Top 10 Life Lessons I Learned from Ramona Quimby

I am often asked about my favorite author.   Children’s author Beverly Clearly, creator of my beloved Ramona series, recently celebrated her 100th birthday, so I was reminded that hers were the first books I truly loved.    While I read everything she wrote–The Mouse and the Motorcycle, Ellen Tebbets, and Henry Huggins to name a few–it was Ramona Quimby and her family that taught me at and early age about family, friendships, and how the world works.   My Top 10 Life Lessons learned from Ramona Quimby:

10.    Bricks make great toys.        As a child of the 70s, I spent my early years wandering outside with my neighborhood friends finding things to do.    Ramona and her sensible neighborhood friend Howie did the same and discovered the game of Brick Factory.     This involved nothing more than using a big rock to crush bricks into dust.

  Ramona brick factory

 I loved this idea.    My friend, Andrea, and I tried this more than once, finding that our modern 70s bricks must have been less crushable than Ramona’s, so Brick Factory never lasted long for us.    But the idea of finding fun in nothing was still inspiring.

9.  Teachers don’t always like their students.   My second grade teacher hated me.   I think my confidence irritated her, and when it showed she was quick to remind me that I wasn’t so smart or creative or funny.    It was a relief to read about Ramona’s stern, humorless teacher whose nylons sagged around her ankles and had no patience for Ramona’s antics.

8.   Toothpaste won’t go back in the tube.   Impulsive Ramona, mesmerized by the unblemished sleekness of a new tube, squeezed the entire thing into the sink.    Only after it was too late did she realize that, obviously, it’s not going back in.   Ramona’s practical mother made her scoop the chalky mess into a plastic bag, and she was a required to dip her toothbrush in the used toothpaste while the rest of the family got a new tube.   As an 8 year old I think I glimpsed the metaphor, because the image of Ramona living with the sticky consequences of her 5 minutes of fun stuck with me.

7.  Working moms are worn out.    My mom was one of the few that I knew who worked full time, so I recognized Dorothy Quimby’s exhaustion.   For Ramona, dinners were late, cookies weren’t homemade, and costumes for the church program were held together by safety pins.   But exhausted or not, moms are always there when you need them the most.

Ramona's mom

 

6.   Parents miss the little details that are oh-so-big in an 8 year old’s life.    “Is my egg hardboiled?” Ramona asked more than once, excited she could participate in the crack-your-egg-on-your-head-at-the-lunch table fad.   Of course it wasn’t, and Ramona was literally left with egg on her face in front of her classmates.   Once again, it was familiar to me as a kid whose mom sometimes missed the details.    But it’s even more relatable now–just ask my daughter who opened her bag at the lunch table to find a half eaten apple, sandwich crusts, and cheese wrappers–yesterday’s lunch, decaying in her bag because this mom forgot to pack a new one.

5.  Curly hair is better than straight.    Plain old straight haired Ramona was always jealous of perfect Susan with her boing-boing curls.    There’s always someone who is prettier, or smarter, or who has better stuff.   It’s the way of the world.

4.   I can still love my awesome new sandals even if no one else does.   Yard Ape told Ramona her feet looked big in her back to school sandals.    She looked down, noted that her feet did look bigger, and took no offense.   Her feet had grown over the summer,  she decided, so this was fact, not insult.    Ramona didn’t let his words crush her soul, or the love of her sandals.

Ramona's sandals

3.   The dark is scary.    Ramona longed for, and was finally rewarded with, her own room.    But that beautiful, coveted room was terrifying after the sun went down.    Ramona’s paralyzing fear, her tightly tucked blankets, and her desperate run for her parents made my own dark and spooky bedroom closet a little less frightening.

2.   Families struggle.    Mr. Quimby lost his job, so Mrs. Quimby had to go back to work.    Ramona fretted as her dad grew surly and started smoking.

Ramona's dad

Her parents bickered over pancakes, and Ramona and Beezus whispered their late night worries of divorce.    And then life went on, arguments forgotten.   Reading about the tribulations of the Quimby family, from the perspective of a second grader, was like peeking through a neighbor’s shutters and seeing that sometimes their lives were hard too.

