Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Soul of a Reader, With a Side of Lemon Butter

Lord Peter Wimsey said, "Books...are like lobster shells. We surround ourselves with 'em, then we grow out of 'em and leave 'em behind, as evidence of our earlier stages of development." I couldn't have said it better than Dorothy Sayers's perspicacious English sleuth in "The Unpleasantness at the Bellonna Club."

Reading is one of my favorite activities. Growing up, I especially enjoyed the Ramona books by Beverly Cleary, which feature the Quimby family: Ramona, older sister Beatrice (affectionately nicknamed Beezus); mother, father, and the family cat, Picky-picky. There is nothing special about this fictional family; nothing particularly funny or strange. They don't live at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel, or homestead the great western frontier. The Quimby's live in a quiet, residential Portland neighborhood.

Their ordinariness was perhaps what was most endearing. I identified with Ramona, a seemingly mischievous and annoying child. Time after time, she proved to have perfectly good reasons for behaving the way she did. These reasons were often best understood by children, as adults found them trifles. There was the time in first grade when Ramona's class made owls out of paper bags, decorated them in any way they wished. Ramona noticed that her neighboring classmate, Susan, had copied Ramona's work. What was worse, Susan's owl was held up as an example for the class to admire and praise when Susan was nothing but a copycat! Ramona was furious, because now that everyone had seen Susan's owl, they would think Ramona had copied Susan. Her teacher doesn't see the cause of Ramona's frustration, and injustice ensues. Beverly Cleary has the ability to portray childish indignation without disdain.

Lest it sound overstated, this is not Greek tragedy. Nonetheless, my nine-year-old self found the storytelling memorably engaging. Ramona could be sassy in the face of authority in a way that I dared not be. She is frustrated by her inability to articulate her position to the adults in her life. I understood that frustration. I can't count how many of our experiences were similar. Ramona was misunderstood, and really, who isn't?

Beverly Cleary and I have parallel lives, except, in the reverse and then several decades apart. She lived in Yamhill, a small community in the foothills of the coast range, until the age of six. At this time, the family moved to Portland. Their Yamhill Victorian home is still a private residence on the edge of town. The parallel - in reverse - is that I was born in Portland and lived there until the age of six, when my family moved to Yamhill.

This proximity to the real life of a beloved author turned the process of reading books — which were already enjoyable — into something meaningful and deeply personal. It was as though I, alone, was privy to secret information. I knew the Quimby's were named after a street in Portland! I recognized the Marquam Bridge which was mentioned in the story about taking the girls for a professional haircut! My parents were good people, but like every parent they didn't always understand me. It felt good to know someone else knew this particular brand of loneliness.

My mom took me to meet Beverly Cleary when I was eleven. She was speaking at an engagement at the library. I was so excited, with no idea what to say. I vaguely remember I managed to say something about "liking your books" and then smiling and wishing I could be more articulate. Rather, I wish I had been able to express how much her books meant to me. Reading about Ramona made me feel like someone understood my youthful plight. I would have liked to discuss the many ways in which our lives were similar. Even though I wasn't able to communicate all that I wished to Mrs. Cleary that day, I was fortunate to have grown up in her shadow with her wonderful books at the beginning of my reading journey.

Lord Peter Wimsey — or, Dorothy Sayers — has it right. The books one reads as a child do linger, even as one grows and leaves behind beloved chapter books in favor of English mysteries and the . Look around; the shells of books past are there.

Reprinted with permission from the Redmond Spokesman, December 12, 2007.

1 comment:

Carrie said...

My mom grew up in Portland in a neighborhood close to where the books were set and she always told me that she recognized some of the landmarks that were in the Ramona books. I grew up across the river in Vancouver, WA, so I could identify with some of the more major landmarks.

They are great books, arent they? I still have the urge to pull on the curls of my friends with ringlet hair, all thanks to the Ramona books :)