Why Ramona Quimby Was (And Is) So Important To Me

by Shefali Shah
Ramona Quimby leaning on her hands  with a blurry bookshelf in the background
Scary Mommy neta Pawlik/Unsplash and Christina Koci Hernandez/San Francisco Chronicle/Getty

As a child, I was a voracious reader. Every week my father and I would go to the library after dinner and I would spend one to two hours choosing more than ten books that would last me until the next visit. I went through all the classics — Nancy Drew, the Boxcar Children, all the Roald Dahl books, the Baby-Sitters Club. But over 30 years later one character stands out in my mind: Ramona Quimby.

Of course, I read all of Beverly Cleary’s books and immersed myself in the friendship of Ellen and Austine, and learned about paper routes in Henry Huggins, but the Ramona series was my favorite. I read every single book, multiple times. And when I discovered the TV series on video at the library, I borrowed it over and over again.

When I learned about “payday” — the day that Ramona’s father brings home a special treat after receiving his paycheck — I insisted my father do the same. He tried to give me a dollar but I explained to him that the treat needed to be an item, something small that he had specially chosen for me. I wanted to feel the same anticipation and excitement as Ramona. I completely understood that for Ramona even though the item was inexpensive, it in some ways represented love from her father. It should come as no surprise to anyone that my love language is receiving gifts.

The stories in the Ramona books didn’t involve mystical creatures, fantasy worlds, or exotic adventures. They were about a girl observing, navigating, feeling her way through her world. She felt things like real children do, and she did it against a backdrop of authenticity. Beverly Cleary managed to include circumstances and issues into her stories that somehow still ring true over 50 years later. Worries about money, parents’ arguments, feeling unloved were topics that were not ignored or hidden away like in other children’s books. They fit so naturally in Ramona’s everyday life because they were not concocted to add elements of drama but rather woven in to show that Ramona’s experiences were real ones.

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Toronto Star via Getty Images

The shame and the embarrassment of having to wear a pair of pajamas instead of a full sheep costume like the other children. The envy she felt at watching her neighbor Howie eat his dinner while she sat hungry, waiting for her parents, who were running late, to pick her up. The desire to feel like she should contribute to the family income when she sees her father worry about money after he loses his job. These emotions existed in Ramona’s world, and they existed in my world too.

Somehow Beverly Cleary recognized that children notice things about their parents, their home, and their lives. And these observations manifest themselves into emotions and feelings that take over our minds. And with Ramona, it propelled her to misbehave or act out. Beverly Cleary made it clear that it was not because Ramona was bad or that she needed to change, but more so that when you are six or seven or eight you can feel like you have to bear the weight of the world on your shoulders. By bringing the character of Ramona into our lives, she was showing us that feeling worried or uncomfortable is normal. And when Ramona does eventually realize that her parents do love her and that she is safe and secure, Beverly Cleary is letting us know that it will be okay. That reassurance eased my mind many times.

Decades after reading all of her books, the birth of my daughter brought Beverly Cleary back into my life. I eagerly anticipated when I could introduce the character of Ramona to her. This past year it finally happened. My five-year-old is learning all about the world of Ramona and the timing couldn’t be better. In the past year, she’s had to observe some of the biggest challenges and shifts in our lives. She’s had to see her parents worry and fight and be exhausted so much of the time. But hopefully, she is also learning that even imperfect parents have an unbelievable amount of love for her.

Thank you, Beverly Cleary, for bringing Ramona Quimby into my life. You helped me recognize that the imperfections in my life were ordinary, but still acknowledged the significance they had in my mind. And you did it with humor, simplicity, and warmth. Looking at this exchange from “Ramona and her Mother” it’s clear that now, as a mother, I can still learn from your books. Looks like I’ll be back at the library again.

“Haven’t you noticed grown-ups aren’t perfect?” asked Mrs. Quimby. “Especially when they are tired.”

“Then how come you expect us kids to be so perfect all the time?” demanded Ramona.

“Good question,” said Mrs. Quimby. “I’ll have to think of an answer.”