The Emotional Transformations of Beverly Cleary’s Work

Cleary at home in Carmel Valley in 2006. Photo: Christina Koci Hernandez/San Francisco Chronicle by Getty Images

No one could write a foul mood like Beverly Cleary. The author, who died on March 25, three weeks short of her 105th birthday, was a giant of American literature, a singular talent whose work reshaped the history of children’s literature, and an unmatched prose writer of incredible deftness and skill. Her best-known, most beloved creation is Ramona Quimby, the protagonist of seven of Cleary’s many books for young readers, and while Ramona is a naturally curious, cheerful kid, sometimes things do not go her way.

“Ramona had had enough,” Cleary wrote in Ramona the Brave. “She had been miserable the whole first grade, and she no longer cared what happened. She wanted to do something bad. She wanted to do something terrible that would shock her whole family, something that would make them sit up and take notice.” It is a culmination of months of resentment and feeling misunderstood for Ramona, an accumulation of slights big and small that have finally come to a head. Her first-grade teacher doesn’t understand her. Her parents have worked hard to build a new addition onto the side of the house so that Ramona can have her own bedroom, but she’s terrified to sleep alone in it and she can’t tell anyone. Plus, deep down, there is a fear so terrible she almost can’t say it to herself: She thinks her parents love her elder sister Beezus more than they love her.

The kid who began her school year full of vivre and creativity has become subdued and furious, and when her mother reads aloud a subpar report card, Ramona finally cracks. “‘I’m going to say a bad word!’ she shouted with a stamp of her foot.” Her parents, duly warned, fall silent, waiting for Ramona to produce her horrible statement. “‘Guts!’ she yelled. ‘Guts! Guts! Guts!’

It’s a classic Cleary sequence. There’s the incredible and clear-eyed portrait of Ramona’s anger, a rubicon scene that comes after several chapters of escalating tension and disappointment. There’s the unexpected twist of humor that arrives when her parents and sister burst into laughter. (“They laughed. All three of them laughed. They tried to hide it, but they laughed.”) At the crucial instance of the outburst, Cleary holds it all in painstaking balance: Ramona’s anger, how funny it is, her parents’ awareness that they need to try to muffle their response, and the sickening knowledge of how much worse this will make Ramona feel. As you read that passage, you laugh out loud at “guts!” but your stomach also churns.

My mother read the Ramona books to my younger sister and me when we were in early elementary school. As a child, I mostly remember feeling shock at Ramona’s daring. She spoke back to the teachers! She cut off her doll’s hair and clunked around the neighborhood on coffee can stilts bellowing “99 bottles of beer on the wall.” She wanted to follow the rules, but was it her fault for noticing when the rules didn’t make sense? I remember listening with almost forensic interest to the passages that described Ramona’s worry when her parents fought. My own parents were happily married, but Ramona was right. When something was tense between them, it felt apocalyptic. Listening to my mother read Ramona out loud was accessing a form of double vision. Here was Ramona close reading her parents, trying to interpret the signs, just as I did. Here was my mother, reading those chapters aloud, hearing the same words I was, implicitly validating Ramona’s extreme anxiety and also the conclusion she draws: Her parents love one another and everything will be fine, but grown-ups are not perfect. “‘Then how come you expect us kids to be so perfect all the time?’” Ramona demands of her father. Even as a kid I could sense the justness of that question, and my mom’s unspoken admission that yes, Ramona absolutely had a point.

Ramona is no longer alone in the world of children’s and young-adult fiction, which are now characterized by the features Cleary so clearly illustrated in her dozens of books, including the Ramona series but also the Henry Huggins stories, The Mouse and the Motorcycle books, and others. I see her in almost every realist work of fiction for kids in the last several decades, but particularly in books like Abby Hanlon’s Dory Fantasmagory or the Annie Barrows Ivy and Bean novels.

