The upshot: any kid who has read these early Cleary books since, say, the late 1970s recognizes in countless ways that the world they portray is foreign, regardless of the timelessness of the emotions and psychology at play. And indeed, the distinguished, offhandedly charming illustrations in the original editions of these books (by Louis Darling, who also illustrated Silent Spring) depict plainly dressed, crew-cut, unmistakably mid-20th-century children, and a Ramona who, true to Cleary’s stroppy character, somewhat resembles a wild child. But the books’ illustrations have been modernized—the children now sport bicycle helmets and backpacks. These wholly anachronistic drawings condescend to and confuse kid readers, who know that the characters they’re encountering in these books aren’t in the contemporary world—and who in fact have little difficulty finding the stories resonant, though the protagonists, situations, and even values fail to conform to current standards. For instance, Henry feeds his dog horse meat, as kids did in 1950—a fact that my son, raised an animal welfarist and a vegetarian, has had to reconcile with Henry’s likable and admirable qualities.
Cleary says that she has been guided in her writing by the observation of her college professor that “the proper subject of the novel is universal human experience.” At its best—in her Klickitat novels through Ramona the Pest—Cleary’s fiction brilliantly bears out that statement. But as the distance grew between her own childhood and that of her characters, Cleary’s efforts to keep up-to-date and relevant rendered her novels less particular, less sharp, and, paradoxically, less universal.
The genius and charm of the early books lies in the way Cleary fully and leisurely entered and articulated the workings of a child’s mind. The turning of those wheels is evident in a passage from Henry Huggins (to pluck one at random from hundreds of such scenes) in which Henry is tempted to buy some guppies. He’s impressed by the bargain: 79 cents a pair, and that includes the fishbowl, one snail, one aquatic plant, and a package of food. (Cleary never neglects an ounce of the crucial minutiae that she knows will impress her characters.) She devotes a whole simple sentence to the boy’s feeling for the silver dollar in his pocket, as he stands in front of the pet-store aquarium. She uses another sentence to confirm his money is “still there”—a child would know not to count on that. He watches the attractive fish for a while longer before he decides, yes, he’ll buy a pair. It takes three more sentences to build a firm case against hypothetical objections from his mother, and finally satisfy himself that he’s got all her reservations covered. In doing so he reveals a neat picture of the kind of requirements sons inevitably have to put up with from their moms: the fish are “quiet” and “little” and they don’t “bark or track in mud or anything.”
The later books explore, although less deeply, much wider stretches of more-serious emotional ground—the kinds of realistic and meaningful situations and themes that experts and educators deem enriching in children’s and young-adult fiction, an attitude no less didactic and deadening than that which informed the treacly, uplifting children’s books that Cleary in her early work was rebelling against. In Ramona Forever (1984), Ramona suffers the death of her cat and worries about being supplanted by a new baby, her father being out of work, and her beloved aunt marrying and moving to Alaska, all in about the same number of pages it took Henry and his pals to build a clubhouse, and for him to have a falling-out and (sadly but realistically) only partial reconciliation with his neighbor Beezus. Many characters in the late novels are flat; most are observed with intelligence, but they’re not inhabited. Cleary gets through the vast territory of her plots by relying on longer, more complex sentences, but while these scoop up the gist, they let the particularity escape.
The stylistic and substantive gap between Cleary’s early and later novels is so apparent that I long thought different authors had written the two groups of books. And in fact that divide can be quite precisely dated—as can so many divides in American culture—to the late 1960s and early ’70s: Ramona the Pest (1968) is on one side of the line, whereas Cleary’s next Klickitat novel, Ramona the Brave (1975), has most definitely crossed it. I wouldn’t attribute the divide to Cleary’s deliberately eschewing her first resolution; still, as her talent became increasingly recognized, and as she took on the mantle of National Institution, the pressure to deliver a relevant and uplifting message must have been great.
Luckily, kids and their parents need not be confined to Cleary’s publisher’s definition of her canon. Instead they should read all of Cleary’s Klickitat books through Ramona the Pest, as well as her memoirs (kids should wait until their teen years to read the memoirs, which matter-of-factly explore Cleary’s fraught relationship with her depressive mother, an adult relative’s sexual advances toward the young Cleary, and Cleary’s entanglement at Berkeley with a roué). That’s a compilation that will work its way indelibly into a child’s memory and imagination—not unlike Cleary’s own burrs and dandelion fluff.