That First Sentence: Ramona Quimby, Age 8

A while back, I had the genius idea of posting about Great Opening Sentences. It struck me as a neat platform from which discuss writing in general. You can find that entry here and, as a brief follow-up, here.

A couple of nights ago, I thought of it again when Maggie and I started reading a new book together. On her own, Maggie has been blowing through the Spiderwick Chronicles. But we still love our read-aloud time together, warm and close under the covers. Lisa and Mags had already selected Beverly Cleary’s, Ramona Quimby, Age 8.

First of all, how awesome is that cover illustration? Maggie and I stared at it for a full minute. Just perfect: the expression of Ramona’s impish mouth, the choppy homemade haircut, the slender neck poking out of the sweater, the bug-eyed gaze. (I always wanted a Jigsaw Jones cover like that, btw, the character up-close and central, instead of all those middle-distance, detailed scenes.) When looking for art for this post, I kept pulling up the wrong (ever-updated) covers:

No offense, but those depress me. None of them touch the Dell Yearling cover. The interior art of that book is by Alan Tiegreen, but there’s no mention of the cover artist. It doesn’t seem to be by the same hand. The signature under Ramona’s hair reads, “Scribner.” For what it’s worth, here is (I think) the original, William Morrow cover:

Anyway, I loved the first sentence:

Ramona Quimby hoped her parents would forget to give her a little talking-to.

To me, who didn’t take notice of children’s literature until 1985, it felt like these books had always existed. It surprised me to find a 1981 copyright on this one (Ramona first appeared in the early 50’s, first earning a title shot in Beezus and Ramona, 1955). An argument could be made that Ramona Quimby has been the most influential children’s book character in the past 60 years. Junie B. Jones, Clementine, Amber Brown, and many others seem like Ramona’s direct descendants. Sometimes vivid in their own right, sometimes pale imitations, but always somewhat familiar.

For what it’s worth, the second sentence was equally strong:

She did not want anything to spoil this exciting day.

Like all great beginnings, there was only one response: Keep Reading! We had a main character who already seemed to be in hot water — that great phrase, “a little talking-to” — and was now on the verge of something momentous. Also, Cleary slyly introduces the fear that something — surely something — will indeed “spoil” this day. We’re already worried about things going wrong, great calamities. But what? Well, we’ll have to read to find out.

15 comments

  1. Karen says:

    You’re right — the original Ramona is absolutely the best!

    Beginnings or leads are one of the revision tools we’ve been talking about in our class. I am amazed at what students can do after they spend some time with strong mentor text!!

  2. I love Ramona Quimby and I very much agree that Cleary’s opening snags you and rushes you right into the rest of the book.

    Karen- I also think Cleary is a great mentor for any aspiring author.

  3. jami scribner says:

    James..
    i have your answer! My mother, Joanne Scribner, illustrated the covers you speak of.. and the impish grin was mine 🙂 i was the Ramona face that stared back @ you with the bug-eyed gaze for that minute.
    My mother illustrated seemingly countless Cleary covers: “The Mouse & the Motorcycle”, “Ralph S. Mouse”, “Socks”(that was my cat & i), “Dear Mr. Henshaw”, all the Ramona books.. the list goes on & on. What i wanted to tell you, is that my mother constantly fought with the publishers to get a credit line for her artwork. And, you are right about the Alan Tiegreen fiasco. More often than not, it seems he would get credit for my mother’s work, and this is why you see our last name hidden in the pictures in most paintings. If she signed it on the edge, guess what?? They just cropped it right off.
    Do you notice artists usually get credit for their work these days? Well after decades of fighting for her own name, now finally maybe artists will reap some of the benefits that rose from her strife.
    So, look for Scribner by motorcycle tires, or on a food jar, or under my choppy hair 🙂
    Need any covers done??
    Sincere thanks for mentioning the feeling my mom’s paintings gave you above the others. As i’m sure you realize: i feel exactly the same way..
    ..take care 🙂

    • joanne l scribner says:

      I love you, jami. I could not have done the great covers without a great model. you are special to me.

      • joanne l scribner says:

        I did not do “Dear Mr, Henshaw.”…..can’t you tell? the artwork sucks.dell gave that cover to someone else….to punish me, I think…for raising my prices. They needed to keep their thumb down on those pesky illustrators. the nerve of them, wanting a credit line & a royalty shame on them….if they get too out of line, we (the publisher) will just replace them with someone else…I am glad that all the replacement covers sucked…it makes my day. No matter how little I was paid, I always did my best. (new concept)

        • Laura Becker says:

          Hello Joanne-
          My dad just gave me what appears to be an original mixed media piece by you. I would love to know more about it. If I send you a photo, could you tell me the story? A patient gave it to my Dad a very long time ago, I loved it when I was young, it reminded me of my late mother, I think. Anyways, if you feel inclined to share your email, I would love more information about it.
          All my best,
          Laura

  4. kathy monaghan says:

    Yes, I met Joanne Scribner while teaching art in the elementary schools in Spokane Washington. I remember seeing the original art for the Ramona books. The originals were awesome, with so many interesting materials used for the textures.

