Brow Beat

The Real Ramona

How Beverly Cleary transformed her harsh, difficult childhood into heartwarming fiction.

Beverly Cleary and the cover of Ramona the Pest.
Beverly Cleary, pictured at the White House in 2003, turns 103 on Friday. Photo illustration by Slate. Images by Tim Sloan/AFP/Getty Images and Dell Yearling.

Beverly Cleary’s childhood memoir, A Girl From Yamhill, opens with her earliest memory: a day that her mother dragged her by the hand through the streets while church bells rang, telling then-2-year-old Beverly that she must “never, never forget this day.” Vanishingly few people on earth still remember the day that World War I ended, but Cleary, who turns 103 on Friday, is one of them. She is famous for her children’s books, and probably most famous for the protagonist of many of them, Ramona Quimby, an irrepressible little girl who hates arbitrary rules and condescension from grown-ups. Many have noted Cleary’s ability to take episodes from her childhood and bring them to life in her fiction. But to read A Girl From Yamhill, which was published in 1988, is to see that the line between Ramona’s childhood and Beverly’s isn’t a straight one. While many novelists reimagine their own history to heighten the emotion or exaggerate the events, the Ramona books soften the hard edges of Cleary’s real childhood.

I read A Girl From Yamhill for the first time when I was about 10, when I had already read—and felt too old for—all the Ramona books but hadn’t yet found the Sweet Valley High series that would occupy me for the rest of middle school. I read the whole memoir in one sitting, on a rainy afternoon, and felt the electrifying feeling that I was reading something very different—darker, more adult—than what I had read in the Ramona books. Plenty of the similarities were obvious, and cute: Young Beverly, like young Ramona, heard the words in the Star-Spangled Banner “dawnzer lee light,” and both ran around the neighborhood on tin-can stilts. But the first time I caught my breath in surprise was at the memoir’s description of a time that a third-grade teacher called the young Beverly a “nuisance”—an episode that I recognized from Ramona Quimby, Age 8. In the Ramona book, though, it was all a misunderstanding, quickly fixed:

“Why, Ramona, I can recall saying something about my little show-off, but I meant it affectionately, and I’m sure I never called you a nuisance.”

“Yes, you did,” insisted Ramona. “You said I was a show-off, and then you said, ‘What a nuisance.’ ” Ramona could never forget those exact words.

Mrs. Whaley, who had looked worried, smiled in relief. “Oh, Ramona, you misunderstood,” she said. “I meant that trying to wash egg out of your hair was a nuisance for Mrs. Larson. I didn’t mean that you personally were a nuisance.”   

In A Girl From Yamhill, though, there is no cheerful reconciliation and no ambiguity in the teacher’s meaning. Beverly asks her teacher about getting a part in a dance that the girls are doing for the PTA (she’s been excluded for being “too short”). Her teacher sets her hand on Beverly’s shoulder and talks over her like she’s not there: “This one,” she says, “is a nuisance.” Cleary writes: “I stared at her in pain, while she looked amused before I turned and fled. … A nuisance, a nuisance—the word tormented me.”

In Ramona the Pest, Ramona misunderstands a comment from her teacher and thinks that she “could never go back to kindergarten because Miss Binney did not love her anymore.” She stays home for a few days, finds herself extremely bored by life without school, and receives a letter from her teacher asking her to come back, which she gladly does. The memoir tells the awful story of the real Beverly’s first schoolteacher, a woman who clearly disliked not only Beverly but all her students and seemed only to take enjoyment from whipping children’s palms with a “metal-tipped bamboo pointer.” Beverly experienced every day of this school as “a day of fear.” Midway through the year, she comes down with smallpox. “Even a fever and itching scabs,” she writes, “were better than a day in Miss Falb’s classroom.” Both books capture a child’s deep desire to be accepted by her teacher, but the particulars in the memoir are significantly more brutal—and the acceptance never comes.

Most heartbreaking of all is comparing the way Cleary writes about parents in her books. In the memoir, she is about 12 when the stock market crashes, and her real-life father loses his job. Upon getting the news:

I sat filled with anguish, unable to read, unable to do anything. When Dad finally emerged from the bedroom, I felt so awkward I did not know what to say or even how to look at him. To pretend nothing had happened seemed wrong, but seeing him so defeated and ashamed of defeat, even though he was not to blame, was so painful that I could not speak.

Unemployment is grinding, turning her father “depressed and irritable.” He flies into a rage when his wife asks him if he wants potato soup for dinner and later slaps the teenage Beverly across her face when she back-talks her mother. Ramona’s father also loses his job and, likewise, is depressed, though that word is, of course, not used—in Ramona and Her Father he is “sitting on the couch, smoking and staring into space.” Ramona, upon learning of the news, feels “sad and somehow lonely, as if she were left out of something important, because her family was in trouble and there was nothing she could do to help.” But it would be unthinkable in those books for him to raise his voice to the mother or a hand to his children. Likewise, the memoir describes Cleary’s real-life mother in a breathless, wide-ranging list: “small, pert, vivacious, talkative, fun-loving, excitable, easily fatigued, depressed, discouraged, determined.” Mrs. Quimby could be described as a much shorter list: sometimes exasperated, always steady. It is impossible to imagine Mrs. Quimby saying to Ramona, “You know, you are the type that will fade quickly,” as her real mother did to her teenage daughter.

Cleary has, of course, been asked if she was like Ramona as a child, and she has answered that she “thought like her” but was much better behaved. Her memoir bears that out. She writes about the adults unflinchingly, but with sympathy, though they are, in her telling, so broken by their circumstances and poverty that they are often petty and cruel to children. In the world of Ramona, the children can be more “badly behaved” because the adults are stronger, steadier, better than their real-life counterparts; the children in Cleary’s fiction do not live in fear of being called names or beaten.

Cleary has also averred that Ramona is somewhat misunderstood: “It’s not that she’s naughty,” she has said. “It’s that things just didn’t work out the way she thought they should.” Like Ramona, Beverly Cleary believes things should have gone differently. Her books are touching looks at the childhood she might have had, should have had, in a better, kinder world.

The cover of A Girl From Yamhill.