1.  Joy is in the little stuff.    A little white bag of gummy bears, swinging high enough to kick tree branches, stomping in rain puddles.

Ramona puddles

Ramona taught me to look for simple pleasures and treasures.    Ramona’s life was ordinary, her adventures never extending much past her neighborhood or school, but spending an afternoon with Ramona was as soothing as hot chocolate and a fuzzy blanket.     What a gift to write with such honesty, warmth and humor.    Happy 100th birthday to my favorite author, Beverly Cleary.

 

 

My friends Luke, Leia, and Han

(I think it’s important to start by saying that I have never claimed to be cool.)

I am so geeked out about the upcoming Star Wars movie I can hardly stand it.     As I write this post, I am only 95 hours from watching Star Wars:  The Force Awakens.   Yes, I already have my tickets for first show this Thursday night. at 7:00pm.

I realize that I am not the target audience for this movie, since I’m neither an 11 year old boy, nor a Generation X guy who grew up making his own light saber with a cardboard wrapping paper tube and markers.

Yet, I can’t believe I’m the only middle aged mom I know who is curious about how Han and Leia are living their lives.   Are they married?   Did Leia hyphenate–Leia Organa-Solo, or even Leia Skywalker-Organa-Solo?    Do they have kids?   Do they spend every weekend in the bleachers at Pod Races, griping that the coaches only play Jedis’ kids?    What about Uncle Luke?  Does he come over for Sunday dinners of blue milk and those crunchy little nuggets?      Is Luke a fun uncle who melts stuff with his light saber to entertain the kids?  Or is he boring, talking politics of the federation until his brother-in-law Han tells him to lighten up.     I am way more interested in keeping up with the Skywalkers than the Kardashians.

My friends look at me in bewilderment.    “So…you’re into Star Wars?     Seriously?”   I have learned not to answer the question of how many times I have seen the original trilogy, because my peers gasp in shock when I say “at least 50.”      All they ever say at this point is, “I don’t get it.”

It’s not that I’m into science fiction.   OK… I guess I did see the original Star Trek series, and all the Star Trek movies, and I watched the Star Trek-Next Generation for a few years.   But that’s it.

Again, I never claimed to be cool.

To me, Star Wars is about friendship.    The kind of friendship that makes a guy risk the wrath of a reptilian gangster to shoot a couple of tie fighters so his buddy can blow up a space station.      Isn’t that what we all want in a friend?

Star Wars friends

My books are built on that kind of friendship.   While no one gets frozen in carbonite, I’d like to think that Amanda, Leah, and Zoe would challenge Darth Vader for each other.    “Unprotected” and “Unattached” are available at amazon, barnesandnoble.com and at some local bookstores, and they can still be ordered in time for Christmas.

And yeah, of course, I’m going to have to say it:

May the Force Be With You.

“I want an Easy Bake Oven!” (and other proof that holiday marketing works)

As a child of the 70s, there was no greater marketing tool than the thick, shiny JC Penney catalog.

JC Penney catalog

This book of joy was the source of most of my back to school shopping, but the real excitement came at Christmas time.   Starting in October, I circled, dog-earned, and initialed dozens of traditional and more unexpected gifts.   This catalog convinced me that I needed maracas, a snow cone maker, a tea set, a drum set, and a microscope.   Despite circling them violently in the catalog, I didn’t receive any of them.  Santa did read our lists, so I did get these three gems that were beautiful in the catalog, but a little less exciting in real life:

Baby Alive–I didn’t have a lot of dolls as a child, but after seeing a beautiful catalog girl lovingly feeding her Baby Alive, I wanted one.   When Christmas arrived, I was thrilled to have my own.   She came with powdered baby food packets that I mixed with water (just like a real mom!) to feed to my baby.  What followed was attempting to change her diaper.  The slimy food was supposed to pass through Baby Alive to the tiny diaper that came in the box.Baby Alive

Anatomically, Baby Alive had a tube that ran through her hard plastic body, and the expectation that gravity would be enough to take care of business.   Alas, the prepackaged sludge did not pass through easily.   Instead, my Baby Alive had a constant case of constipation that could only be remedied by turning her upside down and running water through her…uh…digestive system and shaking her  violently.     Not the tender moment I had envisioned.

