My daughter has been on a Beverly Cleary bender, lately.
Don’t get me wrong, I like Beverly Cleary. She’s a brilliant novelist for young children, and I spent many happy hours reading her books when I was a girl. Dear Mr. Henshaw is a haunting tour de force. Ramona is spunky and relatable at any age. I felt a great kinship with Beezus, and still do.
I liked reading Beezus and Ramona and Ramona and her Father to Rose while she toddled around our tiny apartment in the worst part of LaBelle, before we moved to the cavernous old rental house. It’s one of my only happy memories of that horrible place. I was thrilled one month when we had a little money, and the complete Ramona Quimby audiobook collection was on sale online. Michael downloaded it so Rose could listen to Stockard Channing read Ramona while I rested my voice. That’s when all the trouble began.
I don’t mean to knock Stockard Channing any more than Beverly Cleary. Channing is a brilliant actress, well up to the task of narrating all seven Ramona books with gusto and pep. She does a different silly voice for each character. And therein lies the problem: when you read a book yourself, you can vary the voices every single time. Audiobooks always sound the same. Every one of the hundred or thousand times I’ve listened to those nineteen straight hours of Ramona, each word has been pronounced exactly the same.
After awhile, it grates on me.
The angsty way that Stockard Channing reads “a toothpick poked into the cornbread came out clean.” That odd, highbrow pronunciation of “an old to-MAH-to juice can.” The resentment that creeps into her voice when she names Mrs. Wisser for the first time. The gravelly monotone she uses for that dullard Howie Kemp. The constant existential angst fairly squealing in every line from Beezus. Secretaries who listen to the same elevator music hour after hour wind up hearing the tunes in their sleep; a similar phenomenon happens to mothers forced to listen to the same audiobook over and over for hours. Scenarios from Ramona books ran through my head again and again at all hours.
And then, like Samara crawling out of the television, Ramona began to invade our day-to-day life as well. Rosie started quoting lines from the books and talking in a Stockard Channing accent.
“Why is there an old to-MAH-to juice can in the kitchen?” she asked.
“It’s your father’s can of Monster energy drink,” I said.
“You never let me stay up to see the end of the late movie because I have to go to bed at eight o’clock!” whined Rosie one day when she was upset about something else. “I’ve seen plenty of beginnings of movies, but no endings!”“We don’t even get television service, you watch everything on DVDs or Netflix, and you never fall asleep before midnight,” I protested.
“My father is a poor woodcutter,” said Rose.
“Your father is… oh, never mind.”
Imagine my joy when Rose lost interest in the Ramona audiobook collection. This was because her father bought and downloaded the Henry Huggins audiobook collection. The Henry Huggins audiobook collection is only fifteen and a half hours long, and is narrated by Neil Patrick Harris and one other person whose name I didn’t notice because I was too busy kissing the ground in thanksgiving.
When Rose began listening to Henry books for hours on end, I realized I’d been duped. I wasn’t free of the precocious Quimby child. Every single one of these books also has Ramona in them– and the insufferable brat does not eventually grow into a likable child, as in the Ramona books, because all of these books take place in the same year when she’s four years old. Neil Patrick Harris is an actor who is easily Stockard Channing’s equal. His squealing, cloying Ramona impression is second to none; the man ought to win a Grammy award for his performance. It took one or two repetitions before I was ready to throw little Ramona into a volcano.
The other consequence of these books taking place in the same year in the nineteen fifties, is that the characters are comfortably bigoted American tropes who never enter civilized times. In the Ramona series, Mrs. Quimby eventually gets a job at a doctor’s office; Mrs. Huggins, on the other hand, never leaves the house except to attend the grand opening of a supermarket and receive a free gardenia. Henry gets chided for saying “hunk of meatloaf” instead of “slice,” but isn’t corrected when he wears a caricature Native American costume for Halloween, rails against the uselessness of girls or laughs at Mr. Grumby for cooking. And Henry is supposed to be the good guy. His neighborhood friends are even worse. People who pine for the chaste wholesomeness of the fifties never seem to own up to the fact that the fifties were mean-spirited in the extreme, if the children’s literature from that period is in any way accurate.
When Rose came up to me and said “I’m playing an Indian in the school play, and my only line is ‘ug,'” I snapped.
“YOU MAY NOT LISTEN TO BEVERLY CLEARY ANY MORE!” I screamed. “I’m sorry. You’ll have to watch TV.”
Rose found Ninjago on Netflix.
Peace reigned throughout the house.
(image via Pixabay)