How Beverly Cleary Encouraged a Generation of Unapologetic Women
As it happens when we lose any larger-than-life cultural figure, we knew this day would come, but it still hurts. Even though she lived to the advanced age of 104, it feels too soon to let Beverly Cleary go.
But let go we must — and with grace and gratitude for the journey she took us on since she introduced audiences to the precociously independent Ramona Quimby in the 1950 classic Henry Huggins. Quimby would go on to be Cleary’s best-known character and, for many a square-peg-in-a-round-hole girl, a personal touchstone. While Cleary first put Ramona on the literary map in the 1950s, she continued to create new stories for the character until 1999, when she published Ramona’s World, the last in the series. Two of her books, Ramona and Her Father (1977) and Ramona Quimby, Age 8 (1981) were both winners of the prestigious Newbery Medal.
Ramona may have entered the literary conversation in the 50s, but the series hit its zenith in the late 1970s and early 1980s with a new generation of young readers, library cards in hand. For many, the Ramona series was their first introduction to brand awareness and author loyalty. In our little school library, tucked away on the second floor of the “old building” at Vigo Elementary, Ramona had her own dedicated display shelf among the Highlights magazines and Choose Your Own Adventure books. And for every quirky little girl who entered that library seeking a character that spoke to her, that spoke like her, that spoke about her — Ramona was her contemporary.
Perhaps Cleary could not have imagined how deep and wide the ocean of her readership would become, how beloved Ramona and her family would be, or how much her spunky little character would grow to be an avatar for a generation of not-perfect girls. But I’d like to think she imagined us before she even knew us — a generation of latchkey kids just waiting to be born, waiting for this friend who lived to tell us that we were okay in all of our imperfect, wiseass glory. Waiting for us to embrace Ramona as she was ready to embrace us. Waiting for us to be made in her image, to make her real as life itself.
For us Gen X girls growing up in the 80s, Ramona was a revelation (even if we were too young to know the word “revelation”). She got dirty. She messed up — a lot. She was in trouble — often. She rode her bike and played outside and had adventures that weren’t on a screen. She was like us, with all of her faults and foibles, a girl who was not concerned with perfection or popularity and accepted as she was by her family (even though Beezus was often annoyed by her younger sister). She wasn’t a simpering, perfect goody-goody girl. She was sometimes bad, and we loved her for it. She told us we could be loved, too.
Cleary’s portrayal of Ramona alone would be enough to install her in the Gen X Heroine Hall of Fame. But what really made her a cultural icon for us Gen Xers was the universe Cleary created for her.
Ramona’s family looked like many of ours during that time. Long gone were the Leave It to Beaver illusions of the perfect nuclear family. The divorce rate doubled between 1962–1973 and peaked at 1.2 million in 1981. Gen Xers were divorce-era kids. Cleary saw us. And we saw ourselves in her books when Ramona and Beezus worried that their parents’ fights would result in a family torn apart.
Women entered the workforce in record numbers fueled by increased opportunities for both highly educated and skilled laborers, enhanced workplace protections like the Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978, and greater access to birth control. Our moms were going to work, armed with new access to credit and shoulder pads that would put a linebacker to shame. Guess who else’s mom went back to work? Ramona’s. Mrs. Quimby takes on a job in Ramona the Brave (1975) and the family deals with the fallout of Mr. Quimby losing his in Ramona and Her Father (1977).
These realities hit home for young Gen X readers because they were our realities, too. Any kid who had ever worried about their parents, tried to get a parent to stop smoking, or sat up at night thinking of ways to earn extra money for their family saw themselves in Ramona. Any kid who managed the house from 3–6 pm and functioned as a de-facto adult until the real ones got home felt a kinship when they read Cleary’s prose. Like many Gen X kids, now well into adulthood, feeling that it was incumbent on us to solve grown-up problems was part of our generational DNA. Seeing how Ramona’s worry mirrored ours made us feel less lonely, made us feel seen.
All of this isn’t to say that other generations don’t see themselves in Ramona, too, or that we alone hold ownership of Cleary’s memory. Ramona is timeless. She is a character for the ages. But for this Gen X girl who never felt like she fit, who never felt like she was quite good enough, who often felt that the weight of her family’s world rested on her tiny shoulders, Ramona was my guide for the journey. Every trip to that school library, that magical storehouse of wonder, escape, delight, and joy that smelled of new books and glue was a chance to sit with my friend and be happy in who we were together, imperfectly perfect.
I think of Cleary often, as I watch my girls grow up. They are spectacular humans, each their own woman, forging a new path in their own generation. They know worry and sorrow already at a tender, young age. But they also know great joy and unconditional love from their parents and their older brother (at least, I sure hope they do). The older organized and neat, stepping into her teen years, a true Beezus. The other, now eight, with her wild hair, smattering of freckles, and knees dirty from another adventure in the backyard. Perfectly imperfect, a lot like Ramona. She’s reading chapter books now, and we’re so very, very close to cracking open her first Ramona book. I hope she finds a friend in those pages, the same friend her Gen X mom found all those years ago, reading with a flashlight under the covers until the “dawnzer lee light.”