Ramona, Relatability, and Serendipity

This is my last post about Ramona, I swear. Unless I write another one.

One of my favorite people on Twitter is (National Book Award finalist!) Elizabeth McCracken. It turns out she is also a fan of Beverly Cleary, as many of our generation are. I feel like this tweet succinctly says it all:

She further explains that she is approximately the same age as Ramona and went to Kindergarten in Portland. (Of course the age of Ramona depends on what book you work from, since they span from the 1950s to the 1990s, but the heart of the series was published in the late 60s and early 70s.)

McCracken’s tweet gets at what I think is a basic aspect of children’s books, and one that is surprisingly contentious — the idea of “relatability.” Some editors, authors, and reviewers (etc.) bristle at the very word. Maybe we’re working from different definitions or assumptions, but I think of relatability as being that emotional connection between character and reader that makes their experiences blur.

Henry and RamonaIt’s certainly a problem if “relatability” is taken at a surface level, to assume boys can’t read about girls, that white students won’t be interested in non-white children. But I think the idea of relatability as the opposite of that. I think of it as the ability to make characters familiar to readers despite their differences. There have been some articles lately about emotional intelligence and empathy being enhanced by reading; I know that to be true, and “relatability” (or whatever you want to call it) is how it happens. You enter a character’s life through the familiar, and come to appreciate and understand the unfamiliar. It’s probably the most important thing fiction does.

Ramona, the quintessential relatable children’s book hero, was originally created as a foil to Henry Huggins. She begins as a brat, a spoiled, selfish, demanding kid sister, and isn’t meant to do anything more than complicate Henry’s schemes. Absent any super-villains or cardboard bullies, she is the closest thing to a “bad guy,” in those books, but the best moments in Henry Huggins’ series are definitely those with Ramona in them… and she must have been a fan favorite, because she’s really the most important secondary character in the series. (Sorry, Ribsy.)

Ramona was so popular, Cleary was pressured to write a book from her point of view — which she had already been considering, apparently. But here she had a challenge — she had a character who was unreasonable and obnoxious, and had to make her “relatable.” Cleary did so by recalling, and documenting, the uncontrollable moods of small children, the impulses and madness, with such precision that any child will find it familiar. The same kinds of scenes that disgust us through Henry’s eyes, become funny and poignant and painful through Ramona’s. Instead of the schemes that drive Henry Huggins, Cleary found it quite enough to watch Ramona weather the storms of her own feelings. The books are a damned near miracle, they are so honest and real, and they would have never been that way if Cleary set out to create a relatable character. She painted herself into a corner, punched a hole in the wall, and built something better than the original room.

There’s much a writer can learn from this. The first, for me, is that Cleary’s greatest character did not emerge from creating a sympathetic, “relatable” hero, but by taking a grubby, insolent brat who was invented with the sole purpose of ruining everything. This pushed Cleary into creating a deeper, more memorable series than the affable but less poignant Henry Huggins books. So as an exercise, I think any writer might take up the same challenge. Begin by thinking of your hero as a foil — not a scheming villain, but someone who ruins things for other people. See where it takes you.

The second is that relatability does not rest on likability. It relies on familiarity and emotional honesty.

The third is that the demands of the public and your publisher, though they may be commercial decisions, are not always wrong.

On Spunky Girls

Ramona in rabbit earsGirls who have the audacity to be the heroes of books are likely to be labelled, or at least scrutinized, in two ways. In chapter books or middle-grade books, they will inevitably be described as “spunky,”and “feisty.” Those really are the two favorite words in the English language for describing the elementary-school protagonist. It is usually meant to flatter the hero and the book’s author, but it can also be used disparagingly. “Look,” a critic may say, presumably while rolling his eyes upward, “yet another girl child with personality.”

Spunky just means “courageous and determined,” while feisty means “lively, determined, and courageous.” And of course any book strong enough to get published will have a hero, you know, doing things and driving their own story line, and books for younger readers are likely to be bright and energetic, so there’s really no way to have a girl anchor a children’s book while being whatever the opposite of spunky and feisty is. Timid and passive? She’s going to have some moxie, is all, like any other character at the heart of a book, but other characters (except perhaps mice and the very old) will rarely be described using those two condescending words. They’ll be called courageous, or determined, or bold.