When Cleary first started writing in the 1950s, though, Western children’s literature as a genre was only about a century old and there was very little that looked anything like Ramona. Children’s lit had hauled itself out of the purely pedagogical mode of the Victorian era and finally begun embracing stories aimed at what children might actually like, but not much of it was pointed at the emotional lives of kids. Enid Blyton’s works were a dominant style of the time, boisterous and improbable adventure stories where the child characters are much more likely to find themselves chasing down counterfeiters than they are to have a serious heart-to-heart with their parents about their fear of divorce. There were fantasy stories — Peter Pan, Five Children and It, Mary Poppins — and there were works like Robert McCloskey’s hilarious, epigrammatic Homer Price. But Cleary, who studied English at Berkeley and spent a year as a children’s librarian in Yakima, Washington, wanted to write books that would feel real to kids. In the second of her autobiographies, My Own Two Feet, she remembers the “procession of non-reading boys” who would come into the library asking for books about “‘kids like us.’”

Cleary’s first impulse was toward a more outward kind of realism — books about kids who live on recognizable streets, go to school, and play like actual kids play. My mother was thankful in 1991, and I am thankful now, that Cleary’s realism included two working parents, and a mother figure often scrambling to keep everything together. She did her best, and Ramona saw it. But Cleary’s true genius was for the emotional realism she gradually developed alongside that external grounding. Her characters are not just kids who play like actual kids; they are people who have problems and desires that readers will recognize. Cleary’s honesty about anger, disappointment, and jealousy, her refusal to excuse those emotions in her characters or try to fix them quickly, her willingness to tell a story about a kid in a bad mood and let everybody see exactly how bad it really is — this is what feels most revolutionary about Cleary’s work. She saw the bad moods and she saw the scarily mundane things that cause the bad moods. Unsympathetic teachers and parents in a fight, yes, but also the terror of not having enough money, of worrying about your parents’ health, of being invisible.

When I read that “guts!” passage aloud to my daughter a year or two ago, I felt what my mother must have when she read the same line. The burble of laughter, and the simultaneous horror at how Mr. and Mrs. Quimby must be hurting her feelings when they laugh. As an adult, though, I noticed something in the craft that I wasn’t old enough to see when I was a kid. Cleary writes that section, as she does most of her work, in a very close third-person voice. Ramona does not narrate her own stories, but the narrator is with Ramona at all times, and the narrator never betrays Ramona’s feelings the way her parents do, or the way the reader inevitably does by also laughing at that moment. It is such a cold, accurate indictment, and the power of it is that we know it’s seen through Ramona’s eyes: “They tried to hide it, but they laughed.”

The power of it is also in the fact that Cleary would never let the scene end there. Ramona fully loses it. “Bursting into tears, she threw herself facedown on the couch. She kicked and she pounded the cushions with her fists. Everyone was against her. Nobody liked her. Even the cat did not like her,” Cleary writes. “Her parents continued to sit in silence, but Ramona was past caring what anyone did. She cried harder than she ever had cried in her life. She cried until she was limp and exhausted.” Then all of her anger comes spilling out — about her thoughtless teacher and her resentment at her parent’s perceived favoritism, feelings she’s been holding onto for years. When she finally turns to the bedroom she’s still afraid of, she has no energy for fear left. “Worn out as she was by anger and tears, Ramona faced the truth. She could no longer go on being afraid of the dark,” Cleary writes. Ramona bravely leaves her bed to get a book. “Nothing had grabbed her by the ankles. Nothing slithered out from under the curtains to harm her. Nothing had chased her. She was safe.”

It’s the kind of writing that enacts its own emotional transformation, carrying the reader through that storm of fury so they can emerge a little better, a little wiser. As a kid reading it independently, it’s as powerful as the close third person in an Austen novel, enveloping you in Ramona’s emotions and her eventual, longed-for release. But because of my own first experiences with Cleary, and because of how much I have treasured reading her work out loud to my own daughter, I’m especially overwhelmed by what that third person voice does when it’s read aloud by a parent. That direct, firm, Cleary narrative voice pulls us close to Ramona, too. We become her again. We are pulled into a child’s perspective, and our own children watch us as it happens. They listen to our voices as we read Ramona’s fears aloud and speak her concerns. Cleary’s work lets children see themselves, but they also see us, their parents, saying all the things we so often can’t figure out how to say in our own lives.

The Emotional Transformations of Beverly Cleary’s Work