It's all about...popular girls...rec rooms...summers at the lake...dates with wealthy, thrill-crazy boys...black-market antiques...small town political corruption...and finding your true path in life. The Paris Hat considers the sometimes frothy, sometimes serious world of novels for teenage girls from the 1950s and 60s.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Girl Interrupted

Title: A Girl Like Me
Author: Jeannette Eyerly
Publisher: Lippincott, 1966
Jacket: Ellen Raskin (yes, that Ellen Raskin)
Provenance: Formerly the property of the Burnsville branch of the Dakota County (MN) Library System
Fun: Less than Zero, circa 1966
Setting: An unidentified town on/near the Mississippi River
Quote: If it was a baby, what would Cass do? She'd said her father would kill her. Of course, he would not. But Robin shivered, remembering the one time she'd seen him.

In magazine stories of the "True Confessions" type, up until the 1950s, giving a baby up for adoption was almost always portrayed as morally suspect -- an attempt to disown one's responsibility and erase one's past. In the 1950s, for various economic, social and psychological reasons*, the wind swung around suddenly. Adoption was now presented as the best solution for all parties -- the baby could go to a good home and the unwed mother could start a new and better life, her secret forever protected.

This second attitude forms the core of A Girl Like Me, which is partly set in a home for unwed mothers. Eyerly wants to write about her subject in a clean, unemotional and unsensational way, and she creates two typical characters -- Robin, a studious good girl, and Cass, a more popular type. Cass fixes up Robin with Randy, best friend of her boyfriend, Brew, and they make the rounds of decadent suburbia -- necking spots, beer joints and parties with loud "thumpy" music and no parents. Robin's own parents eventually intercede, forbidding her to see Randy, but it's too late for Cass, who turns up sick in the ladies' room in the middle section of the book.

From this point much of the book is standard -- a humilating visit to the doctor, Cass' banishment to a maternity home, rumors at school -- but Eyerly continues her crisp style at least until the last section, when Robin, who knows that she's adopted, attempts to find out something about her own parents.

A Girl Like Me is clearly a well-meant attempt to treat an important topic in a realistic, non-sleazy way, explore a complex issue facing teens today, etc, etc. The problem is that it probably wasn't possible, in 1966, for a reputable writer like Eyerly to plunge fully into the sticky business of adolescent desire. Unlike the books that Judy Blume would be writing 10 years in the future, Cass and Robin don't seem to have bodies or feelings. Randy and Brew are basically bullies and the reader has to wonder why the girls go out with them at all. And yet in some ways the book still holds up. It has the ring of the modern world: a character drives a Volkswagen, ESP is mentioned, and even the P word -- period -- is flung out casually. Robin, who defies both Cass' parents and her own to visit her in the maternity home, is an appealing character. Maternity homes are gone, and with them the unquestioning acceptance of adoption as the best thing an unwed mother can do, but I can see girls today still identifying with Robin and Cass.





*Detailed in Rickie Solinger's book Wake Up Little Susie: Single Pregnancy and Race before Roe v. Wade

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Love the One You're With

Title: River At Her Feet

Author: Zoa Sherburne
Jacket: Joseph Cellini

Publisher: William Morrow, 1965
Provenance: Formerly the property of Thelma C. Holden of Roanoke

Setting: Clarksburg, USA
Fun: being a bridesmaid; a musical prodigy
Quote: "The flowers came," Francine announced in reverent tones. "They smell simply beautiful and Mother cried when she saw them."
"Mother," Elizabeth reminded her younger sister glumly, "has been known to cry at pep rallies. What else is new?"

Although I had heard of Zoa Sherburne, I read this book partly because I saw her name on Peter Sireuta's Collecting Children's Books blog, where, along with Jean Nielsen and Amelia Walden, she was mentioned as YA writer from what he calls a "lost generation." After reading River at her Feet, I would describe Sherburne as a transitional writer, looking ahead to the kinds of books I often read growing up in the 70s: "problem novels," yes, but ones that focused on emotional situations rather than divorce, alcoholism or some of the more "angsty" issues.


