Most bookish women I know lay alms at the altar of Judy Blume, with good reason. I too love Judy. I learned a lot from her, and as everyone knows I am more prone to quote Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing than, say, Shakespeare.
But Judy was not my first love. My first real book love was Beverly Cleary. In first grade, our school librarian Miss Heck (is that not the best elementary school librarian name ever?) read Henry and Ribsy out loud to us. It was a monumental event, because when she was finished reading that book we could check out the “grown up” books. At least we thought they were grown up books because they had chapters. Until that point, we were relegated to kid books, which were housed in the bottom two shelves closest to the floor.
While I loved Babar and Mike Mulligan’s Steam Shovel, I longed for a big, fat book. Once the chapter books were unleashed, I eagerly plucked Ramona the Pest from the shelf. It was love at first read.
I couldn’t have been more than seven or eight, but I still remember sitting on the couch reading this book. Now, nearly thirty years later, when I see someone with boing-boing curls, much like Ramona, I long to pull them in hope they will spring back and bounce like a spring.
What I loved so much about Cleary’s books was that she seemed to wholly understand the sister relationship. The love and hate of it, and how a younger sister could drive you totally insane, get you into trouble, and it so wasn’t fair. Ever. At the time, I didn’t know a lot of girls my age with younger sisters, and my best friend Jenni didn’t even have a sister.
I was pretty sure that nobody could understand. But then there was Beezus and Ramona. Even though Ramona was the star of the show, it was studious, beleaguered Beezus who stole my heart. Beezus was the bomb, and Ramona really was a pest.
April 12th is Beverly Clearly’s 96th birthday, and I just wanted to give thanks.
A few years ago, I re-read Beezus and Ramona and found myself reduced to tears. In the book, bratty, bratty Ramona has ruined not one but two of Beezus’ birthday cakes. Beezus is bereft, sure her birthday will be cakeless and ruined thanks to the pest.
But then Aunt Beatrice arrives — Aunt Beatrice of the cool car and the fun career and the awesome gifts. Aunt Beatrice is the recipient of Beezus’ unconditional love. Unlike Mother who is distracted, Father who is mostly absent, and Ramona who is obnoxious, Aunt Beatrice is the embodiment of adult sophistication and understanding. Aunt Beatrice saves the day with a beautiful store-bought cake. Aunt Beatrice gives Beezus a beautiful sewing box.
It was right around the opening of the sewing box that I lost it. See, I had recently bought my own beloved niece, the niece who longs to be a fashion designer, a beautiful sewing box as a gift.
I cried because as a childless woman, my niece and nephews mean the entire world to me. I cried because sometimes being the spinster aunt, I forget the role I am playing in their life. I cried because thirty years after I first read Beverly Clearly and she taught me about sisters, I was learning something wholly new.
Thank you, Beverly Cleary. While Judy Blume taught me a lot about life, you were the first person to show me how books can mirror real life and what a pleasure that can be. It was through Beezus and Ramona that I first discovered I am not alone and that has been a comfort throughout my life.