-year old Ramona is consumed with worry by the realistic fear that parent-teacher conferences will not be an unqualified success for her.

owl

Having been instructed by her teacher to make a paper owl in Chapter Five, “Owl Trouble,” Ramona becomes infuriated because her classmate, Susan, has plagiarized her original creation of an owl wearing glasses. Ramona does the only thing an artist could do in this situation, at least a six-year artist with limited impulse control: she destroys both her own owl and her rival’s in protest, lest anyone believe that she, not Susan, had stolen someone’s intellectual property.

 

Fortunately, Ramona has a new closet, in the bedroom that her father has just remodeled. It is easy for her to transform the closet into an imaginary elevator, one which transports her from the world of real problems to the one of make-believe, to which she can briefly escape before the inevitable result of her parents’ meeting with her teacher confronts her:

“Ramona stepped back into her closet, slid the door shut, pressed an imaginary button, and when her imaginary elevator had made its imaginary descent, stepped out into the real first floor and faced a real problem.”

This paragraph contains a snapshot of Cleary’s genius: her understated language, the way in which she inhabits a child’s consciousness, the key repetition of “imaginary” to signal how essential a child’s imagination can be to coping with reality.  Ramona understands very well that her imaginary elevator, operated by an imaginary button, descends only in her imagination.  The consequence of her bad deed in school is going to come due.

Ramona’s family life, like her elevator, has its ups and downs.  Throughout the series, we share her difficult moments, as when her father is temporarily unemployed, and her mother returns to work.  (Not only that, but she enjoys her new job, and does not apologize for doing so.)  Yet, even as her parents refuse to indulge her understandable protest and insist that she apologize, they empathize with her pain.  In fact, Ramona’s mother makes her the winner, not because she is a better owl creator or a long-suffering victim of Susan’s nastiness, but because Ramona has a deeper appreciation of the project’s meaning:

“Susan is the one I feel sorry for. You are the lucky one.  You can think up your own ideas because you have imagination.”

Ramona’s imaginary elevator makes difficult moments livable; Beverly Cleary’s entire body of work has done not only that, but much more.  In honor of her birthday, let’s open her books and push the imaginary button to any floor.

 

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