Easy Bake Oven–I wanted this in the worst way.     I could bake and decorate tiny, perfect cakes by myself, just like the girls on the commercial!     I imagined serving my treats at tea parties with my friends wearing fancy dresses. What I learned the hard way was that a light bulb doesn’t cook like an oven, to say the least.

1977 Easy Bake Oven

In my cakes, batter bubbled over one side of the pan searing onto the  bulb, while the other side of the cake remained cold, gooey, and gross.  I used the three mini-mixes the first day, but all three landed in the garbage.   I tried a few Jiffy cake mixes, but these made an even bigger mess deep inside the blazing hot orange plastic that didn’t come apart and was impossible to clean.   Everyone I knew had an Easy Bake Oven, and no one I knew could make it work.    Yet the this useless hunk of plastic has endured, modernized, and is now sold for $44.95(!!).

I can’t explain this next gift by anything other than marketing, and the fact that I was a strange child.    Somehow JC Penney convinced me I wanted the creepiest gift I would ever beg for and eventually receive: a ventriloquist doll.

Emmet Kelly JuniorIf there was ever proof that marketing works, it is this horrifying gift.   Emmet Kelly Junior was at the top of my list, and I was thrilled to open him on Christmas morning.   I sat him on my lap and made a feeble attempt to throw my voice.    I soon realized that neither Emmet nor I had anything to say to each other.    I’m sure he was in the back of my closet, giving me nightmares, by January that year.

Without the luxury of the magical JC Penney catalog, we adults fall back on gift cards and detailed lists to finish our Christmas shopping.  This year, please consider giving my books, Unprotected and Unattached, as gifts!     Support small business by purchasing at Fair Trade Books in Red Wing, or take advantage of Cyber Monday and find them on Amazon and BarnesandNoble.com.

http://www.amazon.com/Unattached-Kristen-Lee-Johnson-ebook/dp/B015JTYVUG/ref=dp_kinw_strp_1

Writing the leading man…from Tom Hanks to T.J. Hooker to Han Solo

As I started writing my second novel, Unattached, I was already well acquainted with the three main female characters–Amanda, Leah, and Zoe.    They are so alive in my head that I have sat in my real life social work staff meetings and wondered which new case should go Amanda.   I knew that my second book would continue with the same characters, but I needed new leads.    Leah, Amanda’s experienced, jaded, fellow social worker felt like an obvious choice for the main character, but the search for the male lead was harder.

My new leading man was going to be a cop, and I wanted him to be different from Jake, who was so Tom Hanks-esque in his sensitivity and support for Amanda that one reader told me, “I loved him, but he’s almost too nice.  Is any guy like that?”

Tom Hanks
Tom Hanks

While I think sensitive Jake was the right choice Amanda,  I decided that Leah’s love interest needed to be edgier, more of a mess.   I struggled with how attractive to let him be.   In early drafts, I strayed too far from the typical handsome leading man, instead describing a balding, pudgy jerk that my sister (and best editor) said reminded her of T.J. Hooker.   Um no.  Not what I was going for.

T.J. Hooker
T.J. Hooker

With a sense of urgency to save this Pete Kemper that smarmy fate, I took inspiration from my first movie star boyfriend: Han Solo.

Han Solo
Han Solo

I was first introduced to Captain Solo when I was six, sitting on the sticky floor of the Cinema Unique movie theater in my hometown where they sold way too many tickets to one of the first showings of Star Wars.    One of my earliest memories is looking up at his crooked smile with a happy sigh.

A little more Han Solo, and lot less T.J. Hooker, and Pete Kemper was starting to come to life as he is introduced here in Unattached:

Pete Kemper was blonde and slightly balding (“That’s my natural hairline!” he swore to anyone who would listen), wearing his uniform of a polo and worn-out khakis.   Kemp, already tan from many weekends spent on his boat, had permanent, deep laugh lines around his eyes casting doubt on whether he took anything too seriously.

But readers will find that not only does he take his job seriously, Kemp also has a serious interest in pursuing Leah, who would prefer to remain…unattached.

Unprotected and Unattached can be found on amazon.com, barnesandnoble.com, and at local book stores.