SPRINGFIELD — I was in the third grade sitting on the sofa, reading a book with my grandparents when my grandma glanced out the window and gasped.
The horse in our pasture had given birth to a foal. The problem was no one knew she was pregnant.
Moments later we stood in the grass gawking at the newborn filly, wondering where and when the mare encountered a stallion and what on earth we ought to name this little horse.
I glanced at the novel in my hand, “Ramona the Brave” and said, “Let’s call her ‘Ramona.’”
Beverly Cleary, the author of “Ramona the Brave,” and 39 other books, died last week just two weeks shy of 105.
She revolutionized children’s literature.
“Before Beverly Cleary, children were portrayed as very proper. Beverly Cleary changed that. The kids in her books could be messy and would fuss. She never denigrated any of her characters, but she didn’t portray them as perfect either,” said Michelle H. Martin, a University of Washington professor specializing in children’s literature.
Nikki Kalantzis said she was nicknamed “Ramona” as a child because of the Cleary books.
“I’m 33 and my Dad still calls me ‘Ramona.’ It was so great reading a book with a character who was like me: a tomboy who wore overalls, annoyed her sister and got into trouble. And now, I have a 3-year-old of my own and I’m reading those books to him, said Kalantzis, a Chicago yoga instructor.
The misadventures in Cleary’s books are ordinary problems.
“My favorite story was when Ramona saw her family had bought a bunch of apples and to find out which one tasted the best she took a bite out of each one. The family’s response was, ‘Oh well, we’ll just make apple sauce.’”
I could identify with Ramona as well. She was the kindergartener who struggled to write her name. When her teacher told her to put a cat’s tail on the letter “O” to form the “Q” in her last name of “Quimby,” Ramona liked the tail so much that she gave the letter cat ears and whiskers, too.
The teacher was not impressed.
I suspect I was a bit like Ramona growing up — always pushing the boundaries with the adults around me and wanting to know: why?
As I’ve mentioned in the past, I’m dyslexic. So, school was often a struggle for me. Too often teachers hold children with learning differences in contempt. They can’t quite understand why some youngsters don’t respond in the same ways as “typical” children.
I certainly felt that educator disdain when I was in the third grade. That’s also when I began reading Cleary’s books with the adults in my life. I could relate to the Ramonas of the world because I was one.
Cleary wrote her first book in 1950 when a little boy came into the library, where she worked, and demanded books “about kids like us.”
Her first book was about Henry Huggins, a fictional boy who saved for a new football by collecting worms and selling them to fishermen for a penny a piece. (It was the sort of entrepreneurial activity I could easily see my father suggesting for me.)
Politically charged terms like “cancel culture” are often bandied about these days regarding older texts. But that hasn’t been the case with Cleary’s works.
They remain popular — and delightfully dated.
In the books, Ramona and her sister still walk six blocks unchaperoned to the park. Henry Huggins goes to the butcher to buy horse meat for his dog. And no, there isn’t a cell phone or video game in sight.
But the challenges faced by families aren’t all that different. For example, when Ramona’s mother took a fulltime job, becoming the family’s sole breadwinner, she didn’t have time to sew her daughter’s Christmas pageant costume. So, Ramona showed up in pajamas.
It’s a tale most any working parent can relate to.
When dealing with a child such as Ramona, you just don’t know what to expect.
So what better name to give a horse no one anticipated, than Ramona?