I would say a critical lens is narrowed by those two words. Once you’ve decided a girl hero is “spunky,” she becomes “yet another spunky heroine,” and you won’t see her in any other way. For example, Ramona, who inevitably bunny hops into any discussion of spunky, feisty heroines, is not especially “courageous” and in fact is often anxious about things, worried what others think of her, and unsure of herself. She is bright, curious, and inventive. She is occasionally brash. Neither spunky or feisty would be the adjectives that first come to mind, if I didn’t already have the idea in my head that she was a classic example of (even the reason for) a particular trend in children’s books.

I could take a sideways swipe here at the equally foolish trope of “strong girl heroines,” which I think means “has super powers, and/or a crossbow.” It’s another narrow lens. Many of the best girl protagonists from my childhood — Ramona, Harriet, Turtle, Fern — are not especially “strong,” but they are smart, resourceful, thoughtful, and perfectly good role models.  They are sometimes brave and sometimes vulnerable. They are human and complicated. I never needed any of them to be “strong” to care about them.

Just let these girls exist in their stories and accept them on their own terms. It’s all any kid really wants.


It is my favorite…

I saw this on Twitter yesterday:

I don’t know what book the child read, but can any writer hope for a higher honor?

A realization

There’s a saying that is applied sometimes to writers: The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing. Some writers are always exploring new territory, and others keep to their small bit of ground and find endless wealth there. I have said, when this comes up (it does, it does), that I must be a fox, since I’ve written about baseball and snakes and robots and mushrooms, but I say so uneasily, feeling that I am really a hedgehog and that my own favorite writers are also hedgehogs. I have always felt affinity for the spiny little bug-eaters, and moreover, I feel like I am that sort of writer, but haven’t realized what my One Big Thing is. I feel, too, that there is something I’ve been trying to get at in my books and that the plot is almost a distraction, and that my One Big Thing had something to do with family or feelings or coming of age.


It was much on my mind since reading the Henry Huggins and Ramona Quimby books, and thinking about how Beverly Cleary knew her One Big Thing from the first chapter of her first book, when Henry finds a dog and wants to keep it. The discussion with his mother is about whether Henry is old enough to take care of a pet — he insists that he is, and sets up the entire series and its sequel series: they’re about kids who want to grow up, and  the glorious, terrible journey of growing up itself. It’s at the heart of every book. The kids are aching to be bigger, and Cleary lets that single theme guide her through fifteen books, as well as the non-Klickitat Street books with human characters. One thing I was left with after reading those books was admiration for Saint Beverly of Yamhill for knowing her purpose so well from the get go, for having such a noble one, and for being so faithful to it. Perhaps the only writer who cultivated less ground for as rich a career is Bill Watterson.

But I, like Shel Silverstein’s Pacman-shaped hero, was in search of my missing piece.

Yesterday at the playground my son ran off to the water fountain to fill a gatorade bottle he’d found with water; he wanted to make mud pies. He sprinted on ahead of me and reached the fountain, couldn’t reach to fill the bottle, and was helped by an older boy, maybe 9 or 10 years old. It was terrific, how naturally this kid helped a littler kid, and it killed me to see it. He must be a big brother, I thought.

And I realized right then, that’s what it is. That’s my one big thing. I want kids to be good to each other. I feel like kids need to look out for each other, that the adults can’t be trusted. The great sadness of childhood is that kids spend their energy harming one another instead of helping; the greatest joys of childhood come from kindness. It’s not a moral lesson, it’s a life lesson. It’s not how to be good, it’s how to be happy. Be good to each other.

My favorite scenes in my books are kids being kind to other kids (usually siblings). It tears me up when I see it done nicely in other books. Ten books into my career, several more in drafts of varying state of completion, and I can see how each one has, at its heart, kids caring…. for adults, for animals, but mostly other kids (especially siblings). I also see how some of the unpublished ones, the parts I can’t let go of, are of the same cloth. The manuscripts I can let go of, don’t have that.

Now I know what I want to talk about when I go on school visits, and how to answer the question: why do you write?

On Metrics, Success, and Making the Internet Smarter

Luis von Ahn invented a language-learning program called Duolingo that plays like a game, and is free. It doesn’t even have ads. It is wildly successful and…

Wait. I said it is wildly successful. Is it?

Well, it certainly is! You might be thinking. It gets millions of visitors a day! But if we revisit the early part of the first paragraph we will recall that the goal of the program is to teach languages, not to get site visits. Is Duolingo successful at its own purported goals? Is it living up to its own ostensible mission?

While Duolingo certainly exposes learners to a foreign language, it is also clearly deficient in many ways, particularly in the speaking and listening areas. Other problems are brought up on the discussion boards. They haven’t invested much in evaluation of their product using experimental design (e.g., one study showed that people using Duolingo did well on placement tests, but there was no control group). What Duolingo calls immersion is really translation, because the whole model is to crowd-source a translation service. Despite these problems, Luis von Ahn is now frequently cited as an expert on language learning, or as an expert on online learning.

