Ramona, Relatability, and Serendipity

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:

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.

Henry and RamonaIt’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.

A Postscript

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.

Homesick for Klickitat Street

When I was a kid there was no children’s writer bigger than Beverly Cleary. Everybody read her books, even the kids who didn’t read. And it was quite all right for boys to read the Ramona books because plenty of boys started with Henry Huggins and simply kept going as the series transitioned. Survey a class anywhere between second and sixth grade who their favorite writer was and half of them would say Beverly Cleary.

Yet, there was practically no merchandising. There were no toys or trapper keepers that I recall. I doubt there were midnight release parties. No movies were made from Cleary’s work until a few years ago, when Ramona and Beezus came out (reversing the names from the first book’s title, but loosely adapted from the entire series). There was a low-key Canadian TV series made of Ramona, but it was hardly a big attempt to cash in on a popular brand. Those were different days, pre-Harry-Potter and pre-Goosebumps, when children’s books were simply children’s books and not properties; readers were simply fans and didn’t comprise fandoms. Children’s books came out without much noise but had long lives. There was something dignified about writing children’s books but it was nobody’s get rich quick scheme.

I marvel that an author selling nearly a hundred million books would have left her reputation and her legacy largely in the body of her work, and that the publishers let her. Cleary says in her autobiography that she decided that she would never care about trends or money, so maybe there was pressure to do more and she declined, but the expectations of the public were also different. We let children’s books be children’s books back then.

Another thing I marvel at is that except for the whimsical Ralph S. Mouse series there is nothing high concept about Cleary’s work. They are simple books about realistic kids. The pitch, if there is one, was Cleary’s reputation for emotional honesty. Nobody needs to save the world, or even save Klickitat Street, but Cleary can make a crushed paper-bag owl feel like the end of the world. She’s funny, but she’s not off-the-wall talking burrito funny—her humor is character-centered and observational. There’s drama, but not melodrama—the cat dies, but not the mom.

Every year Beverly Cleary’s birthday is celebrated with growing reverence by the industry, partly due to her legacy and partly in wonder of her long life—she will be 99 on her next birthday—but there’s not much evidence the industry wants books like these anymore: books without a gimmick, that respect the minds of children, books that don’t do anything but get to the heart of the childhood experience. Books that are obviously for kids, and not geared to get buzzed up by bloggers and read by adults.

I meant this post be an appreciation for Cleary’s understanding of children, and how it serves me well as a father to re-read them, but the experience has made me sentimental. I keep tearing up, and I know it’s not just because of the way Cleary recalls the daily ups and downs of being a kid—which she does better than anyone, ever, I am sure—it is because I miss what children’s literature used to be. The hot market kid lit has become just isn’t the same world that welcomed me as a lonely ten year old in the child-sized shelves at the public library, and made me so happy I decided to spend the rest of my life there.

I’m homesick for Klickitat Street.