Monday, December 10, 2007

'TIs the Season for Christmas Reading

Many of us have our favorite Christmas books/stories. For some, nothing is better than A Christmas Carol. Others enjoy rereading O. Henry's The Gift of the Magi. Many of our favorite Christmas stories are rooted in our childhood memories.

Although some might not think of Ramona and Her Father as a "Christmas story," I unapologetically claim it as one of my favorite Christmas stories. After all, the story begins with Ramona writing her Christmas wish list (in September), and ends with the girls' Christmas pageant. But it's not just the time frame that makes this a Christmas book; devoid of cheap sentimentalism, it's an honest and lovely story of a family that's suddenly found itself in difficult times.

Ramona and Her Father was originally published in 1977 (received a Newbery Honor the following year), but there's very little in the story that makes it dated. The book makes a significant departure from the earlier Ramona books in that it deals with some serious topics-unemployment and smoking.

Ramona's father has lost his job. The shock, upheaval, and humiliation felt is masterfully created by Cleary. She never over dramatizes the situation, but lets the readers know in subtle and small ways just how much the loss of the father's income affects the family. The Quimbys were, at the most, lower middle class before Mr. Quimby lost his job, and they have to economize and cut back even more.

Cleary also adeptly shows Mr. Quimby's struggle to quit smoking. Inspired by anti-smoking lectures at school, Beezus (Ramona's older sister) and Ramona create plans to encourage Mr. Quimby to stop smoking. This is handled with humor (the girls' campaign) and understanding (Mr. Quimby's moods change, gains weight, etc). Halloween and a challenging school assignment also make for memorable scenes.

Finally, Christmas rolls around, with major surprises. Beezus has been chosen to play Mary in the Sunday school Christmas pageant. Ramona has volunteered her mother to make a sheep costume, much to Mrs. Quimby's chagrin and surprise. Mrs. Quimby is busy with her own job and with the day to day family life, but manages to stitch together a costume out of bunny pajamas. Ramona is not pleased and declares that she will not participate in the play. In the scenes before the pageant, Cleary perfectly captures the conflicting emotions of childhood:

"Ramona sniffed and wiped her eyes on her hoof. Why didn't some grownup come along and make her join the other sheep? No grown-up came. No one seemed to remember that there were supposed to be three sheep, not even Howie, who played with her almost every day."

Due to the influence of three eighth grade girls, Ramona decides to participate in the play:

"A shivery feeling ran down Ramona's backbone, as if magic were taking place. She looked up at Beezus, smiling tenderly down at the flashlight, and it seemed as if Baby Jesus really could be inside the blanket. Why, though Ramona with a feeling of shock, Beezus looks nice. Kind and-sort of pretty. Ramona had never thought of her sister as anything but-well, a plain old big sister, who got to do everything first."

Ramona had told her parents that she wasn't going to be in the pageant; the eighth grade girls had rubbed mascara on her nose, and she was worried that they wouldn't look for her or recognize her:

"As the carolers bore more light into the church, Ramona found her parents in the second row. They were smiling gently, proud of Beezus, too. This gave Ramona an aching feeling inside. They would not know her in her makeup..."

Then, Ramona's father saved the day:

"Mr. Quimby winked....he winked again and this time held up his thumb and forefinger in a circle. Ramona understood. Her father was telling her he was proud of her too."

Christmas would be okay after all:

"Ramona was filled with joy. Christmas was the most beautiful, magic time of the whole year. Her parents loved her, and she loved them, and Beezus too. At home there was a Christmas tree and under it, presents, fewer than at past Christmases, but presents all the same. Ramona could not contain her feelings. 'B-a-a,' she bleated joyfully."

There are few authors who have written about childhood in such a respectful, humorous, and truthful way than Beverly Cleary. It's no wonder that her Ramona books remain so popular. Not only is this one of my favorite Christmas books, but it's my favorite Beverly Cleary book. A beautifully written treat.

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