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Ramona’s World: The Quiet Christianity of Beverly Cleary’s Beloved Books

Beverly Cleary did not make Ramona a specimen of moral improvement, or a Christian evangelist. She made her a Christian child. Unlike Christian families today, however, Ramona’s family lives a world in which traditional morality is the cultural default. Going to church makes you normal, and practicing Christianity garners social rewards. Christian life simply means living.

I met Ramona Quimby in third grade. My teacher introduced her to the class via Ramona the Bravemaybe a strange choice, since Ramona is a lowly first grader in that volume of her story. But environmentally, the decision made sense.

Ramona the Brave opens with Beezus, Ramona’s older sister, scandalized that Ramona has preached a sermon to some boys on the playground. The boys were making a joke of Beezus’s name, which, uncomfortably, rhymes with Jesus. In my Lutheran school, where the name of Jesus was always present, a name like Beezus would have been a real distraction. I believe this is why my teacher started us here in the Ramona oeuvre: to defuse the problem for us immediately, a courtesy Beverly Cleary (who died last month just shy of 95) also does her audience with the scene.

Beezus is not Ramona’s sister’s real name. Ramona, we’re told, couldn’t pronounce Beatrice, so the older daughter has been Beezus to the family since Ramona was old enough to lisp it out. That an accident of family life should bring external social problems on the household is exactly the kind of thing that has people still reading Ramona books. Cleary was never an adult trying to affect a child’s-eye view or, worse, an adult disguising her own set of ideals for children within the point of view of a counterfeit child character. The moral detail of the child’s world built by Cleary is truly childlike, whether by a great feat of memory or the novelist’s insight.

But in what world is a nickname that rhymes with Jesus a problem? A Lutheran school, certainly, but Ramona is no child evangelist peculiar to parochial types. She has been on public and school library shelves throughout the country since the 1950s, read by countless children who have found her singularly relatable. When I read the Ramona books in the ’80s, I thought she was my contemporary. My children, who have read them throughout the past ten years, thought the same. If anything outs Ramona as being from another time, it may be her family’s incidental piety.

The case should not be overstated. When Ramona is scared in her new bedroom, no one advises her to pray. If a cross hangs on the wall, we don’t see it. Names in the family are neither biblical nor strongly associated with the saints. Readers only attend church with the Quimbys twice over the course of eight books: once on Christmas Eve (when nominal Christians are most likely to go) and once for Ramona’s aunt’s wedding. Coming under identitarian critique, Ramona scores well in feminism and not so well racially; her religion receives no attention at all.

 

But a household faith hums in the background. Ramona, asked to quit “yeeping” while coloring in the kitchen, informs her mother that she was making a joyful noise unto the Lord. Church is casually referred to. Ramona’s sermon to the playground blasphemers reveals deliberate catechesis, as she recites the Commandment (variably enumerated as second or third) that prohibits taking the Lord’s name in vain. When the family cat dies, Beezus and Ramona’s private funeral includes “Amazing Grace.” It’s the only hymn many Americans know, but these girls know it well enough to actually sing it themselves, rather than merely recognizing it as what bagpipes do when someone dies.

The Quimbys give the impression of being in church most Sundays, probably a Protestant one. Their church occupies the same space in their minds as the living room couch. There’s no need to talk about something that’s just there to rest on. Ramona’s family seems to live in Aaron Renn’s “positive world” Christianity, in which traditional morality is a cultural default. Going to church makes you normal, and practicing Christianity garners social rewards. Christian life simply means living. However, simply living in Ramona’s world also means that if boys are taking the Lord’s name in vain on the playground, you have a duty to correct them. In this world, if a child is driven to such rebellion that a bad word is extorted from her, that word is . . . guts.