River at Her Feet takes its theme from the once-familar Longfellow poem Maidenhood: "Standing with reluctant feet/Where brook and river meet." Interestingly, I've read some criticism that these lines, which are also quoted in Anne of Green Gables, are a coded reference to physical maturation of adolescence. (Oh, those literary critics and their filthy minds!) In any case, Sherburne focuses strictly on the emotional growth of her heroine, Elizabeth Stacy. At loose ends after her older sister's wedding, Elizabeth, 16, develops a crush on Eric Killian, piano prodigy and visiting celebrity, who happens to be 24.


What follows is a little shocking to tender modern sensibilities. Eric and Elizabeth date, though very chastely. They take long walks and go boating and once even go to a formal dance. Elizabeth's parents frown but take a hands-off approach. (We eventually learn that this is because they know that Eric has a steady girlfriend his own age in his hometown.) Sherburne handles this so well the reader doesn't ask some rather obvious questions about how damaging these emotional cross-currents might be. And River ends cheerfully, with Elizabeth turning down a last date with Eric to spend time with her family. If River at Her Feet is a transitional novel, looking ahead to some of the tougher subjects that will be tackled later in the decade, emotionally it's still back in the past -- with Longfellow -- viewing adolescence as a time of rapture, growth and innocence.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Year of Living Tamely

Title: Senior Year
Author
: Anne Emery
Publisher: Scholastic, 1964 (paperback reprint, originally published 1949)
Provenance: Formerly the property of Elena Sipp
Setting: a small town so generic it doesn't even have a name
Fun: plant sitting; babysitting; church youth group; "Captain Midnight" on the radio
Quote: In the garden she chose white and yellow chrysanthemums and achieved an arrangement in a low yellow bowl before Jean finished the table. Then she discovered that Jean had used pink placemats and refused to change them just to carry out Sally's color scheme. "All right then," said Sally, with conscious patience, "only it would be nice to have the first dinner at home as perfect as possible."

Senior Year was published in 1949, a fact that becomes obvious when someone asks Sally if she likes her music "smooth" or "hot" (i.e., Bing Crosby or Glenn Miller style.) I have to wonder if the kids who picked up this book in 1964 weren't confused by that, or if the absence of rock'n'roll didn't matter to them. Interestingly enough, this must be the fifth or sixth book in which some of the characters listen to folk music (in this case Sally's parents, who go in raptures over John Jacob Niles.) In other books it's been the teens who listen to it. I know that folk had a vogue in the early 60s, but I sometimes wonder if it isn't the adult writers putting their own tastes onto the characters. In any case, I've never run across a book from this era yet with any appreciation for rock'n'roll.
It's hard to say exactly what the main plot of Senior Year is. There's a Mr. Right and Mr. Wrong, a fast boy called Eddie who takes Sally to a sleazy bar. There's a somber subplot involving a sister who gets rheumatic fever (also probably anachronistic by 1964) and spends months in the hospital. Bills pile up, and at the end of Senior Year Sally is told by her parents that they can't afford college for her unless she goes to the local state university. Sally doesn't object to the educational qualities of this institute, rather:

"Everyone she knew was going away. There wouldn't be anyone left in town. It was the one tragedy she had thought wouldn't happen to her."

Sally cheers up, eventually, when she learns that Mr. Right will be going to college locally, too.
There is a vague stirring behind all this action which seems to suggest that Anne Emery wants Senior Year to be about growing up and thinking of things beyond your own narrow viewpoint -- e.g., giving up the dream of attending a certain college when you realize you little sister may be crippled for life. But it doesn't really feel like that. It feels more like settling for less and pretending you like it.
Which, as a concept, was also pretty anachronistic by 1964.


