Reading with Ramona

When I wrote a post here on April 12 to mark the occasion of Beverly Cleary's 100th birthday, I had already filed the column that has just been published in our Spring Books issue ("Ramona the Real"). I mention that because anyone who read the comments on that blog post, which were largely about how contemporary children respond to Cleary's books about Ramona Quimby, might assume my column was inspired by them. It was a happy coincidence -- and evidence that the intensity of my kid's identification with Ramona is far from unique. Though I haven't read or watched Game of Thrones, I've watched friends react to it online, and to say, as Abe R. did, that "the scene where Ramona tears up the owls is basically my 5 year-old's Red Wedding" is both funny and exactly right -- the shock of it all! The carnage! The desolation and despair! My not-quite-five-year-old was climbing the couch cushions with his hands clapped over his ears as I read that chapter of Ramona the Brave.

"Feisty, imaginative Ramona is Cleary’s crowning achievement and the reason she will be revered for generations to come," Ruth Graham writes in an essay at Slate's Book Review. She goes on to sing the praises of some books I haven't read, Cleary's "unjustly forgotten teen novels," and her take makes me want to read those next (probably without my son at my side).

At Christianity Today, D.L. Mayfield writes about reading the Ramona books in Cleary's own town of Portland, Oregon, with his five-year-old daughter named Ramona. Now that's a fan.

I didn't intend for my column in Commonweal to dwell so often on reading with my kids (see here, and also here). But it's something I spend a lot of time doing, and it's been fascinating at every stage to experience books I think I know well through their eyes, and to see the world as they do thanks to those books. We have left Ramona behind for now -- after we followed her through first grade, I decided my rising kindergartener needed a few years to catch up with what comes next. But we are still reading together, a chapter at a time, in the afternoons while his two little brothers take their naps. Now we're working through Eleanor Estes's books about the Moffats, which are written with a similarly keen understanding of how children look at the world and what they think is important. The experience is less stressful for my son -- Rufus, the youngest Moffat and the one with whom he most closely identifies, is as independent and impulsive as Ramona, and even more alarmingly unsupervised, but his escapades generally turn out just fine. For example, both Ramona (in Beezus and Ramona) and Rufus (in Rufus M.) try and fail to get library cards of their own -- believing, falsely, that they know how to write their names. But where Ramona refuses to be corrected and ends up (spoiler alert!) scribbling her "signature" all over her sister's library book so that she can keep it for herself, Rufus buckles down and spends all afternoon learning to write, and back at home his mother praises his accomplishment without asking how it came about. Cleary focuses on the embarrassment the situation causes for Beezus, Ramona's big sister; Estes has Rufus going alone to the library because the rest of his siblings are too wrapped up in their books to pay any attention to him. The Moffats books also have a more "historical" feel than even the oldest of Cleary's, having been published in the 1940s and set a generation earlier. But if the outer trappings of World-War-I-era life are unfamiliar, the children's inner lives, their emotions and logic, are completely relatable. Reading those books aloud makes me appreciate how Estes adopts a child's perspective even in her storytelling style and pace, repeating herself and dwelling on details that would seem insignificant to adults. She knew that kids would know just why they mattered. They are funny, too, and often Marty has surprised me by laughing at a situation I would have thought he'd be too young to see the humor in.

But enough about us. I want to hear more from you all about reading with your kids, or any kids. What have you enjoyed? What did you learn? What should I look for next?

Mollie Wilson O'Reilly is an editor at large and columnist at Commonweal.

Please email comments to letters@commonwealmagazine.org and join the conversation on our Facebook page.

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