I have no problem with the guy, and I use Duolingo myself (I have a 200+ day streak in Spanish), but this is a good example of a trend to use the wrong metrics for things. We measure success of software that teaches foreign languages by how many visitors it attracts, and the fact that it puts learners to work instead of charging money. Writers become experts on writing because of book sales, even as we acknowledge that a lot of the best-selling books are not exemplars of literary craftsmanship. Reality TV stars get $30,000 speaking fees at universities, and former models get to be experts on pediatric medicine.

I’ve been interested in the preoccupation with the idea of “success” for a long time, but it’s probably too ingrained into the culture to change anybody’s mind. We will still continue to describe thrice-divorced, occasionally arrested, drug-abusing, child-estranged millionaire celebrities as successful while ignoring the wisdom of the happiest, most centered people we know (maybe a teacher, pastor, or neighbor with a garden), at least until they have the good sense to make a viral video and get on the Today Show.

Education is certainly suffering from wrong-metric-thinking, but even more is the realm of public discourse. The “success” of an article is measured by links and comments, and links and comments are bred by outrage, not by thoughtfulness. While people active on social media certainly post the occasional “nice article” link, these seem never to get get shared on by their friends and followers the way “can you believe this nonsense?” type links do. If a piece raises the hackles, it immediately explodes on social media, gets hundreds comments, and probably millions of views. And that’s the metric the publisher of the piece values, so it is likely that instead of feeling chastened by the public response, they are doing high fives and writing congratulatory emails to the authors.

This happens about once a week for me — sometimes more. In the past week I can think of at least two ridiculous pieces in the New York Times that got all the attention, ones that have gone on to a second generation of response articles, etc., which continues to raise the links and views of the articles everybody thought was terrible to begin with.

Which means — this is my point — we should realize that we control the metrics. We decide who the experts are. We can affect the direction of public discourse. We probably can’t convince any publication with ad-based revenue that links and views are bad, but we can invite our followers and friends to read and spread something smart and insightful. Imagine a world where “viral wisdom” is a thing.

Brown Girl Dreaming

Brown Girl Dreaming is a memoir in verse by Jacqueline Woodson. Like Gary Soto and Sandra Cisneros, Woodson here works in a niche of narrative poetry that is accessible to wary readers. The poems lure the reader in with their openness and brevity, and do a lot of work in a few frank lines.

In one sequence of verses, she recounts living with her grandparents in Greenville, South Carolina at the dawn of the Civil Rights Movement. Her family takes risks and makes sacrifices to support the marchers.

So there’s a war going on in South Carolina, 
and even as we play
and plant and preach and sleep, we are a part of it.

Yet her mother forbids her from playing with certain children, and reprimands her brother for using “ain’t,” and worries about children born in the north being reclaimed by the south; the fight for equality is layered with elitism within the African American community. Woodson lays it out like a documentarian, for readers to digest and discuss. As I read it, my mind buzzed with interior discussion.

Their lives are sometimes subsumed by history; other times, history is subsumed by their lives. As Jackie’s grandfather gets sick and her grandmother becomes immersed in religion, the Civil Rights movement is forgotten. Jackie resumes normal childhood concerns like ribbons and swing sets, chaffing under the demands and restrictions of her family’s religion, and grappling with jealousy of a new baby brother. The family moves to New York, back to Greenville, back to New York. Woodson writes of simple pleasures and sudden tragedies in the same matter-of-fact style.

The uniting theme in Brown Girl Dreaming is stories themselves: Stories told from parent to child, grandparent to child, child to grandparent, sibling to sibling and neighbor to neighbor. Bible stories and family legend blend into gossip and town folklore. Stories are read aloud to while away long bus trips. A school teacher captivates a class with one of my own favorite poems. The girl Jackie loves to listen, and becomes a storyteller herself before she can write.

[. . . ] each new story 
I’m told becomes a thing
that happens,
In some other way
to me. . . !

I experience this with my own pre-literature son, who is not pre-narrative. We comb through photo albums and as we tell him about our lives before him, the places we’ve been and people he knew, he spins back his own stories about them. He’s been to Milwaukee, he tells us, with his not-imaginary ant friends Biggie and Buggy and they stayed in a big hotel inside the museum that looks like a bird. He remembers marmalade-colored Maxx, the kitty who died four years before he was born. Our stories become his stories, and who’s to say he’s wrong? Perhaps our lives imprint our DNA, and pass on to our children.