Thursday, November 4, 2010

Washington is for Lovers

Title: Cherry Blossom Princess
Author: Marjorie Holmes
Publisher: Westminster Press, 1960
Jacket: not credited
Setting: Glamorous Washington D.C.
Provenance: formerly the property of the Sacramento County Library
Fun: Shopping, parades, politics, revenge
Quote: "Where in the world did you get all this stuff?" was all that Marty could think to exclaim.
"Oh, hither and yon," Kitty said, hanging her mink jacket in the hall closet..."The rug's a genuine Saruk. We got it in Bagdad for a song. That inlaid mother of pearl cabinet's a present from Madame Chiang Kai-Shek. The tray's from Haile Selassie. The Delft clock -- isn't it cute, all the moving figures? -- is from the Dutch queen."
If you look up Marjorie Holmes on Ebay or any other used bookseller website, you will find quite a lot of inspirational books, both fiction and non-fiction. Her young adult stuff is harder to find, and this book in particular is considered quite rare -- I've seen copies in top condition listed for $30 or $40. (I jumped on $13 for a ex-library copy in fair condition as a bargain.) My guess is no one can resist either the title or the cover.
In real life, Holmes lived in Washington DC, and between books she wrote a newspaper column on family issues*. She came from Iowa, and she gives this same origin to Marty of Cherry Blossom Princess. Marty is sent to visit her aunt and uncle (a VIP in the State Department) in DC to get her mind off being dumped by her boyfriend, Don. In a matter of pages, her aunt and uncle fix it up that Marty will be Iowa's entry into the Cherry Blossom Princess festival, and in another trice Marty has 1) boy next door Mike, 2) charming but engaged official escort Skip, 3) poor old Don, whose high school band has come to Washington to participate in the festival, all trailing after her.
The great success of Cherry Blossom Princess is in its Cinderella evocation of a certain phase of adolescence: on the verge of being an adult and yet still only pretending to be one. Marty and her various escorts and boyfriends go to restaurants and dances and "parties in someone's apartment in Georgetown"; they roam Washington after dark, gazing at the monuments and uttering civics-class sentiments. Marty cries into her pillow at night and spends hours waving from a parade float the next morning. It's a whirlwind of glamor, heartbreak, springtime and emotional exhaustion. And yes, I was a tiny bit jealous, though I remember that feeling well. (A Marriott Hotel in Louisville, Kentucky can seem mighty glamorous when you're seventeen.)
Eventually the party ends and Marty walks off with Mike, glad to be over Don and free of Skip. You get the feeling, though, that Iowa will never seem the same.

 
*ETA:  I did not do my research properly on Holmes.  She was best known as the author of Two from Galilee (1972), the first of a trilogy about the courtship of Mary and Joseph and the adolescence of Jesus.  Two from Galilee is very reflective of an era in which the humanity of Jesus as an ordinary person was often stressed (see Godspell and Jesus Christ Superstar, for instance.)  Let's just say the book is sort of...earthy, although any book in which the Virgin Mary gets her period on the first page  deserves some credit, I think.
-- August 2014

Thursday, October 21, 2010

West Coast Story

Title: Sunday Dreamer
Authors: Bob and Jan Young
Publisher: Julian Messner, 1962
Setting: Seaside Cordoba, California
Provenance: unknown, but sometime around 1971 was owned by someone who lived in Bismarck, North Dakota
Fun: Grandma vs. the zoning board; school rivalry; vandalism
Quote: "For years we've prided ourselves that Cordoba didn't have a juvenile delinquency problem but this situation between the high schools is getting out of hand. It's beginning to look more and more like some of that outright gang warfare you hear about in the big cities."

Do people still write books about girls who just want to be popular? How exactly did it come about that popularity became synonymous with evil and the popular girl a cardboard character who represented every negative value? As I remember high school the popular girls were flimsy, airheaded creatures who didn't bother much with girls like me (something I didn't resent) and who hardly had the impetus or time to go around destroying the lives of lesser mortals, or even saying nasty things to them. High school wasn't war, high school was indifference -- which can actually be much, much worse.
In books from this era, however, popularity is rarely portrayed as a negative thing. Every heroine wants to have lots of friends and be among the class leaders, all of whom are nice, normal girls. True, the occasional cat shows up in their ranks, but her sharp tongue usually causes her downfall before long. After all, who would want to be friends with someone who isn't nice?
So this brings us to Sunday Dreamer. Moving to Southern California from San Francisco, where she had one friend at school, is a fresh start for Nancy. Her grandmother's social position as foundress of the town ought to help, too. But Nancy tries too hard, she's too studied in her "witty" responses to friendly questions, she takes offense too quickly, and before you know it she's eating lunch all by herself in Cordoba, too.
Given that being popular is synonymous with being normal, no-one questions that Nancy is right in wanting it. She just has to go slow, and since this book is by the Youngs, Nancy's journey will involve something serious and thought-provoking. In this case, nursing. Nancy volunteers at the hospital, she brings in other girls to help, she unites two feuding high school gangs, and she pulls an all-nighter after a train accident. After all that, who the hell cares about being popular?

