Happy birthday to a living legend.
In celebration of the day, here is a recap of all my posts about Saint of Yamhill from last year, when I re-read many of her books.
Happy birthday to a living legend.
In celebration of the day, here is a recap of all my posts about Saint of Yamhill from last year, when I re-read many of her books.
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.
Girls who have the audacity to be the heroes of books are likely to be labelled, or at least scrutinized, in two ways. In chapter books or middle-grade books, they will inevitably be described as “spunky,”and “feisty.” Those really are the two favorite words in the English language for describing the elementary-school protagonist. It is usually meant to flatter the hero and the book’s author, but it can also be used disparagingly. “Look,” a critic may say, presumably while rolling his eyes upward, “yet another girl child with personality.”
Spunky just means “courageous and determined,” while feisty means “lively, determined, and courageous.” And of course any book strong enough to get published will have a hero, you know, doing things and driving their own story line, and books for younger readers are likely to be bright and energetic, so there’s really no way to have a girl anchor a children’s book while being whatever the opposite of spunky and feisty is. Timid and passive? She’s going to have some moxie, is all, like any other character at the heart of a book, but other characters (except perhaps mice and the very old) will rarely be described using those two condescending words. They’ll be called courageous, or determined, or bold.
I would say a critical lens is narrowed by those two words. Once you’ve decided a girl hero is “spunky,” she becomes “yet another spunky heroine,” and you won’t see her in any other way. For example, Ramona, who inevitably bunny hops into any discussion of spunky, feisty heroines, is not especially “courageous” and in fact is often anxious about things, worried what others think of her, and unsure of herself. She is bright, curious, and inventive. She is occasionally brash. Neither spunky or feisty would be the adjectives that first come to mind, if I didn’t already have the idea in my head that she was a classic example of (even the reason for) a particular trend in children’s books.
I could take a sideways swipe here at the equally foolish trope of “strong girl heroines,” which I think means “has super powers, and/or a crossbow.” It’s another narrow lens. Many of the best girl protagonists from my childhood — Ramona, Harriet, Turtle, Fern — are not especially “strong,” but they are smart, resourceful, thoughtful, and perfectly good role models. They are sometimes brave and sometimes vulnerable. They are human and complicated. I never needed any of them to be “strong” to care about them.
Just let these girls exist in their stories and accept them on their own terms. It’s all any kid really wants.
There’s a saying that is applied sometimes to writers: The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing. Some writers are always exploring new territory, and others keep to their small bit of ground and find endless wealth there. I have said, when this comes up (it does, it does), that I must be a fox, since I’ve written about baseball and snakes and robots and mushrooms, but I say so uneasily, feeling that I am really a hedgehog and that my own favorite writers are also hedgehogs. I have always felt affinity for the spiny little bug-eaters, and moreover, I feel like I am that sort of writer, but haven’t realized what my One Big Thing is. I feel, too, that there is something I’ve been trying to get at in my books and that the plot is almost a distraction, and that my One Big Thing had something to do with family or feelings or coming of age.
It was much on my mind since reading the Henry Huggins and Ramona Quimby books, and thinking about how Beverly Cleary knew her One Big Thing from the first chapter of her first book, when Henry finds a dog and wants to keep it. The discussion with his mother is about whether Henry is old enough to take care of a pet — he insists that he is, and sets up the entire series and its sequel series: they’re about kids who want to grow up, and the glorious, terrible journey of growing up itself. It’s at the heart of every book. The kids are aching to be bigger, and Cleary lets that single theme guide her through fifteen books, as well as the non-Klickitat Street books with human characters. One thing I was left with after reading those books was admiration for Saint Beverly of Yamhill for knowing her purpose so well from the get go, for having such a noble one, and for being so faithful to it. Perhaps the only writer who cultivated less ground for as rich a career is Bill Watterson.
But I, like Shel Silverstein’s Pacman-shaped hero, was in search of my missing piece.
Yesterday at the playground my son ran off to the water fountain to fill a gatorade bottle he’d found with water; he wanted to make mud pies. He sprinted on ahead of me and reached the fountain, couldn’t reach to fill the bottle, and was helped by an older boy, maybe 9 or 10 years old. It was terrific, how naturally this kid helped a littler kid, and it killed me to see it. He must be a big brother, I thought.
And I realized right then, that’s what it is. That’s my one big thing. I want kids to be good to each other. I feel like kids need to look out for each other, that the adults can’t be trusted. The great sadness of childhood is that kids spend their energy harming one another instead of helping; the greatest joys of childhood come from kindness. It’s not a moral lesson, it’s a life lesson. It’s not how to be good, it’s how to be happy. Be good to each other.
