Beverly Cleary knows kids and humor. For my next tribute to anti-heroes in juvenile fiction, I’m turning to two of her characters. The most famous of them, Ramona, first made her grand entrance in Beezus and Ramona. Subsequently, Cleary has written seven standalone chapter books about the irrepressible Ramona. Perhaps less well-known, Otis first created mischief in Ellen Tibbits, but received the spotlight in Otis Spofford.
When Ramona the Pest first starts, Ramona is anxious to attend kindergarten. Ramona is so excited that she is proving a pest to everyone. She is singing and dancing to her older sister’s great annoyance. She’s also pushing her mother to hurry, hurry, hurry! Many of Ramona’s actions are understandable—when one knows her reasons behind them. For example, when her older sister and Mary Jane ask if they can walk Ramona to school, Ramona refuses because she knows full well they’ll talk in a baby voice to her. And when everyone in her class takes a nap, Ramona lays down too but then starts to snore. No, she doesn’t desire attention and laughs. Instead, Ramona wants to show her teacher how well she can sleep. She even has a reasonable explanation for all the black lines scribbled over her drawing of a house. You see, the house is on house. Ramona just seems like a misunderstood child.
But is she? Ramona also chases a boy around the playground. When Ramona is told to sit on the bench because of her misbehavior, she actually tells the teacher: “No.” Her reason? She wants to play Gray Duck. Ramona later pulls on a girl’s curls—even after being ordered to stop. When told she won’t be able to return to school if she can’t behave, Ramona thinks about those boing curls and becomes a kindergarten dropout. Ramona definitely has issues with rules! Yet the reason I like Ramona is because she is her own person. She stands up to boys who call her “Kindergarten baby!” When learning to print letters, in what is my favorite episode of the book, Ramona decorates the first letter of her last name with cat ears and a tail. As for her defiance of the rules, in reality, Ramona was being honest to herself and her teacher. She knew that pulling Susan’s curls was a huge temptation for her. And she admitted it. Because these are books by Beverly Cleary, Ramona eventually figures out a way to handle herself in school. Yet she also remains uniquely Ramona.
“One of these days you’re going to go too far!” Everyone cautions Otis Spofford about his misbehavior, but Otis is one of those boys who likes to make people laugh, doesn’t like to take orders, enjoys stirring up excitement, and even finds it funny to make others mad. As for punishments, they’re worth it if he had fun. More than Ramona, Otis is a bad kid.
One day in dance class while preparing for a school performance, Otis finds himself bored and starts to complain. His teacher listens to him and offers him the part of a bull in a bullfight scene that will take place in the middle of the dance. If you think this satisfied Otis, think again. In barely any time, he’s bored again and so now is poking the bullfighter with his fake horns. The day of the performance, he even steals the show from everyone by acting like a silly bull. Granted, none of these antics seriously hurt anyone, but then there’s the day he threw spit balls in class. In what is my favorite episode in the book, Otis keeps spitting wads of paper at ones, despite the welt marks they create, until class ends. After all, what’s the worst his teacher can do to him? Otis isn’t afraid of his mom or the principal and so that means his teacher has to act far more resourceful is she is to stop him. Sadly, even when Otis learns his lesson about spit balls, he still doesn’t change his daily behavior.
Why then do I like Otis? Because of the reason that Otis creates mischief. He’s not an evil kid; just a bored one. Then there’s the fact he likes to do well at school, panics when trapped in a closet, and shows a love of animals. Otis has a likeable side. Last, there’s the final chapter. In it, the tables are turned on Otis. For once, the tricks are being played on him. And let me tell you, he doesn’t like it! Ultimately though, he takes it all in good fun.
Although Cleary wrote both of these books over fifty years ago, Ramona and Otis feel as real as if she’d written the books today. If you grew up reading Beverly Cleary, discover her again. If you didn’t, it’s time you did.