Ramona and Her Art: An Interview with Anna Katz on A Compendium of Quimby Illustrations
This is new. This is interesting. This is unexpected.
It’s not as if collections of art centered on a single fictional book or series are an unheard of concept. There are books that collect different kinds of Wizard of Oz art, for example. What is rarer are books that collection art that isn’t based in a fantasy world. More contemporary art. And so when I heard about The Art of Ramona Quimby: Sixty-Five Years of Illustrations from Beverly Cleary’s Beloved Books by Anna Katz I was curious. You might be curious too, so here’s the gist of the matter:
“Ramona Quimby—rambunctious, imaginative, relatable, irresistible—is one of the most cherished characters in children’s literature. Since Beverly Cleary published the first Ramona Quimby book in 1955, the adventures of her iconic heroine have been brought to life by five different illustrators: Louis Darling, Alan Tiegreen, Joanne Scribner, Tracy Dockray, and Jacqueline Rogers. The Art of Ramona Quimby: Sixty-Five Years of Illustrations from Beverly Cleary’s Beloved Books celebrates their timeless work.
This lush volume features hundreds of illustrations by the five artists—from Louis Darling’s wild depiction of Ramona racing around on her wobbly tricycle, to Jacqueline Rogers’s playful drawing of a joyous Ramona delighting in her brand-new pajamas, to Tracy Dockray’s warm evocation of Ramona and big sister Beezus teaming up to cook dinner together.
With informative text by author Anna Katz and generous text excerpts from all eight Ramona Quimby books, The Art of Ramona Quimby allows readers to compare different artists’ interpretations of iconic scenes, read letters exchanged between Darling and Cleary, and learn the historical and personal contexts behind the illustrations.”
The best person to talk to about this? That would be author Anna Katz. I had a lot of questions:
Betsy Bird: Well! First and foremost, let’s get to the meat of the matter. What is your personal relationship to the Ramona books? Where and how did you first discover her?
Anna Katz: Like so many people born after the first book of the series was published in 1955, I grew up on the Ramona books. I remember my dad reading a Ramona book to me as part of our bedtime ritual, but I can’t pinpoint a moment of discovery—to me, Ramona Quimby and crew were always just there.
BB: And that leads nicely into my next question: where did the idea come from to do an entire book on the art gracing the Ramona titles?
AK: The brilliant folks at Chronicle Books, including Bridget Watson Payne and Mirabelle Korn, came to me with the basic idea, which I had the pleasure of fleshing out and then creating structure and form. Eight books, five illustrators, sixty-five years of D.E.A.R…There’s just so much to enjoy.
BB: A point made in the preface of the book mentions that in spite of the fact that the Ramona books were written QUITE a while ago, they’re uniquely suited to be re-illustrated due to the fact that Ms. Cleary avoided a lot of specifics. This isn’t to say that they are without older elements, but when you re-illustrate them to contemporary times it doesn’t jar with the read (and, indeed, her father’s unemployment is more timely than ever right now). Do you think that Ms. Cleary purposefully contributed to their longevity in this way, or that it was just a natural output of her writing process?
AK: I asked myself this very question many times while working on The Art of Ramona Quimby. I can’t speak to Cleary’s writing process or whether she kept things intentionally vague in order to create enduring relevancy, but I do believe that we could consider this part of her genius.
The example you pointed out, in which Ramona and Beezus’s father loses his job in Ramona and Her Father, is especially thought-provoking. That book was published in 1977, and so we can guess that the plot was inspired by the recession of the mid-1970s, during which Cleary was around sixty years old. The kids she was writing for were likely impacted in ways similar to that of the Quimby kids, and my guess is that she used her own experience as an adolescent during the Great Depression of the 1930s to write from Ramona and Beatrix’s point of view, while using her own adult struggles to give dimension to Mr. Quimby, who coped by watching too much TV and smoking too many cigarettes.
When I wrote The Art of Ramona Quimby in 2019, the most recent big recession of 2008 was a distant memory. Even so, because the writing is just so good, it was easy to relate to the angst of all the Quimbys and to remember that difficult time a decade earlier. Then, in 2020 . . . well, you know what happened. Cleary probably knew that these events come and go, and that they, or the feelings of fear and helplessness that come with them, will always be relatable.
BB: Was there ever a temptation to include international Ramona art? For that matter, IS there international Ramona art?
AK: There is some great international fan art but, as far as I know, the art used in the Ramona Quimby series was the same across translations. That being said, there was a Canadian television series based on the books in the late 1980s, and some stills from the show were used as cover art. We narrowed this book to study the five primary artists because their illustrations would be the most recognizable to readers (and to avoid falling down the Ramona art rabbit hole).
BB: I cannot hope to ask you what Ramona art is your favorite, but I can ask what book in the series you like the most. What is your top pick?
AK: Oh geez, that’s a tough one. This year, I’ve fallen in love with Ramona and Her Father again for the reasons mentioned above—because of the skill with which Cleary shows a family going through hard times similar to those we’re experiencing now. Who among us isn’t feeling fearful and helpless and coping by bingewatching TV or falling back on old bad habits? Then again, I love Beezus and Ramona, because Ramona, at four years old, is operating at undiluted levels of Ramona-ness, and we get more of Beezus on center stage. To me, this book shows the pure id of young childhood and the emerging self-consciousness of later childhood, both of which we see in Beverly Cleary herself in her first memoir A Girl From Yamhill, and which most of us can see in ourselves when looking back on our childhoods, too.
BB: And finally, does Ms. Cleary know about this book? If so, did she offer any thoughts about it?
AK: I wish I could get her thoughts! But she’s 104 and has well earned her retirement. I did have the honor of talking to three of the artists—Jacqueline Rogers, Tracy Dockray, and Joanne Scribner—and learning about their processes in creating Ramona Quimby art.
Very cool. Many thanks to Ms. Anna Katz for answering a multitude of questions and to Ms. Diane Levinson of Chronicle Books.
Filed under: Interviews
About Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.
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