My favorite scenes in my books are kids being kind to other kids (usually siblings). It tears me up when I see it done nicely in other books. Ten books into my career, several more in drafts of varying state of completion, and I can see how each one has, at its heart, kids caring…. for adults, for animals, but mostly other kids (especially siblings). I also see how some of the unpublished ones, the parts I can’t let go of, are of the same cloth. The manuscripts I can let go of, don’t have that.
Now I know what I want to talk about when I go on school visits, and how to answer the question: why do you write?
While re-reading the stories from Klickitat Street I also read — for the first time — Dear Mr. Henshaw, Beverly Cleary’s Newbery-Award winning book. I was never sure why that book, of her forty, was the one to win the big prize and suspected it was more randomly selected for someone who was long overdue. I think there must have been a little bit of that, but I see how Dear Mr. Henshaw is the most Newberyish of her books. Light humor tends not to be taken seriously, and this one has a lonelier, sadder boy than we find on Klickitat Street, a hero that feels transposed from a Betsy Byars novel. Mr. Henshaw doesn’t have much presence in the book; it’s just a setup for an epistolary novel with a few winks from an author who knows the kinds of letters authors get from kids. It is her only book (I think) in the first person, so it has quite a different voice for her, and is also a tad more serious. The raw and honest way this boy misses his dad is one of the best treatments I’ve seen of divorce in a children’s book (the other that comes to mind is Laurel Snyder’s Bigger than a Breadbox.) Divorce has become so commonplace that it is now treated matter-of-factly, even lightly, but Dear Mr. Henshaw shows the confusion and hurt a child feels, especially when one parent doesn’t really want to be a major part of the kid’s life.
I think of my own first book and how glibly I treat the mother’s absence in the book. Now, I think the relationship with the dad is one of the best things I’ve done as a writer, so I’m not selling my own book short, but I do not address the serious hole a missing parent leaves in a kid’s life until late in the book, and then very casually.
Anyway, Dear Mr. Henshaw is quite good, and when you think of how long a shadow Ms. Cleary cast over the era of children’s literature, a Newbery was definitely deserved.
Coincidentally another book about a child’s friendship with an author fell into my lap at the same time, Beetle Boy by Margaret Willey. Charlie is also from a “broken home,” as they used to call it, but his is more broken than others — his father is on the make, both for women and easy money, and includes Charlie in one of his schemes — self-publishing storybooks about a little boy beetle with Charlie as the purported author (the stories themselves stolen from the mother, a secret Charlie keeps to himself, and his father has a heavy hand in the writing). He promotes Charlie as the “world’s youngest author,” coaches him on upbeat answers to questions, and lines him up for school visits and author events. At these events Charlie strikes up a friendship with an award-winning author they call Mrs. M — despite her own coldness toward him and his father, and his father’s downright hostility towards her. Charlie doesn’t have any interest in Mrs. M’s books, but comes increasingly to rely on her.
As a children’s book author it’s kind of amazing to see an author write about this world of school visits and author events, especially with a dose of cynicism about the whole enterprise. Given the regularity of viral stories about children doing amazing things, the story also has a kind of currency, to consider how such children may be exploited by parents, putting on a show they’d rather not be a part of. It essentially folds a middle grade story into a YA story, which I have not seen before, and the father is one of the most complete (if horrible) parental characters I’ve seen in a YA novel. I think the book turns for me on a scene where Charlie realizes that Mrs. M, too, is lonely and rather broken, that she has to find courage and stamina to go out in public. There’s also a lovely scene where she rescues him in the middle of one of those events, which I won’t describe, but it shows the kind of small-scale heroism and self-sacrifice that make up real lives but usually doesn’t figure into books. It is definitely a unique book. I don’t think you’ll find anything else quite like it.
In the introduction to the fiftieth anniversary edition of Henry Huggins, Beverly Cleary describes sitting down to write what would be her first book. She remembered the boys who used to come into her library and ask, “Where are the books about kids like us?” That was the 1940s, and apparently not many had realistic and imperfect kids, but paragons of the Horatio Alger stamp or fearless adventurers like the Hardy Boys. Cleary decided to write a book about kids like them — city kids without much money — and Henry Huggins was born.
