A Writer From Yamhill, Oregon & Ramona Chris, A Girl From Queens, NY
Other than the Beverly Cleary books I devoured, and being the only person that was chocolate and looked like me, I don’t remember much about my school classroom experiences as a young child. Mama says, “Get on the bus. It is a better school district. You’re lucky to be going to that school, in a better neighborhood, where they take pride in education and the better teachers work.” I don’t feel so lucky. Once I get off the bus, and enter into that neatly lined classroom with rows of desks one behind the other, no one else looks like me. I am the only one with deep dark chocolate skin and shoulder length cornrows that mama tightly braided from the top of my forehead to just bellow my shoulders. She weighed them down with colorful beads that shake with every step I take to their own rhythm. Mama says, “You’re smart, that is why you go into a different classroom than all of the other boys and girls that get off the bus.” Even though they are chocolate like me, in their opinion I am different and not going in the same direction. This often made for a very lonely experience and is probably the reason I don’t remember many specific details about my school days. The thing I remember most is longing to go to one of the schools in my neighborhood that we passed by as the bus whizzed along and the familiar scenery changed. Mama says, “This is for your own good and one day you will be able to fully appreciate this experience.”
Is today the day our class gets to go to the school library? My friend is there. The only person in this whole school that is like me. Her name is also Ramona. She lives on Klickitat Street. Ramona Quimby and I don’t look the same, but she speaks to me and makes me chuckle. Every time I see our name on the cover of a book, it reminds me of how unique and special I am. So what if I can’t attend your parties, because I have to get back on the bus. Ramona and I are friends. I go on adventures with her all throughout the night. Beverly Cleary books bring me so much joy. I too can go where you go and experience what you experience, through the pages of the book.
As an elementary literacy educator for 20 years, I agree with the need for there to be diversity in books. However, as I reflect on becoming a voracious reader, I can honestly say it did not have anything to do with the racial, ethnic, socio-economic identity of the main characters or the type of setting (a time or place similar to what I already knew) that was created by the author. Actually, it had everything to do with the writing style of the author and the crafting of the book. Beverly Cleary’s writing style hooked me as a reader; the humorous episodes from chapter to chapter along with the character and plot development, shaped my interest in the lives of her characters and their stories. I fell in love with the genre of Realistic Fiction, and being able to make any type of connection to the book was what created in me a love for reading them. I instantly connected with the Ramona series for the simple fact that she was my namesake. I could never locate my name on a magnet, mug, t-shirt or stationary set, but here it was front and center on the cover of a book. While the title grabbed my attention, it was the crafting of the story and the word choice of Beverly Cleary that kept me delighted and motivated to complete books quickly and in large doses.
The language Mrs. Cleary used allowed me to vividly visualize what was happening in the lives of the characters throughout the story. For me, it was better than watching a movie. As a child, I found her stories to be relatable; they have universal appeal. I could relate to being a big sister, and having the younger sibling get the attention of the parents while often making my life seemingly unbearable. Like Beezus, I too was very responsible, practical and mature for my age. I was able to make many text connections to the stories as I was reading them. I was able to both sympathize and empathize with the Beezus’ character, while at the same time laughing unashamedly at the shenanigans of Ramona and loving her bold, fiery nature. She too reminded me of myself. Also, never having had my own dog due to allergies, I loved experiencing the adventures of Henry and Ribsy. I sort of adopted Ribsy as my own pet and vicariously learned about the responsibilities of having a dog through Henry Huggins.
Concerns of diversity did not inhibit me from falling in love with Beverly Clearly books and her writing style. I am so grateful that my mother did not try to shift my attention from the characters and the story because the people in the book did not look like me and the neighborhood setting did not resemble where I lived. If she had, I would have probably become a very resentful reader who abandoned large quantities of books because I did not have an interest in them and did not like the style of the writer. To this day, I share my enthusiasm and love for Beverly Cleary’s writing with all kids – of every background – that I have had the opportunity to work with. It is my hope, and has been my experience, that Beverly Cleary books still continue to connect with readers today and they become interested in reading more of her books or locate author’s with similar writing styles and appeal. As a child I wanted to read great stories, and engage with awesome writing that held me captivated and that is what Beverly Cleary was able to do for me as a young reader.
The reason I am a proponent and advocate of diversity in children’s literature goes well beyond my race, gender, and class. It is because I think kids of all backgrounds should have the opportunity to be exposed to many different people, places and experiences as readers. It is vitally important that the background knowledge of kids is expanded so they can participate in new learning experiences and I have found this to occur through engaging with many different types of texts and authors. Therefore, I am vehemently opposed to being a “gatekeeper” of reading selections, choices and opportunities because of one’s own reading identity and bias. In 3rd grade, I fell in love with reading through a series of fun and amazing encounters with Beverly Cleary chapter books. Had I been denied the opportunity to experience her writing, because of what someone else thought I should be reading based on race, ethnicity, gender, socio-economic status, etc., I dare say I would not be the avid reader I am today.
My journey to becoming a life-long reader has shaped my beliefs about reading and the teaching of reading. First and foremost, as a result of my experience with Beverly Cleary books:
- I believe the more book choices kids have to select from, the more likely they will find the book that keeps them reading for a lifetime.
- I believe the more kids read books, the better they are able to enjoy transactional (or interactive) relationships with books.
- I believe reading is thinking and explicit teaching of comprehension skills is essential to helping kids fall deeper and deeper in love with books.
When I share my reading identity and choices they are based on who I am as an individual and my experiences. I am a reader. I am a writer. I am a critical thinker. I am an African-American. I am a woman. I am a daughter. I am a sister. I am a Christian. I am a native New Yorker. I am a student. I am a learner. I am a friend and more. I am complex, diverse and uniquely designed. All of these wonderful things I am, affect my transactional experiences with text. All of these things either individually or collectively will determine whether I am motivated toward reading a text and can find some intrinsic value in its words for my life. What I may not value and appreciate reading today, I may attack with vigor tomorrow. It really depends on whether or not I value its impact on my life, at the time of introduction. Do I want to read this? Do I need to read this? How do I read this? These are some of the questions I ask myself when I approach reading. I believe it is my responsibility to allow my students to have an opportunity to ask these questions and more. I believe it is important to explore the answers to these questions through shared inquiry. I believe it is my responsibility to anticipate my students needs and questions as they develop their own reading and writing identities. In my opinion, Nancy Atwell (1987) effectively explains why we need to help our students make personal connections to the text they are reading, “When we invite readers’ minds to meet books in our classrooms, we invite the messiness of human response-personal prejudices, personal tastes, personal habits, personal experience. But we also invite personal meaning.” It is not until kids discover personal meaning and their own reasons for reading that they will become readers. I found my reason for becoming a reader in the humorous pages of Beverly Cleary books.