Later passages describe Woodson’s love for books, the facility of telling stories and the difficulty of writing them, but of course we know by then that Woodson grows up to be a great writer indeed. This is a remarkably ego-less memoir, one that is generous to family and friends, to teachers and to history, and especially to readers. It invites readers to do what Woodson has done: to compose a poem about first memories, to write what you know of your great-grandparents, to see yourself in the grand scheme of things, to recount the stories from your faith and your favorite fables, and fashion them into a story of yourself.

In the year of the #weneeddiversebooks hashtag, I have seen no more compelling a case for that principle than Ashley Ford’s lovely tribute to Maya Angelou.

The year I read I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings, I was in the fourth grade, and I read the book from cover to cover in a near constant state of anxiety. I felt exposed, but for the first time in my life, I also felt seen, fully and without a way to cover myself. Back then, I didn’t think about the authors of what I read, just the stories they created. My books were sanctuaries. This Maya Angelou woman was inside my head, and she was telling on me.

It is hard to read Brown Girl Dreaming without thinking of that book, or thinking that this is that kind of book, one which will be around for decades and have a constant presence in classrooms around the country, and make its way into the hands of young readers who need it, and inspire them to take up writing and dreaming. It’s got a lot of award buzz, and deservedly so, but I honestly think it’s bigger than that.

On “the way I was raised”

I generally don’t write about topical events because (a) everybody else is doing it, (b) those articles age badly, and (c) it feels like exploiting tragedy for page views. And yet the story about [famous person] who took a switch to his child has been on my mind since I first heard the news. I was a fan of [famous person] and am reeling from the details, but it affects me on a deeper level than other weekly outrages.

This is what I would tell [famous person], who asserts that he was raised this way and feels obliged to do the same, to raise his kids right.

I might as well come clean and tell you all that I once swatted my son twice on the bottom after he threw a toy monster truck at his mother’s face from point-blank range. She yelped, I swept him up and gave him two raps on the hind quarters. He cried and went to his room, and his mother went to console him. They soothed each other, the two victims of sudden violence, while I fumed outside the room in exile, feeling like a monster.

I haven’t done it since, but I’ve fancied plenty of times that a spanking would bring climax and denouement to a rough evening, that it would instill a feeling of reverential fear in my child, that it is at least worth a try after everything else had failed. I don’t follow through because I don’t want to relive that aftermath, the shame of having failed my wife and my child, to feel like a fugitive in my own family.

I didn’t get that many spankings as a kid. I remember one for playing with matches, and that wasn’t the only one, but I don’t remember what provoked the others. However, my brothers and I did live in constant fear of our father’s temper. We were like villagers in the valley beneath a volcano, treading and speaking lightly, watching for signs of a pending  eruption. When our father yelled, he yelled loud and long. We would have to stand, listening, shifting our weight from one foot to the other, and maintain a look of grim shame. I had a bad habit of realizing the absurd humor of my own predicament and smirking, which would make my father double-down in his torrent of verbal abuse.

I know I am not a better person for that experience. I did “turn out OK,” as so many advocates for spanking insist they have. Every day I try to ignore the knot of shame that experience gave me. I live with the nervous fear that people will yell at me, that I will be chastised, that I will have to stand there and take it and try not to smile.

And yet I know the ease with which we become our own fathers, the quickness to which “the way I was raised” becomes a defense for our own weak moments, when we let the shame and anger and fury control us. I have totally lost my cool, harangued my son, and been egged on to more rage when he giggled or smirked at my ludicrous behavior. I know the temptation to re-invent our weakness as strategy, to frame it as “discipline,” to summon up the wraiths of the anarchists and narcissists our children will become if we spare the rod or hard words.

Humans are storytellers, and our first stories are about ourselves. We learn to boast about our scars, make bad experiences into humorous anecdotes. We forget the hurt and replace it with sentimentality, take shame and replace it with dignity. We recast our parents as tough loving saints, who blinked back tears while they took us behind the mythic toolshed. We pretend there was no anger in their actions, and that our suffering made us into better men and women.

But it does not make us better parents, no matter how much we kid ourselves. “The way we were raised,” is not a sacred obligation to raise our own children the same way. Because we “turned out OK,” putting our broken selves back together with spit and optimism, does not mean we were raised right and need to keep up the family tradition.

We tell stories about ourselves, but we get to choose what our stories are and how they will guide us. We can romanticize the past and relive it, or reimagine the future and create it.