This is my last post about Ramona, I swear. Unless I write another one.
One of my favorite people on Twitter is (National Book Award finalist!) Elizabeth McCracken. It turns out she is also a fan of Beverly Cleary, as many of our generation are. I feel like this tweet succinctly says it all:
Have had reason to confront this upsetting fact: 87% of my kindergarten memories are in fact plagiarized from Ramona the Pest.
— Elizabeth McCracken (@elizmccracken) August 6, 2014
She further explains that she is approximately the same age as Ramona and went to Kindergarten in Portland. (Of course the age of Ramona depends on what book you work from, since they span from the 1950s to the 1990s, but the heart of the series was published in the late 60s and early 70s.)
McCracken’s tweet gets at what I think is a basic aspect of children’s books, and one that is surprisingly contentious — the idea of “relatability.” Some editors, authors, and reviewers (etc.) bristle at the very word. Maybe we’re working from different definitions or assumptions, but I think of relatability as being that emotional connection between character and reader that makes their experiences blur.
It’s certainly a problem if “relatability” is taken at a surface level, to assume boys can’t read about girls, that white students won’t be interested in non-white children. But I think the idea of relatability as the opposite of that. I think of it as the ability to make characters familiar to readers despite their differences. There have been some articles lately about emotional intelligence and empathy being enhanced by reading; I know that to be true, and “relatability” (or whatever you want to call it) is how it happens. You enter a character’s life through the familiar, and come to appreciate and understand the unfamiliar. It’s probably the most important thing fiction does.
Ramona, the quintessential relatable children’s book hero, was originally created as a foil to Henry Huggins. She begins as a brat, a spoiled, selfish, demanding kid sister, and isn’t meant to do anything more than complicate Henry’s schemes. Absent any super-villains or cardboard bullies, she is the closest thing to a “bad guy,” in those books, but the best moments in Henry Huggins’ series are definitely those with Ramona in them… and she must have been a fan favorite, because she’s really the most important secondary character in the series. (Sorry, Ribsy.)
Ramona was so popular, Cleary was pressured to write a book from her point of view — which she had already been considering, apparently. But here she had a challenge — she had a character who was unreasonable and obnoxious, and had to make her “relatable.” Cleary did so by recalling, and documenting, the uncontrollable moods of small children, the impulses and madness, with such precision that any child will find it familiar. The same kinds of scenes that disgust us through Henry’s eyes, become funny and poignant and painful through Ramona’s. Instead of the schemes that drive Henry Huggins, Cleary found it quite enough to watch Ramona weather the storms of her own feelings. The books are a damned near miracle, they are so honest and real, and they would have never been that way if Cleary set out to create a relatable character. She painted herself into a corner, punched a hole in the wall, and built something better than the original room.
There’s much a writer can learn from this. The first, for me, is that Cleary’s greatest character did not emerge from creating a sympathetic, “relatable” hero, but by taking a grubby, insolent brat who was invented with the sole purpose of ruining everything. This pushed Cleary into creating a deeper, more memorable series than the affable but less poignant Henry Huggins books. So as an exercise, I think any writer might take up the same challenge. Begin by thinking of your hero as a foil — not a scheming villain, but someone who ruins things for other people. See where it takes you.
The second is that relatability does not rest on likability. It relies on familiarity and emotional honesty.
The third is that the demands of the public and your publisher, though they may be commercial decisions, are not always wrong.