Henry is less developed than Ramona, at least in book one, and Cleary is a less developed writer: Henry doesn’t have the same fine-tuned wit as Ramona, his experiences don’t have the same poignancy, and the book is so much a novel as a collection of stories. Still, there is still a fine, minimalist style and buoyancy that any children’s book author can learn from. While reading I kept in mind that it was a revolutionary turn for a children’s book to have such benign realism, and admire how Cleary is able to give such stories urgency despite the lack of high stakes (to use the fiction-writer’s lingo).
Oh, how I miss books like these, and how I miss childhood like that experienced by the kids of Klickitat. Henry has a lot of autonomy for a city kid who is about nine in the first book, handles his own meager finances, and makes his own fun. His parents give advice and assistance but don’t manage his projects for him. In one chapter they even let him go out at night, unsupervised, to catch worms — this in an urban setting (Portland, Oregon). It’s striking to read about kids who are so independent, and parents who are so trusting. I enjoyed a childhood somewhat like Henry’s, and in fact was inspired by this book to attempt my own nightcrawler hunting business (I caught a lot, but well shy of Henry’s 1300).
I am also struck by the differences in the economics of kidhood. There’s nary a chapter where Henry is not counting pennies. He saves up for small things like footballs or guppies, and while his parents support these endeavors, they don’t buy him stuff willy nilly. The families in both the Henry and Ramona series are thrifty. Nobody would describe them as poor, but they save up for small pleasures and live on tight budgets. They economize and improvise: When Henry has fish, he keeps them in a gallon pickle jar and moves fish with a net made from his mother’s nylons. Even the pets are less spoiled. When he later has pet store credit, he doesn’t know how to use it — his dog has a collar, a leash, and a dish, and that’s everything he needs. Compare that to the pet beds, snacks, and pile of chew-toys of American doghood in the 21st Century.
So the “book about kids like us” may seem exotic to readers in the 20-teens. Based on reviews and gatekeeper feedback on my own books (which typically have Hugginsesque kids off doing stuff on their own), the idea has really taken hold that kids don’t do anything unsupervised (no sandlot ball, and no kids building robots on their own, I’m told). It also seems like even less well-off kids have a load of toys and routinely get for-no-reason presents that Henry would have had to save up for. Well, OK, those assumptions are informed by race and class, but it’s hard to deny that I had more freedom and less stuff than kids of the same middle-class white backgrounds do now. I think Cleary herself mentions that in her New York Times interview from a few years ago.
Wouldn’t kids trade the stuff for the liberty? I know I would have. In fact, as a child I rarely fantasized about things or organized activities. I fantasized about minor adventures like Henry’s, and friends like Henry’s. Even if the modern, pampered, plugged in, and helicoptered kid finds Henry less “relatable” (to use a contentious word) than kids of my era, I hope they’ll be enticed to hunt nightcrawlers or adopt a grubby stray dog on the spot.
Yesterday I listened to an interview with Beverly Cleary on NPR that appeared when the movie Ramona and Beezus came out a couple of years ago. I haven’t seen the movie, but it looks like they were pretty faithful to the source material, but there was an exchange with the director and the author I thought illuminated part of what I was trying to articulate.
Cleary asks the director what she thinks the theme of the books are, and the director replies that the stories are about a girl with a runaway imagination who has trouble getting into the little box the world has made for her. Cleary squints at her and says, they’re about a girl growing up.
Ramona is imaginative, but it’s not really what the books are about. And obviously the director has read them, but she’s speaking to the movie she wants to make, and the movie she thinks kids wants to see, and so picks up on an aspect of the Ramona series and plays it up as the main theme.
Now don’t get me wrong — it looks like a fine movie. Lord knows Disney doesn’t need any flak for making a realistic movie with a non-princess girl as its hero, a book made by a woman and adapted from a work by a woman. Hollywood needs those movies, and kids need those movies. (And really, my bigger question is the wisdom of making the entire series into one movie, because they end up with an eight-year-old doing things a five-year-old did in the books and it makes less sense.) I also get that they want to make movies a good cinematic experience so they’re going to throw in CGI sequences and make a much bigger deal of Ramona’s flights of fancy than they seem to be in the book, just as they did with Bridge over Terabithia (which is much truer to the book than the trailers pretend).
I just thought it illustrated what I was trying to say yesterday. The books show a normal kid with normal problems, but that doesn’t fly anymore so the director guesses it must be some extraordinary aspect of Ramona that makes the books special–a mark of magic on her forehead, so to speak. The story has to be about personal exceptionalism, right? Well, no, said Ms. Cleary. But she was sweet about it.