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Ramona Quimby: The Mischievous Girl Next Door

Fans of Ramona Quimby are either dreading or delighting in the fact that their feisty young heroine has gone Hollywood. The movie Ramona and Beezus comes out today, with Disney Channel star Selena Gomez as big sister Beezus and newcomer Joey King as Ramona.

Ramona first appeared in the 1950s, as a minor character in Beverly Cleary's Henry Huggins books. She was the pest, the well-intentioned trouble-maker, and she would prove such a force of nature that Cleary gave Ramona her own series, eight books in all.

When Cleary created the character Ramona, she thought of a little girl from her childhood who lived in a house behind hers in Portland, Ore. She remembers the day she saw the little girl on the sidewalk.

"She had been sent to the neighborhood store for a pound of butter," says Cleary. "In those days, it was all in one piece, not in cubes. And she had opened the butter and was eating it."

Ramona Quimby would definitely eat butter straight from the slab. In fact, Ramona would do a lot worse. Just ask her fans, like 7-year-old Adia Keene from Washington, D.C.

"Once she colored in the book on purpose so she wouldn't have to turn the book back in," says Keene.

Ella Biehle, 6 and a half and living in San Anselmo, Calif., liked the time Ramona made a crown out of prickly burrs.

"And her hair got stuck and she looked really funny," Biehle laughs.

Twelve-year-old Erinn Blessinger knows a lot about Ramona's creator. She lives in Cleary's old neighborhood in Portland, attended Beverly Cleary Elementary School, even appeared as Ramona in a school play.

"Ramona blurts out a lot of stuff that she might want to take back," says Blessinger.

'A Girl Learning How To Grow Up'

The Ramona and Beezus movie was directed by Elizabeth Allen, a big Beverly Cleary fan who worked on the script with the 94-year-old author. She says Cleary is a "tough cookie."

When the two first met, Allen says, "I sat down and I thought it was going to be this moment where we were gonna hug each other and talk about the properties. Instead she whipped out her notebook and said 'So, what are the themes of Ramona?'"

Allen gave it her best shot.

"I said, 'I feel it's about girl who thinks outside the lines, who's struggling to figure out how to conform without losing her personality,'" Allen says. "And Beverly felt strongly that it was actually just about a girl learning how to grow up."

"She has an imagination," Beverly Cleary says of her most famous creation. "And some of her things just don't turn out the way she expected."

Those "things" often get Ramona in trouble, and then make her feel misunderstood.

Elizabeth Allen believes Cleary is a writer who has a way of getting into a child's head. But Cleary says she's just lucky.

"I have very clear memories of childhood," says the author.

But Cleary's memories growing up in Portland in the 1920s and 30s are not all mischievous fun. Some are pretty painful -- and they've found their way into Cleary's books. Take the time Ramona's dad comes home from work looking especially beleaguered. Ramona immediately assumes it's something she did. But this time, Mr. Quimby has lost his job -- just as Cleary's own father did, when she was a little girl.

"I was embarrassed," says Cleary. "I didn't know how to talk to my father. I know he felt so terrible at that time. I guess I felt equally terrible. I think adults sometimes don't think about how children are feeling about the adult problems."

Maybe part of what has made Ramona Quimby popular generation after generation is that she's believable. Cleary says she gets hundreds of letters from children -- and some adults -- who say "I am Ramona."

They've also been asking her for a Ramona movie for years. Now they've got one.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Elizabeth Blair is a Peabody Award-winning senior producer/reporter on the Arts Desk of NPR News.