Christian Leithart

Christian Leithart lives in South Bend, Indiana, with his wife, Tara. He tweets at @cleithart and blogs at www.pushlings.com about writing, movies, theater, language, and the philosophy of time.

Room to Grow

E. B. White, author of Charlotte’s Web, was once asked by an interviewer if he ever felt the need to “shift gears” when writing for children. He replied, “Anybody who shifts gears when he writes for children will wind up stripping his gears… Anyone who writes down to children is simply wasting his time. You have to write up, not down.”

Christian virtues are not necessarily encouraged by authors—or by any artists, for that matter. But what White describes in this interview sounds a lot like the Christian virtue of charity. In its most basic sense, charity just means love. It refers to the love that God has for us, the love that we return to Him, and the love that we show to one another as a result of our relationship with God.

At another level, charity can mean creating space for one another, giving up one’s own life and easy happiness for the sake of someone else. It is making room for others. In that sense, White’s advice boils down to writing with charity. He reminds would-be authors that, if they want to write stories for children, they need to humble themselves and be willing to lay aside their own agenda. You have to be willing to “write up.”

One of the best models of this kind of charitable stance is Newberry Award-winning children’s author Beverly Cleary, who created some of the most well-loved characters in children’s literature. Today–April 12, 2016–is Cleary’s one hundredth birthday, and yet she remains stubbornly unimpressed with herself. When an interviewer asked her a few weeks ago if she was excited to turn 100, Cleary answered, “Well, I didn’t do it on purpose.”

The naturalness of getting older is a common theme in Cleary’s books, as is her commitment to the mundane sorts of experiences that make up life. Cleary’s books, for the most part, are written from the point of view of young children, and always remain true to the complexities and confusions of growing up. The problems of Henry Huggins, Otis Spofford, Ellen Tebbits, and Ramona Quimby are real problems, and Cleary takes them seriously. Rather than insert her adult perspective into the pages, she bows to her characters’ wishes, taking care to explain their motivations, which make perfect sense to them, of course.

In other words, Cleary’s books show her willingness to make room for her characters to take on lives of their own. As a result, her characters are imminently relatable, even lovable, especially the spunky, imaginative Ramona Quimby. Few characters in children’s literature have as rich as inner life as Ramona, and fewer are given room to explore it.

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Ramona lives in Portland, Oregon, on Klickitat Street—a real street where Cleary lived as a girl. Ramona’s father works at various blue collar jobs and her mother sometimes picks up work at a doctor’s office. There is also Ramona’s older sister, Beatrice (called “Beezus”), who tolerates her, and Picky-picky, the cat, who despises her.

Cleary was once asked why so many people relate to Ramona, who is by far Cleary’s most popular character. She said, “Because she does not learn how to be a better girl.” Cleary was annoyed with the books she read in her childhood because the characters always learned how to “be better children.” In her experience, children did not learn how to be better children. They just grew up.

That’s not to say Ramona doesn’t learn things. Some of her most memorable experiences involve an unpleasant or confusing realization about herself. For example, at the beginning of Ramona the Brave (not the first book in the Ramona series, but the first that I was introduced to), Ramona is trotting home behind her big sister, mightily pleased with herself. She has just told off a group of boys who were making fun of Beezus’s nickname, which incidentally, Ramona gave her. It’s not until the girls get home that Ramona discovers that her “sermon,” as Beezus puts it, was not at all appreciated by her sister. Beezus was as embarrassed that Ramona came to her defense as she was by the teasing in the first place. Poor Ramona had no idea that she could hurt her sister’s feelings by standing up for her.

“Ramona was used to being considered a little pest, and she knew she sometimes was a pest, but this was something different. She felt as if she were standing aside looking at herself. She saw a stranger, a funny little six-year-old girl with straight brown hair, wearing grubby shorts and an old T-shirt, inherited from Beezus, which had Camp Namanu printed across the front. A silly little girl embarrassing her sister so much that Beezus was ashamed of her. And she had been proud of herself because she thought she was being brave. Now it turned out that she was not brave. She was silly and embarrassing. Ramona’s confidence in herself was badly shaken.

This kind of inside-outside comparison between Ramona’s imagination and her reality continues throughout the Ramona stories. Ramona rarely finds her expectations met when it comes to the reactions of others. Something that she takes great pride in might be ignored by everyone else, or worse, mocked. Something that Ramona takes as logical fact turns out to be a source of embarrassment for her, like when she sits quietly for a long time waiting for her teacher to bring her a gift, all because the teacher told Ramona to “sit here for the present.”

Roger Sutton, writing for the New York Times, commented that Cleary’s novels put kids on a level playing field with adults. Ramona doesn’t understand everything that happens around her, but she makes note of the glances that pass between her parents and the way Beezus acts when she gets a bad haircut. Ramona is often embarrassed, but Cleary is careful that Ramona never, ever looks dumb, either to adults in the story or to her readers. In fact, sometimes Ramona’s version of things makes more sense than the truth. Why doesn’t the word “attack” mean to stick tacks in people?

A less charitable author would take a moment like this and pat the character on the head, saying, “How cute.” Yet Cleary never uses a simpering tone or condescends to her characters. Instead, she sympathizes with them, and so do we. At one point, Beezus, in a fit of exasperation, says to Ramona, “Grow up!” Without missing a beat, Ramona yells back, “Can’t you see I’m trying?”

Ramona’s embarrassment at being herself, and especially at being herself without knowing what she was doing, could easily have been turned into a fable of some kind, where Ramona learns to be obedient, or maybe to be true to herself and be recognized for that honesty. But Cleary is too devoted to her little character (and too respectful of children) to leave Ramona with that kind of bow on her story. After all, most of us didn’t grow up through a series of character building episodes, one after the other. Childhood is messier than that.

That’s not to say that Cleary refuses to give Ramona a happy ending. Ramona the Brave ends with Ramona proud of herself once again for having stood up to a mean dog who stole her shoe. She remains self-aware, as always, but for the time being, she has recovered her bravery.

“Of course, she was brave. She had scars on her shoe to prove it… Brave Ramona, that’s what they would think, just about the bravest girl in the first grade. And they would be right. This time Ramona was sure.”

It’s hard to read one of Beverly Cleary’s stories without a glimmer of recognition at something one of the children is going through, whether it’s learning to read or finding something to do on a summer afternoon. It’s even harder to read one of her stories without seeing her self-sacrificial love for her characters covering every page. So, happy birthday, Beverly Cleary, storyteller of charity, and thanks for “writing up.”