An open letter to Beverly Cleary: Thanks for making me a better mom
Beverly Cleary didn’t write parenting manuals, but I learned a lot about being a mom from her. Yes, really.
I don’t know when my love of reading began, but I’ve been a bookworm as far back as I can remember. Some of my favorite childhood books were written by Beverly Cleary, most famous for writing the Beezus and Ramona books, stories about a girl and her sister navigating friendships, family and everyday life.
Beatrice (aka Beezus) was the slightly uptight older sister, and Ramona was the naughty (albeit always well-meaning) younger sister. I first discovered Ramona when she was about 4 and I was about 9. I liked the stories for reasons any kid likes a story, I suppose. It was fun to read, and they held my attention. The characters were like me. Relatable, real and just a little bit messy.
Cleary’s books feature Ramona as she goes through the early elementary years. She’s a little bratty, but not in an obnoxious way. She gets into stuff and makes messes. She sasses. She gets in trouble and falls out of favor with her friends, family and teachers, often resulting in what Ramona dubs a “great big noisy fit.” Most of her escapades are harmless. She pulls her classmate’s hair because the curls remind her of springs, and she just can’t keep her hands to herself.
She colors Chevrolet’s hair with some sort of old lady rinse aid till it turns green. Chevrolet is Ramona’s doll, by the way. The doll is, of course, named after her aunt’s car. We laugh because this makes perfect sense to a 4-year-old.
I reread most of Beverly Cleary’s books when I was a teenager and again as a young adult… probably out of a sense of nostalgia. A good story just kind of takes you back and helps you more fully enjoy memories of another time, right?
Ramona is part of my growing up, and reading my stash of Beverly Cleary books will always be like catching up with an old friend, but I didn’t realize how big of an impression she was to have on me until I had a daughter of my own.
My daughter Laura was born in 1992, and by the time her fourth birthday rolled around, the Disney Princess movement was firmly underway. All little girl paraphernalia seemed to be covered in glitter and trimmed with ruffles. Even though the world was rolling toward gender equality — after all, the Spice Girls were singing loud and proud about girl power and positivity — we still expected little girls to be… well, girlie. Demure. Sweet.
Much of the time my daughter was girlie and sweet. Demure was never a word that applied to her, and that’s OK. But sometimes the things she did and said were truly baffling:
Cutting the cat’s hair with her little safety scissors. Reason? He wasn’t feeling well, and a haircut would make him better. Right.
Drawing a mural on my bathroom cabinets — with eyeliner — and blaming it on the babysitter.
Hiding under her bed and refusing to come out because I told her she couldn’t take her Giga Pet to school. She told me I was “just like Cruella de Vil” and that the death of said Giga Pet would be “my fault forever.” I have no idea where she gets that dramatic behavior from. Ahem. I actually ended up taking the Giga Pet to work with me because I felt guilty. The damn thing still died.
And then it all came together for me on her fifth Christmas.
My pretty (if a little rumpled) princess sat on mall Santa’s lap and told him she wanted snot babies for Christmas. Mall Santa threw me a confused glance. I gave a discreet thumbs-up. The snot babies were actually called Take Care of Me Twins and had some kind of gizmo where you filled their little plastic heads with water, and it bubbled out their little plastic noses. So realistic. So gross. But my daughter wanted her snot babies in the very worst way and insisted they be referred to as the snot babies. Because that’s what they were.
I watched my daughter sitting on mall Santa’s lap as she prattled on about the other stuff on her Christmas list. I took note of a smudge on her smocked dress, which had been pristine when I’d put her in the car, and how one little droopy sock didn’t match the other little sock. Instead of thinking how she wasn’t picture perfect for mall Santa’s helper who was holding the camera, I thought to myself, I have a Ramona.
While I would continue to be exasperated by the things my daughter said and did, when I stopped trying to mentally put her into the pretty-little-princess mold and realized that she marched to her own drumbeat, I think I understood her a little better, even though we continued to butt heads throughout her growing years. We still do. But she’s her own person, and I’ve long since stopped trying to wish her to be anything but.
Santa brought my daughter her snot babies. She was enthralled with them for a whopping two days. I'm sure they were added to the Goodwill bag within a year. She later got a rag doll that she named Cotton Candy for no reason that made sense to anyone except her. I know exactly where Cotton Candy is right now. I always have a chuckle, and I think of the doll named Chevrolet.
Yes, I have a Ramona.
I know Ramona is a fictional character, but I like to think Beverly Cleary had an impish, slightly bullheaded little girl in her life too and shared her with the world through her books.
Through a character in a children’s book, I learned that life isn’t perfect, and neither are the people we love. And that’s OK.
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