And thanks to Carole Anne Carr, who gave me a Literacy Builder Award this week. I posted my five favorite words and passed it on to three other bloggers on my other blog, Pray for Rain. Thanks again, Carole Anne.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

One of the Girls

Title: Tomboy
Author: Barbara Clayton
Jacket: Lucille Wallace
Publisher: Funk & Wagnalls, 1961
Setting: chilly New England
Provenance: "Ludwig, 1962" written inside front cover
Fun: beating up boys who call your brother a sissy; a school assembly about missiles; scaring old ladies on Halloween
Quote: It was getting dark and the game was about to break up when Percy Hill, carrying the ball, headed in Gabby's direction. Without a second's hesitation, she stuck out one foot and jabbed an elbow in his ribs at the same time. Percy hit the ground with a thud.

With a book called Tomboy, football is a given. So is the discovery, by the end of the story, that dresses, boys and dates are wonderful as well.
Gabby's problem is not so much era-appropriate gender identification as the existence of the rest of her family. Her twin brother plays the violin. (Thus she has to beat up the boys who tease him.) Her mother, who is French, buys the wrong kind of clothing for her -- frilly, frothy stuff. (Thus school dances are a misery.) When these problems are sorted out, Gabby begins a swift upward climb, eventually becoming a model of sports clothes in a local department store and winning the Women's Club essay contest.
There is an extra twist in this book, and it's caused me to create a new tag, called "I Want to Be A Writer." Like Judy, in I, Judy and Kathy in Stranger No More, Gabby, inspired by a neighbor who writes picture books, takes up the pen. She writes a picture book of her own, about a mythical Maine animal called a sidehill-gouger, and even sits in on what would today be called a critique group with her neighbor. Clayton is careful to show that writing is hard: Gabby doesn't like the criticism she gets there, and she abandons the story, only to take it out of the drawer again later.
As she did in Skates for Marty, Clayton tends to overload her characters with good things at the end of the book: Gabby is not only a model and essay winner but she is admitted to a prestigious summer writing class (the kind, I imagine, that Sylvia Plath tried to kill herself when she didn't get into.) Plus there's a boy or two. But Tomboy, in spite of it's ending, isn't a sellout. Gabby remains a character who knows she looks better in ski clothes than frilly dresses.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

4H Dropout

Title: Sweet Sixteen
Author
: Anne Emery
Jacket: Georgeann Helms
Publisher: Macrae, Smith, 1956
Setting: Marquette, Indiana, two hours by bus from Terre Haute
Provenance: "Kathy Himsl" written in front cover
Fun: how to be a juvenile delinquent in 6 easy lessons; training a heifer ; a school bond issue
Quote: "You do the strangest things," marveled Bunny. "That 4-H all the time -- and orchestra. Don't you ever have any fun?"

Don't be deceived by the innocent cover! There are bad girls in this book! Bad, bad girls! Girls who laugh at the 4-H club! Girls who order hamburgers in drugstores at 12:30 at night! And bad boys, too! You know, grease monkey types, always fixing cars!
OK, I'll stop, but I do want to at least give Anne Emery credit for landing herself with a subject that most YA writers today won't touch. Any kind of mutation or peril is fair game, it seems, but an ordinary girl who gets bad grades and thinks she's dumb? A girl who doesn't even like to read? You've got to be kidding. What kind of a protagonist is that?
Jane Ellison was also the heroine of an earlier Emery title, Hickory Hill, in which she bought a calf and developed an interest in farming (and farmboys.) Now, like a typical sixteen year old, Jane has moved on. She's going to high school and she has sarcastic Mrs. Shelby who won't explain the difference between the Pilgrims and the Puritans and there's no point in trying to please her. After all, her new friends Bunny and Rita are positive that there's only one thing really important in life:

"I say a girl's first job is getting a husband," Bunny announced..."It's not as easy as it looks, either. That's why I'm not going to let Stan go until something better comes along. At least he's got a job."

