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Ramona the Brave

Posted: 2010-07-31

The movie/book review is from The Wall Street Journal, July 30, 3010, and is smarter than most such reviews.

When I taught "difficult 7th and 8th graders," I taped Ramona the Brave so Pete, the most difficult of the difficult, could meet Ramona. Pete, a big, tough, belligerent boy, who was in school only because I'd put the truant officer onto him and he'd been told his mother would go to jail if he didn't show up at school, loved six-year-old Ramona and asked if he could take the tape home so his little brother could hear it. Pete was surprised to learn that a book could make him laugh. Out loud. And at the same time convey an important message. That's why he wanted his brother to hear it.

I've written about Pete and his classmates in Caught in the Middle: Nonstandard kids and a Killing Curriculum. When I was still speaking to the people at Education Week, I wrote a Commentary about Pete

Ramona and the Middle-Class Squeeze

The old novels about family life have more bite than a new movie.

from the Wall Street Journal

By Laura Vanderkam

A breadwinner father loses his job. Mom goes to work full time.

Stretched by bills for a broken car and a home-renovation loan, the

family fears the bank will take their house.

A tale ripped from 2010 headlines? No, it's the plot of the Ramona

Quimby series of children's books, written by Newbery Medal-winning

author Beverly Cleary, mostly between the 1950s and 1980s. Perennially

popular, these tales of the impish Ramona and her bookish sister Beezus

are back in the front of bookstores these days because of the new movie,

"Ramona and Beezus," starring Joey King and Selena Gomez.

The old Quimby novels edge out the new movie.

As movie adaptations go, this one is fairly faithful to the books (Ms.

Cleary, now in her 90s, collaborated on the project). But in sweetening

the story for today's audiences, the film's creators muted Ms. Cleary's

major selling point: her complete lack of sentimentality as she wrote

one of the best portrayals, ever, of an American family's wrenching

journey into the modern economy. As Harper Lee's Scout Finch taught us,

sometimes a child can see life---in this case, the middle-class squeeze

and changing family roles---with a clarity that the grown-ups Ramona

often complains about cannot.

Certainly the book version of the Quimbys' story mirrors that of many

American families over the last 50 years (condensed, by the magic of

fiction, into the years when Ramona is between four and 10 years old).

Mr. Quimby didn't finish college as a young man, but in 1955 (when Ms.

Cleary wrote the first Ramona book) that didn't matter. He is able to

support his children in a middle-class fashion in Portland. Ore.

By 1975's "Ramona and Her Father," however, the economy is shifting, and

Mr. Quimby's employer (in this book, a van-and-storage company) is

swallowed by another one. Laid off with a paltry two weeks' pay, he

struggles to find a job, and soon Mrs. Quimby is at work full time as a

receptionist at a doctor's office, with no energy when she gets home for

sewing the sheep costume Ramona so desires for the church Christmas

pageant. To add insult to the injury of too-tight shoes (she fears

asking her broke parents for new ones), Ramona sometimes has to spend

her after-school hours at a neighbor's house, playing with a preschooler

she despises.

All of this is seen from Ramona's perspective, and it is her

escapades---such as squeezing a whole tube of toothpaste into the sink

in a fit of pique---that readers remember most. But the larger cultural

story is striking, too, as an adult revisiting these tales discovers.

Though "Ramona and Beezus's" cinematic creators avoided blatant

references to any particular era, the movie's constant celebration of

self-actualization is thoroughly modern. "You don't worry about coloring

inside the lines," Beezus remarks (admiringly) to Ramona. Mr. Quimby,

discovered doodling in a book about new-economy jobs, remarks that "I

used to be a creative guy." This being a movie, we trust he'll be one again.

The books, though, have a harder edge. When Mr. Quimby loses his job in

the film, he turns into an affable, if forgetful, Mr. Mom. In the books,

he succumbs to the more realistic depression that often accompanies a

breadwinner's job loss. He sits on the couch, watching TV, smoking

heavily and not taking Ramona to the park because someone might call to

offer him a job.

In the movie, the great child-care snafu is when Ramona gets sick at

school and Mr. Quimby cancels a job interview to take care of her. In

the books, he once leaves her, at age seven, locked outside the house in

the rain because he's stuck in the unemployment-insurance line.

In the movie, Mr. Quimby ultimately finds a part-time job following his

passion, teaching art; somehow without any pesky licensure requirements.

In the books, he goes back to school to get his art-teaching

credentials, but can't land a job in the Portland schools. So he takes a

job managing a ShopRite. He doesn't like it, but hey, the pay and

benefits can support three children.

Through it all, though, the Quimbys survive, sometimes with their humor

intact. This larger story of survival is where Ms. Cleary shows a wisdom

that modern pundits often lack. Too often, we resort to

extremes---perhaps painting life a generation ago as an economic golden

age when a man without much education could support a family---or, in

"Feminine Mystique" fashion, lamenting the stultifying gender roles that

all this entailed.

But of course real life seldom features such black-and-white narratives.

Change is not necessarily good or bad. It is simply inevitable. In the

novelist's world, Mrs. Quimby is snappish and stressed about working

full time to support her family, yet she likes her job enough not to

quit immediately when her husband re-enters the work force. It's a

nuanced view that defies both traditionalist and feminist slogans.

Mr. Quimby's saga, likewise, is no morality tale. He works hard and gets

his degree, but winds up painting pictures of specials on the ShopRite

windows. Ms. Cleary respects her readers too much to resort to Hollywood


Nearly three years into the current economic doldrums, it's not clear

how many happy endings are in store for this era's squeezed middle class

either. But with any luck, the movie will lead a new generation of kids

to discover Ms. Cleary's books, and realize that they, too, will survive

tough times---even if coping sometimes means squeezing a whole tube of

toothpaste into the sink.

Ms. Vanderkam is the author of "168 Hours: You Have More Time Than You

Think" (Portfolio, 2010)

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