When I was in primary school, most of the books I liked to read were those that adults classified as, well, classics. My mother loved to share her favourite childhood books with me, and I just generally liked any book where the girls wore long dresses and lived in olden times. And although I'd occasionally pick up a Roald Dahl book, those were usually off-the-wall titles that made me laugh my socks off but didn't really speak to me as a person.
I think that's why my discovery of the Ramona books was such a revelation. Perhaps 'discovery' is a rather grand way of putting it - I'm pretty sure that my mother bought me my first Ramona book at a car boot sale. But in any case, Ramona was a character that I instantly bonded with. Smart, temperamental and a little bit of a show off, she dreamed about starring in commercials one minute and stressed out about whether her teacher liked her the next. She didn't wear long dresses or go to boarding school or get her pocket money in shillings. She was a modern kid with modern problems. She was, dare I say it, a lot like me. And probably a lot like all of us.
Ramona Quimby, Age 8 is without a doubt my absolute favourite Ramona book. In it, Ramona has had to start a new school. She's thrilled to be catching the school bus every day, but not so thrilled that her new teacher seems to think she's a bit of a nuisance. Meanwhile, Ramona's family are struggling financially because her dad is studying to become a teacher, and has to work part-time in a frozen foods warehouse to make ends meet. Ramona has to go to a neighbour's house after school until her parents get in, and this means having to play nice with the neighbour's bratty little granddaughter, Willa Jean.
Rereading this book, it's really fascinating to see how Beverly Cleary has portrayed a family that's financially struggling a little and the way that the stresses related to that situation impact on their eight-year-old daughter. Don't get me wrong, the story is fun all the way, but it's just as interesting to read as an adult because Cleary has everyone's motivation so absolutely spot on. In one of my favourite chapters, Ramona and her sister Beezus have been whining when their mother serves tongue for dinner. They ate it fine before they knew it was tongue, but all of a sudden they're squeamish and complaining that they want regular meat. The Quimby parents respond by assigning the girls cooking duty the next evening - using whatever ingredients have been on special that week at the grocery store. Cue Ramona and Beezus preparing chicken cooked in yoghurt with chilli powder and cornbread made with half cream-of-wheat because they're short on cornmeal. And then discovering that cooking itself isn't easy, let alone cooking on a budget.
Another favourite chapter is where Ramona suffers the ultimate lunchroom horror. The kids at her school like to bring hardboiled eggs for lunch, and to crack them open on their own foreheads. In Mrs Quimby's haste to leave for work one morning, she accidentally gives Ramona a raw egg to take to school... which Ramona then proceeds to crack onto her head in front of her whole class. Her humiliation and indignation are truly authentic, and remind me of a time when we'd shun our peers' sympathy instead of being grateful for it. Ramona is believable and real, and Beverly Cleary's books demonstrate on every page that she knows what it's like and how it really feels to be an eight-year-old.
Verdict: If you haven't read a Ramona book, you really should. If you have, isn't a time for a reread? Whether you read it to yourself or to your own child, Ramona is wicked fun and great for lifting anyone's mood.