Don’t even get me started on Ramona. I loved her so, so much. I also felt like I could relate to her, but that’s prooooobably only because we were the same age. I think this one was another my mom told me about.
I know who introduced me to Ramona, or to Beverly Cleary, anyway. That was my primary school librarian, Ms. Menlove. Ms. Menlove was exactly the kind of librarian every bookish kid should have, one delighted to indulge every exploration, one always on hand to recommend a new author or to talk about every old favorite. Ms. Menlove let me gain access to the library’s computer system, she introduced me to the Internet, she even put my self-published, shitty sixth grade fantasy novel into the school’s library system. And she introduced me to Ramona.
No, well, she introduced me to Ralph S. Mouse. I’m not sure whether this was a carefully plotted ploy on her behalf; after all, it’s much easier to convince a boy, even a quiet boy like me, to read a book about motorcycles than it is to convince a seven year old boy to read a book about a girl. If that was the case, well done, Ms. Menlove; once I’d torn through every title with Ralph S. Mouse on the cover, I quickly moved on to everything else with Cleary’s name attached to it.
And that’s how I found Ramona.
I don’t know why Ramona slotted so easily into the realm of books it was OK for me to like. This is a very limited selection if you’re a boy. Even (especially?) at that age, you have a very sharp awareness of what books are acceptable to your masculinity, and what books are so antithetical to your being that they cannot be touched. This latter category includes girl-books like Sweet Valley High and the Babysitters Club, but probably also well-respected works like Little House on the Prairie, Anne of Green Gables, and The Secret Garden. I didn’t know exactly what went on inside these books, but I sure knew they weren’t for people like me. Boy-people.
At the same time, there were books I read that I suspected weren’t for people like me, but I read them anyway. I was as happy with Nancy Drew and Trixie Belden as I was with Hardy Boys, even though the latter was about boys doing boy stuff, and the others weren’t. The other kids thought I was crazy with all my books anyway, so I could get away with books about girls doing boy-stuff (like playing detective). I even, sort of secretly, read Enid Blyton’s Mallory Towers and St. Clare’s and Naughtiest Girl series (girls boarding school stories, should you not know), which I justified as permissible because they were just Blyton books, and everyone knew there was nothing girly about the Famous Five. Um, yes, well.
Anyway, Ramona wasn’t like those. Cleary’s books, about Miss Quimby drawing her Qs with cats ears, whiskers and tails; trying to convince her father to quit smoking; taking the first bite of every apple because it tasted best; or having to go to Howie’s house every day after school because her mom worked; were about girls. They were about Ramona and her big sister Beezus, and the humdrum domesticity of their lives. I’m not exactly sure now why I saw these as books for me, and not girl books. Nobody, after all, is more acutely aware of surreptitious femininity than a pre-adolescent boy.
Was it because I had been tricked by Ralph S. Mouse? The irony is, I never found any of Cleary’s other male characters, like Henry Huggins or those kids in Fifteen or Dear Mr. Henshaw to be as compelling as Ramona. And nor should I. Ramona was something else.
But I do shake my head at my resistance to anything vaguely feminine, and I fear it still lingers. I, shamefully, rarely read books written by women, and I suspect the same of many other men my age (mid-20s). And paradoxically, this limits women more than it does men. Women (and girls) seem far happier (or far more required) to read books by men than vice-versa, and hence, because the only people reading books by, or for, women are female, such writing becomes ghettoized. Bizarrely, the best thing you can do for women is to ignore the girls, and work on convincing boys like me that it’s OK to read The Secret Garden. Or at least trick us into reading Ramona with books about motorbikes.