The Ramona series by Beverly Cleary, which is, in order: Beezus and Romona, Ramona the Pest, Ramona the Brave, Ramona and Her Father, Ramona and Her Mother, Ramona Quimby Age 8, Ramona Forever, and Ramona’s World. They were published from 1955 to 1999 (!) and include two Newbery Honors and one National Book Award. We read the current HarperTrophy edition.
These books are American classics. They have been respected for years, as has Beverly Cleary, the librarian-turned-award-winning author. Ramona has always been her most recognizable character, and is still one of her most loved and timeless. That’s probably the reason I started with Ramona in our boxed set when reading to my kids at night. That, and her books were furthest to the left, her series most complete.
Beverly Cleary was, famously, a librarian in her home state of Oregon, when she sort of stumbled on to her new career. It was the 1950s, and a child asked Cleary where the books were about kids like him. After some contemplation (and, I think, some more questions and conversations,) Cleary decided there was indeed a hole in children’s literature. While fantasy has its place, there were very few, if any, books about “kids like us.” So the imaginary but very realistic and relevant world on Klickatat Street (in Oregon in the 1950s) was born.
I have to admit that I was shocked–pleasantly–when my seven-year-old son fell in love with this series. I imagined it would be too girly with two female main characters, but Ramona is pretty darn universal. Sure, she loves a great pair of red boots or a bridesmaid dress, but she is also on the rambunctious, wild, and trouble-making side, so she appeals to a wide range of kids. Between her, her family, and her friends and neighbors, life on Klickitat Street is full of relatable and lovable characters. I loved Ramona, but I also related to toes-on-the-line Beezus and admired calm, peaceful, level-headed Mrs. Quimby. And my kids really appreciated the completely relatable problems. They saw themselves in the situations; they even made comparisons to issues in their own lives.
Another thing I really enjoyed was the setting, especially the time period. Cleary isn’t trying to force anything, she just writes about typical suburban America in the 1950s. There is no need for expose, everyone just has pretty normal lives, with their usual challenges and usual triumphs. In her books, the 50s feel interesting and calm, almost idyllic. And yet, like I keep saying, so relatable. The only thing about reading the 1950s at this point is that some things are lost in translation. But not people. Just random things. (My son loved converting the money value of things to today’s dollar equivalent.)
Having already started with the Henry Huggins series, I think I can safely say that Cleary’s writing is at its best with Ramona. It’s straight-forward and enjoyable, her plots and characters simple and un-distracting. True, there are no frills, but it lets the kids enjoy the story and helps the characters to shine.
It’s also funny. Ramona is funny. We’ll get to it more with the first book of Henry Huggins, but what other books can make a whole family chuckle over night reading? Not too many. And it’s not just kid humor. There is a vein of grown-up humor and sympathy streaking through all Cleary’s stories, even though kids may not notice it.
My one real complaint about this series? The illustrations. They are not the original illustrations, but since the books were written over such a wide time-span, there was a move to unify the Cleary books with new illustrations. (It’s nice for the box set.) However, I hate mediocre illustrations, and that’s what we found in our boxed set (Tracy Dockray). And the paperbacks I found online looked no better. There is, I suppose, a certain charm to this particular type of old-timey illustration, and yet… My son was always asking to see the illustrations, but way more than once my kids had something to say about a wonky looking hand, a kid who didn’t look quite like Ramona, or an inconsistency between the story and illustration. I’ve read so many MG series lately with terrible illustrations that I just don’t get it. There are many, many talented artists out there. Who’s hiring these guys and signing off on their work?!?
Some books in the series are a little better than others, but overall the Ramona series appears to be Cleary’s best. I liked Ramona and Her Father the best of the series, but reading it in chronological order seemed to be the way to go.
We own this movie: Ramona and Beezus (2010). We saw it before we read the books. I loved it from the beginning, but my daughter had to be convinced, which eventually she was.
The skinny is this: the movie is an amalgamation of things that happen across the Ramona series (even though it bears the title of one book). It is also very updated, so that the problems and tone are at home in the 21st century, as opposed to the 1950s. It also really underscores Ramona as an uber-imaginative, “artistic” type, which is fun because of the way the director deals with moments inside her head. I really enjoy almost everything about this movie, I only wish there were more imagination scenes.