Monday, April 11, 2016

Beverly Cleary at 100: 5 Things I've Learned about Compelling Characters from Ramona Quimby

Tomorrow is Beverly Cleary's 100th birthday. In celebration, I'm sharing a post that first published in 2011. Three cheers for the wonderful Ms. Cleary!

I loved the Ramona books when I was a girl, but if it's possible, I love them even more as an adult. Re-reading these books has taught me a lot about writing compelling characters. Here are a few things I've learned from Ramona Quimby:

  • Make them real: Ramona feels like a real pesky kid sister; she's as familiar as our own siblings or neighbors.
  • Make them realer than real: Ramona is a bigger-than-life character, the type that does and says things beyond the regular, everyday world. Somehow, this over-the-top aspect of her character is what makes her seem most like an actual kid: the more unique and outrageous she acts, the more she reminds us of real life.
  • Make them sympathetic: It would have been easy for Beverly Cleary to create a character whose flaws made her unattractive, like good ol' Bugs Meany in the Encyclopedia Brown books (has there ever been a better mid-grade villian's name, by the way?). But those flaws are precisely why we love Ramona -- we feel for her in the midst of her problems because we see our own selves in her experiences.
  • Make them logical: Part of Ramona's appeal is the way she makes sense of the world: the time she walks to school at 25 after the hour (because she was supposed to leave her house at the quarter hour), the time she is convinced her teacher is going to give her a gift because she tells her to sit for the present. Even when she's wrong we can relate to her logic because we're seeing her world through her young eyes.
  • Show them respect: The thing that has really struck me as an adult re-visiting the Ramona books is the compassion Beverly Cleary has for her character. Though she doesn't shy away from awkward moments, there is a tenderness in the way Cleary deals with Ramona when she throws up in class, when she kicks her bedroom walls in anger, when she names her doll the most beautiful name she can think of -- Chevrolet. 
These books have reminded me what it was like to be a child. They've nudged me to be more patient with my own children. They've encouraged me to treat my characters with compassion. 

Thank you, Beverly Cleary, for creating such a memorable, remarkable character. My writing -- and living -- are better for it.

19 comments:

  1. Very cool, Caroline!! That is a great list. It's workshop material. :-)

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  2. Wow, you make some excellent points here, thanks, Caroline!

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  3. Love this -- and Beverly Cleary!

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  4. Excellent post, Caroline. I've got to reread Beverly Cleary with your comments in mind!

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  5. Chevrolet! I think that was my absolute favorite part of those books! I had dolls named Sabla and Bloobla when I was a kid. Actually, I love every part of those books. Beverly Cleary is a genius.

    Thanks for this, Caroline!
    Amy

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  6. Sabla and Bloobla. I'm in love.

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  7. You really got a lot out of these books. I don't know why I never read her books. I'll have to check them out. And look for what you mention. Thanks.

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  8. Oh, I devoured all of the Ramona books. And I was in my 30s at the time! Great post, especially the bit about making them "realer than real."

    Beverly Cleary is a national treasure.

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  9. I've never read any of Cleary's books, but since I'm always trying to develop my characters more than I tend to do (it's my main focus in my quest for improvement) I'll have to check them out. Thanks.

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  10. Ramona was my favorite series as a kid. Love those books and I love your character tips. cheers.

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  11. Mike, the books are just lovely. All of them. The Henry Huggins books have a great boy and his dog relationship that is instantly familiar to dog lovers.

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  12. I loved Ramona so much when I was a kid, because she was someone like me who made lots of trouble but still had parents who loved her through it.
    And I totally agree about the way reading the books now helps with parenting my own children. They should be required reading for mothers...

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  13. Faith, agreed! These books have been such a great example/reminder as to how to approach my boys in the midst of their very important experiences, fears, and questions.

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  14. Ellen Tebbits and Ramona were two of my favorites growing up. I too re-read them as a reminder for what it was like to be a child. Lovely post.

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    1. Thank you, Brenda. Those girls feel like old friends.

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  15. Thanks for this post, Caroline, on one of my all-time favorite children's authors! These are GREAT tips on character development!

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    1. Glad to hear this is helpful, Crystal.

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  16. What a lovely tribute! I love how you deconstructed how Cleary writes her character, Ramona.

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Thanks for adding to the mayhem!