Thursday, November 11, 2010

Childhood Challenge: RAMONA QUIMBY, AGE 8

I can't believe this is already my 11th post for my Childhood Challenge; that means I only have one more book to read to complete my year-long challenge. This year has gone by fast! This month I re-read Ramona Quimby, Age 8 by Beverly Cleary.

From My Memory
The Ramona books were a staple in our household when I was growing up. My sister collected all of them, and I borrowed them from her. I remember thinking I was a lot like Ramona--Ramona had an older sister (Beezus), and even though they fought, I think Ramona thought her sister was pretty cool and wanted to be like her but came up short. Growing up, I often felt eclipsed by my cooler older sister and thought that I was just her dorky younger sister. It felt good to have a literary character to bond with. My favorite of the series was Ramona Quimby, Age 8, which I first read in the third grade—the same age as Ramona in the book. I read it on a day that I was sick and stuck at home (as a kid I much preferred going to school than staying at home), and I loved the book so much that I read the entire thing that day. Though I’m not sure how long it has been since I’ve last read this book, I know it’s been a while (as in more than 15 years). Two plot lines stick out in my memory of this book: Ramona and Beezus have to eat cow tongue, and they also cook their parents dinner, which in some ways turns out to be a disaster. Since Ramona Quimby, Age 8 was one the books that inspired my childhood joie de lire, I am especially excited to re-read this book.

After Re-Reading
After finishing the book, my first thought was “Beverly Cleary is amazing.” My second thought was “Man, I wish I could write like her.” She writes all the Ramona books in the third person but through Ramona’s perspective. It is oftentimes necessary and always brave, I think, for an author to tell a story meant for young readers through the eyes of a child so that the readers are able to better connect with the character and get more out of the story. I added the “brave” label because I think it is difficult for adults to capture children—their thoughts, dialogues, actions—and to make them believable characters to adults and young readers alike. Beverly Cleary does just that—she captures the characters. She doesn’t rely on outlandish plots to carry her books; in fact, the Ramona books are based on everyday occurrences. They’re not mysteries, they’re not exploring the wild unknown, they don’t have paranormal or magical themes… They’re real. They’re about life.

In this book, Ramona’s father is going back to college, which puts a bit of a financial strain on the family. Ramona knows it is important for her to be good to support her family while her mom and dad are stressed about paying the bills (and while her dad is stressed about having his own homework again), so a lot of the book centers around her struggle to be a good daughter and listen to her parents and her teacher and not fight too much with her sister or Willa Jean, the young girl whose grandmother babysits Ramona after school.

Ramona is at once an exasperating and enchanting character. The first day at school she meets a boy she terms “Yard Ape” and who picks on her by stealing her eraser and then calling her “Bigfoot.” Ramona shoots right back, “That’s Superfoot to you.” She’s sassy, full of life, and endearing. Her thought process reminds me of my own (both as a kid and an adult)—it is slightly random but completely connected in Ramona’s mind. For example, she is assigned a book report in which she has to sell a book about a cat and its journey in finding a home; she decides to perform a live commercial of sorts to sell the story. But as she is standing in front of her classroom reciting her lines for her commercial, she forgets what her ending line is. She goes to the only line she can remember from a real commercial and blurts out, “I can’t believe I ate the whole thing!” On the outside, it’s random; being privy to her thought processes, though, it makes sense.

The story is about a family going through changes, a young girl getting used to a new school, and a girl (and her older sister) trying to figure out this growing-up business. It isn’t fancy—it’s real. And lovable. After being enchanted all over again by Ramona Quimby, I am itching to go out and buy the whole series so I can regularly re-read them all.

I highly recommend the Ramona books for readers of all ages. Even if you never read them as a kid, I suggest you read one as an adult and cherish the memories of what it was like to be a child.

Monday, November 8, 2010

NaNoReaMo 2010: Week 1 Recap

I finished four books during the first week of my month of reading; three of those books I read in the first three days (the fourth took longer because we had company and a wedding in the family over the weekend). I've noticed a couple things about using all my free time for reading: (1) Reading for fun makes me more productive when I work; and (2) I have been more relaxed during the last week than I have been in a long time because I'm spending more time doing what I love. So far, I'd say that NaNoReaMo is teaching me that I need to read like a fiend more often because feeding my joie de lire also feeds my joie de vivre.

