Last week I finished reading the last Ramona Quimby book to my kids. We spent six months working through all eight books, reading a chapter nearly every night we spent together at my house.
My son is six years old now, and nearly a year ago we started venturing into chapter books. We tried this and that, had failures (The Indian in the Cupboard) and successes (Stuart Little) but every time we finished a book it was a struggle to find something new that wasn’t too hard but would keep his interest. He is a first grader and my daughter is a preschooler, most of the books I remember for elementary school kids are about (and meant for) 4th and 5th graders. I ended up with Beezus and Ramona because I remembered that Ramona was still little in the first book and thought maybe it would be a better fit.
It was. As Ramona went from preschooler to 4th grader, we followed along the whole way. It’s one of the best things I’ve ever done with my kids even if I had my doubts plenty of times. Reading a chapter book aloud to small children makes you wonder if they are even paying attention or if they understand anything at all. It can feel frustrating that you can’t get to the big, exciting middle grade books. But I kept reading to them, despite my reservations, every now and then asking them questions to see if they remembered what had happened in the last chapter.
I remembered Ramona as the annoying little sister, precocious verging on obnoxious. And that’s not far off for the first couple of books. But I saw her with totally new eyes now that I have young kids myself. They were rapt as I read about Ramona doing the same kinds of things they do every day. With each new book my son would try and guess what grade Ramona would be in. The book set in 1st grade was probably his favorite. After years of picture books about animals and make-believe, books about real life are amazing adventures to them. Ramona’s worries made me think about my kids and how they view the world and how they look at me.
I remembered a few things along the way from when I read the books decades ago: Howie from down the street, Beezus’ disastrous haircut, the Christmas pageant, Ramona’s Q drawn with whiskers. What I didn’t remember was how the books are about not just Ramona, but the Quimby family and how their struggles affect a child.
Ramona’s mother takes on a new part-time job in one book. In another, Ramona’s father loses his job and the whole family scrimps to get by. In the next book, her father gets a job but hates it. He goes back to school to become a teacher, but doesn’t get the kind of position he wanted and has to abandon the plan when Mrs. Quimby gets pregnant again. The story of their financial ups and downs plays out slowly, year after year, in book after book. I didn’t remember any of this from my reading as a kid. As a single parent, I often tell my kids they can’t have things. I’ve given them hand-me-downs and we’ve lived on carefully-planned leftovers. I didn’t remember that Ramona and Beezus had been through the same thing.
At the end of one book, the family splurges on dinner at Whopperburger and is surprised when an old man watching them pays for their meal. I don’t think Ramona realized just how much that meant to her parents. My kids didn’t seem to bat an eye. But I had to read as steadily as possible to try not to draw attention to the tears that poured down my face. I knew just what the Quimby parents felt in that moment. (It was not the only time I cried reading these books.)
The Ramona series began in 1955 (most were written in the ’70s and ’80s). I didn’t start these books thinking they would be relevant to us. Instead, I worried that they’d be too much of a throwback, too picture perfect, too Norman Rockwell. Sure, there’s a lot of skirts and saddle shoes in the early books, but at their heart they’re stories about family and what it’s like to be just one small person in a family that’s doing their best to keep everyone happy and afloat. It reminded me as a parent how little control my kids may feel over our lives, and how much they are capable of. Ramona watches her whole world change over and over again. She’s given responsibility even if she’s not quite ready for it all the time, because her family needs her. She spends a while staying at Howie’s house after school with his awful grandmother, and Ramona hates it, but she knows her whole family’s careful plan to get through each day will fall apart if she doesn’t.
I expected happy-go-lucky and that wasn’t what I got at all. Instead I saw a family that was different from mine, but alike in ways I never could have anticipated.
I hope our journey with Ramona was magical for my kids. I hope it’s something they’ll remember. It definitely was for me.