I didn't regret reading these aloud because while they might be rather easy reading for a fifth-grader, the stories are emotionally complex. The world isn't easy for Ramona to navigate! We talked a lot as I read about her complicated reactions to her experiences. She gets angry, envious, scared, and pouty. These are great books for helping kids give voice to their own complex emotions, and the books represent for the adult reader what it feels like to go through the world as a somewhat fractious, complicated kid -- a kid who wants to be loved, wants to be thought "good," but who also has a strong sense of her own self, her needs, her wants.
As a parent, I was especially struck by the way that Ramona's parents deal with her unhappiness at school, both in kindergarten (in Ramona the Pest, which I read to N. a couple years ago) and in first grade (in Ramona the Brave). In her first two years of school, Ramona wants desperately to be liked by her teachers, and feels underappreciated by them. For about a week partway through the year she boycotts kindergarten. In first grade she begs her parents to get her switched to the other first grade classroom because she has had a series of misunderstandings with her teacher and has come to believe her teacher doesn't like her. Her parents ascertain that the teacher is not actually a bad teacher, just somewhat formal and old-fashioned, so they make Ramona stick it out. I would probably be exactly the opposite kind of parent: rushing in to meet with teachers, demand changes, etc. to insure my child an optimal learning experience. I can't even read the resolutions of Ramona's school crises without getting teary! After all, this is at least in part why we homeschool: to give our child a learning environment better suited to his temperament.
But the point of these episodes in both books is Ramona's resilience. She survives, even thrives. Her essential Ramona-ness is not thwarted by being misunderstood. The bravery of the title is not only shown when Ramona faces down a fierce dog on her walk to school, but when she exercises her "spunk" and shows her teacher who she really is: creative, artistic, resourceful. She's able to do this because of her parents' confidence in her. "Buck up, Ramona," said Mr. Quimby after refusing to intervene with her teacher. "Show us your spunk." Ramona was comforted by him singing "Oh my gal she am a spunky gal! Sing polly-wolly doodle all the day!" as he washed the dishes later that night. Buoyed by this belief in her, Ramona walked to school the next day "filled with spirit and pluck." "She was determined that today would be different. She would make it different. She was her father's spunky gal, wasn't she?"
There's been so much research on the importance of inculcating grit, resilience, and determination in kids by letting them wrestle with challenges without parental interference. Cleary's Ramona anticipates this research. Though we've chosen not to send our child to traditional school, I hope we are are not depriving him of opportunities to test his ability to face challenges and solve problems -- to be spunky.