My experience on playgrounds of late includes wondering if it would be wrong of me to ask other people’s children to please stop spewing filthy language around mine. The Quimbys’ habit of participating in the life of the church, and the effect of that habit on the home, no longer reflects the experience of many American children. Ramona is present in church on Christmas Eve not as a spectator, but as a participant in a pageant. This has required her attendance at Sunday school practice. Children today may be more likely to have seen a wedding in a barn than a church like the one where Aunt Bea gets married. Ramona’s religious consciousness is closer to Booth Tarkington’s Penrod (whose story began in 1914) than to that of any fictional child who has followed her into mainstream publication. Ramona is not an excessively good girl, and Penrod is “the worst boy in town.” But churchy things occasionally surface for both of them, toward which each reacts with complete familiarity. Ramona’s implied experience at church naturally manifests itself both in quiet (coloring at the kitchen table) and in crisis (the death of orange Picky-Picky).

When I was a Ramona reader, and also a parochial school attendee and pastor’s kid, her family’s piety struck me as a bit anemic. They didn’t have devotions at home. Ramona’s public school couldn’t have chapel, Bible or catechism memorization, or the songs about Jesus that pervaded my own daily life. Thirty years later, the gathered evidence for the Quimbys’ barely stated Christian adherence makes them come off as nearly Bible-thumpers. Ramona’s sidelong confessions of faith may be among the more overt exposures to a Christianity-normed household many children encounter. This is not so bad: considering such things in the intellectual and emotional laboratory of fiction can save a lot of trouble. A classmate who attends church, prays before meals or travel, or knows Bible stories may seem less strange to a child who doesn’t know Jesus very well, but does know Ramona.

 

Ramona is interesting as a rhetorical artifact not only for children with low Christian literacy. Her enduring strength as a character includes the practical point of reference she provides to children working through life’s problems. Should one, for example, badger one’s father about an unhealthy habit? Should one scrunch a classmate’s owl? Christian children may additionally draw on the examples that grow from Ramona’s demonstrated faith. “Yeeping” at the kitchen table may be intended as a joyful noise unto the Lord, but have the effect of stymieing one’s mother as she serves in her vocation. This illustrates the wisdom and grace needed to harmonize a Christian’s simultaneous duties to God and neighbor. It’s a topic more easily discussed with a kid in the company of Ramona than as a spiritual abstraction.

Ramona’s preaching on the Lord’s sacred name also informs young Christian readers. Her rebuke is not well received. Beezus is enraged, and the boys laugh. Ramona is even more baffled when her mother reacts to the affair with easygoing dispassion. It is not an experience that affords Ramona a satisfying answer. This will feel familiar to Christians of any age who have sought the best application of a prayer from hymnody:

                        But when within my place
                        I must and ought to speak
                        Then to my words give grace
                        Lest I offend the weak.

But the scene is not about religion. It is about the tensions that arise between the overlapping cultures of a family and its wider society. A diminishing number of children possess the religious knowledge needed to grasp its total significance. What updated scenario might achieve the impact of Beezus and Ramona’s encounter with profanity on the playground? Profanity itself barely registers as offensive. Obscenities and vulgarities are not forbidden to anyone. Beezus’s name would have to rhyme with a slur based on race or sexual identity, and all hell would break loose on the heretical boys, driven by an author consumed with zeal for our moment’s orthodoxy. The book would become a caricature of a Beverly Cleary masterpiece. Cleary did not make Ramona a specimen of moral improvement, or a Christian evangelist. She made her a Christian child. This vocation includes fervor, frustration, resolve, confusion, and contemplation. That children of God should have a strong fictional example of this to study is a true gift.

Ramona’s world is vanishing, but bidders are still competing for the cosmic remodeling contract. Real persecution is sometimes visited on those who resist secular transgressivism. It also happens that the tolerance demanded in a decreasingly Christian society entails some breathing space for practitioners of less stylish faiths. Who is more likely to excuse a young Christian from an event scheduled for Sunday morning: a true pluralist whose policy is to accommodate all requests made on the grounds of personal belief, or a nominal Christian who has sacrificed churchgoing on the altar of the traveling team for years? Neither option is comfortable; neither authority figure is trustworthy, and yet the people of God are given to figure it out. Ramona’s playground stand did her more good than it did Beezus or the boys, as can be the case with public confessions. But those done the most good by Ramona’s conviction, integrity, and struggle are her readers, Christian or otherwise.

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