The first book I read was The Shunning by Beverly Lewis, which is the first book in The Heritage of Lancaster County series. The book is about a woman who had been raised Amish, only to find out much right before her wedding day that her family had been keeping a secret from her for 22 years. I liked the book because the Amish lifestyle fascinates me, but I didn't like it enough to go out and get any of the other books in the series. While a lot of plot lines can be termed predictable, I've found there's a good predictable and a bad predictable. For me, a good predictable is one in which you can figure out the general direction of the plot from the beginning but are so in love with the characters and/or setting that you feel propelled to keep reading and, in fact, end up feeling like the plot is new even though you guessed from the beginning what might happen. On the other hand, a bad predictable is one in which you not only know what is going to happen, but you also end up rolling your eyes as what you guessed would happen actually happens. The Shunning bordered on "bad predictable" territory for me. I can see why people like Beverly Lewis's books--even if they are predictable, they are also satisfying--but her books will most likely never make one of my "favorites" lists.

The second book, Beastly by Alex Flinn, came highly recommended by participants of YALitChat on Twitter. It is a retelling of Beauty and the Beast that is set in modern-day New York and is told from the Beast's perspective. The beginning of the book enchanted me--I started reading it late at night, and even though I was tired, I literally had to force myself to put the book down. I was enjoying it so much that I made my husband listen to me talk about the book, which is something I don't do very often. One of my favorite things about the book is that the Beast (a.k.a. Kyle) joins a chat room for people who had been magically transformed. My favorite chatter is "Froggie" (who needs to be kissed by a princess to end his transformation); because he is typing with webbed feet, he often makes mistakes in his typing:

Froggie: stil no hop here. i meen ther is hop but not HOPE.
I am kind of hoping Froggie will get a book of his own... While I loved the beginning of the book, the plot fell apart for me when the girl came into the story. The Beast went from this wonderfully complex character to a flat stock character within one or two chapters. Maybe that says something about my reading tastes--I like the Beast better when he's mean than when he turns nice. Interesting...

After finishing Beastly, I read Skinny by Laura Smith, which is a novel that follows one girl's descent into an eating disorder. The portrayal of the main character, Melissa, and her struggle with trying to control her life through controlling her food intake is fascinating. Even though the book is Christian fiction, I would recommend it to anyone trying to understand what someone might be going through when they have an eating disorder. The resolution of the book came a little too quickly for my tastes, so I wouldn't label the book as wonderful or anything, but I do think it has a certain power from its honest look at a real problem.

Finally, I read Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist by Rachel Cohn and David Levithan, another book that came highly recommended by fellow YALitChat participants. This book was my favorite of my Week 1 books (and will most likely be a contender for my favorite book of November). Nick and Norah is an example of a good predictable--I had guessed from the beginning what would happen in the end, but I wanted to know all the details of how these two people got from point A to B. This is novel (a novel novel, if you will) in more than one way: the entire book takes place in one night; the story is told from two perspectives, with every chapter switching between the two as the story advances; and the plot feels real--I wouldn't have been surprised to find out that Nick and Norah were real people and that this was an autobiographical account of how they met. My hat goes off to Cohn and Levithan for writing such an incredible thought-driven journey. I haven't seen the movie yet, but I am excited that Michael Cera was cast as Nick (not just because I have a weird old-lady crush on him but also because as I read the book, I pictured him as Nick, and it just worked). Here are just a few of my favorite lines from the book:
"Sure thing," I tell him, even though Norah looks like the only use she has for the word fun is to make the word funeral.
"No!" Tony/Toni/Toné exclaims. "I saw the two of you canoodling. You're a regular Johnny Castle." I have no idea who Johnny Castle is, but I definitely approve of the name.
Sometimes when we slide together, we take a few seconds to separate ourselves. We're not to the point of deliberately touching again, but we're not about to turn down a good accident.
Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist opens the dialogue between males and females--it's an exploration of the whole Mars versus Venus debate. Because we get to read the story from both their perspectives, it helps us better understand the magic of an incredibly good first date. My one warning label for the book is that it is rated R for language and content. If you are easily offended, you may not be able to enjoy the book; furthermore, I think many readers may find this book more appropriate for the 16 and above crowd. I honestly don't think I would have understood this book's brilliance if I had read it at too young of an age.

After such a strong Week 1, I hope my Week 2 will keep the reading energy flowing. Happy reading!