  5. David K says:

    I remember being taught by Joanne Scribner at Spokane Falls Community College. She was a great art teacher, and now that I’m out of school and planning on being (amongst other things) an illustrator, I take her words and the words of many others of her profession to heart: make sure you get credit. 😀

  6. Marilyn Henry says:

    I am trying to reach Joanne Scribner, an artist I have long admired. I am editor and designer of a paper doll magazine called PAPERDOLL REVIEW and I would very much like to interview Miss Scribner about her art, paper dolls as well as book covers. I love that she uses colored pencil art (my own prefered medium) and feel the PD collectors would love to know more about her and her art. (My other job is painting paper doll books for a publisher.) I hope this is a way to reach her and I would so much appreciate it if she would contact me at marilynhenry@yahoo.com.
    Marilyn Henry

    • joanne l scribner says:

      Please write to me @ n. 3314 lee, Spokane, wa. 99207, or call me @ 509-484-3208, as I do not know how to do e-mail. I would love to be interviewed on this subject. There is a giant story to tell, regarding the cleary books, especially the paperdoll boo…I have the originals. it is a shame they are not still in print, but there is a reason for this as well. please call me & if I am bm not there, I will return your call. I did all her books for the 8-10 year old age group, all but 1: I did not do Dear mr. henshaw….I guess they were trying to replace me, as my agent had raised my prices. he said, “just wait. the book won’t sell, and they’ll be back.” The cover artist never got a credit line,or a royalty, while the interior artist always did. after 16 years of this, I sued the publisher over this. I was put out of business for about 8 years, because of this. I settled on a credit line…for all artists, but I should have been more specific, as the credit line was placed on the back cover….very tiny, but it was a first and set a pesidense.(sp?) it was after this credit line on the back of my books that dell sold the rights to avon books, just to hurt me, I think…and the covers have sucked ever since. very sad. I wish my books could be reissued with my covers, and a proper credit line…a small royalty would be nice, so that I could pay my rent. you see, cleary and the mediocre interior artists all got rich and famous, at my expence. It would be nice if those original books with my covers were also accociated with my name, as I do believe that they have become classics. They were (with my covers) the most successful, longest running, largest selling series of paperbacks in children’s paperback publishing history…I have done the covers of over 100 children’s paperbacks….and want to do a blog, if only I could figure out how to do one. it is my goal….I have many stories to tell, and it would make an interesting book. already illustrated, of course. there is a story for every drawing…i’d love to get it published…with a credit line & a royalty….I am dreaming on.

  7. Kathy Lawrence says:

    Jami Scribner, it is a pleasure to read about your mother and to learn that you are the model for that incomparable little face that has charmed so many of us…totally delightful! I assume you are also the model for the darling figure of Ramona with all of her mirror reflections…splendid illustration! Super little model!
    I notice that Marilyn Henry is hoping to interview your mom. Let me recommend her highly. She interviewed me for PaperDoll Review years ago and she wrote the best article I’ve ever had written about me and has also written numerous great articles about my mother, Queen Holden. Marilyn is an artist herself and completely understands the artists she interviews. She gets the details and facts straight which, in interviews, is rare, as you probably already know. PaperDoll Review is a beautifully put together magazine and its audience is made up of both collectors and artists. The collectors remember the artists names and their work and collect and save it. They have been immensely wonderful with my mother’s work and keep it alive and appreciated for generations and seem to be doing the same for me – I appreciate them so much!! They would be a super audience for an article about your mother and would love details about you and your posing for her. The fact that your mother’s name has been so hard to find on some of her gorgeous work means that many reading such an article would be, at long last, made aware of her identity (they probably are already appreciative of her art, just as I was). I learned the name JoAnne Scribner from Marilyn’s mentioning her beautiful work in an article of hers on colored pencil technique.
    I do hope you and your mom will consider an interview…her fans (present and future)would love it!
    Thanks for writing into this blog and thank you,James Preller, for your great comments on Ramona – You give me insight into just why the Beverly Cleary books remain my favorites, both from reading them with my mother and from reading them with my own little girl.

  8. Liz says:

    Hello,

    What a surprise to find the artist and model on this site. I loved the artwork on and in the Ramona books. Thank you for your work.

    I was trying to find the Ramona book series with the original artwork, but I am finding it difficult. Any suggestions?
    Thanks

  9. Rosalind says:

    I am 73. Beverley Cleary was a favorite. I grew up with Tiegreen’s sketchy drawings. I too wondered what was going on with the paperback covers.
    I appreciate the Tiegreen’s little drawings so when I found a 1977 ed. of Ramona and Her Father I was shocked at the cutesie cover. A generation difference pf 20+ yrs. Gone was that quirky funny little tomboy…replaced by the New Improved ingratiating girly girlish non-Ramona.
    I am from children’s librarians. A good friend to 2 Newbery writers: Jean Latham and Ann Nolan Clark. And to artists and illustrators… Scribner’s illustrations should of course be acknowledged. Absolutely.

    I wondered what happened back then …rights and reasons.

    • jimmy says:

      Thanks for your thoughts, Rosalind. These are all commercial decisions — not always for the best — intended to make the books appealing to a new generation of readers. It’s fairly common for old covers to be updated. But yes, something is definitely lost in the process, as the “new & improved” covers tend to target the broadest commercial market. Dumbed down, usually, but not always. Oh well!

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