It should be noted that Emery distances herself from this attitude by having Jane's mother later say, "Bunny and Rita don't seem like our kind of people."
Sweet Sixteen would be more meaningful if we could see how Jane actually improves her grades. There are a few wispy scenes in which Jane confides in another teacher, Miss Morgan, and a few more when she studies harder, but the motivation for this change is lacking. (A big scene in which Bunny and Rita are shown to be two-faced cats would be nice, too, but instead they just drift away.) At the end of the book Miss Morgan's suprise wedding swamps the narrative entirely, but somewhere in the midst of it Jane sells her calf and realizes she's no longer interested in Chuck, the farmboy next door. She's moved on again. Perhaps the real comfort of Sweet Sixteen lies in this implication for parents and struggling students: bad grades are just another phase.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Divided Loyalties

Titles: The Divided Heart; Honor Sands
Authors: Mina Lewiton; Mildred Lee
Publishers: E.M. Hale, 1947 (1965 reprint); Lothrop, Lee & Shepard, 1966
Provenance: Formerly the property of the Nye County (Nevada) School District
Settings: New York City; Cypress, a small Florida town
Fun: Playing "Greensleeves" on the harp; helping your old man out with a couple of extra bucks; characters named Princess Gault and Mr. Bubber Arrington
Quotes:
"I've been reading up on Child Psychology. What are you going to do, Julie?" "Do?" "For a career, I mean." (The Divided Heart)

I don't deserve Mother or Daddy -- or Grandma, either, Honor thought. I am an evil person. She cut the zinnias as long stemmed as possible. (Honor Sands)

Both these books belonged to the school district of Nye County, Nevada, probably to the school in Tonopah, the town where I bought them.* Both books still had their check-out cards in their back pockets, and I couldn't help peeking to see how popular they might have been. (A dangerous thing for a writer to do, I know.) Honor Sands was checked out a total of 6 times, most recently in October 1972. The Divided Heart, however, was checked out 24 times, mainly in 1968-69, when it seems to have gone through most of the female portion of the eighth grade.
I can't quite say what the attraction of The Divided Heart might have been. It's a wistful little book about divorce, set in post-war New York City. Julie's father is unemployed songwriter who eventually goes off with a rich woman, although Julie, after discovering folk songs and getting a job taking care of neglected babies at a nearby Settlement House, doesn't seem to miss him much. (Mina Lewiton taught at the New School for Social Research, and honestly, it doesn't show a bit.)
Honor Sands would seem to be more contemporary, being a quiet little book about life in a town in Central Florida. Much like Mayberry, there are no African-Americans in this ideal town, presumably because Mildred Lee did not want any controversial civil rights stuff in her book, and if you let this go by you have a nice story about slumber parties, school rivalries, a handsome science teacher and going to the prom. The strangest thing about Honor Sands is a rather sophisticated subplot in which Honor begins to suspect her father of having an affair -- with her aunt. When Honor finds out that her father is simply giving Aunt Cathy advice on her upcoming marriage, Honor is so relieved she throws up, which is a nice, unsentimental touch.
On the other hand, if I were an eighth grader in Tonopah, Nevada in 1968, I might have preferred The Divided Heart too.


*I bought my first two teen girl books, The Paris Hat and The Charmed Circle, in Tonopah last year, selecting them from a table labeled "Books -- $3.00" in the Central Nevada Museum. Alas, the museum no longer has that table, but there is now a used bookstore in town.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Metapost: Ephemera

As I mentioned when I did the post about Junior Miss, I found a postcard tucked in the front cover of the book. It was sent by a soldier named George A. Paris serving "somewhere in Italy" in 1943 to his cousin Eugene back in Manchester, NH. Inside Junior Miss was an owner's name -- Marjorie Tremblay -- with the note that it was a present from Cousin Albert in 1941. The book was extremely clean and I think it probably never had another owner -- just sat on Marjorie Tremblay's bookshelf until her library was sold off to a bookseller in New Hampshire sometime this year. When I saw the postcard my first thought was that I couldn't believe the bookseller missed it. Junior Miss cost me $1.00 and the postcard would probably fetch a little more than that sold separately on ebay. I had no interest in selling it, so I thought about keeping it. It was pretty and kind of a remarkable piece of history. But I also had a gut feeling that it didn't really belong to me. I thought there was probably someone out there to whom the postcard might have real significance. To cut to the chase, I found, via Facebook, Gisele Paris Truedel, George Paris' daughter, and ended up sending the postcard to her. She has very fond memories of her father and was very excited to have something from an era in his life she didn't know much about. The topper is that this week a reporter in New Hampshire wrote a human-interest-type feature column about it.
Well! Famous in New Hampshire! (At least among the shrinking number of people who still read newspapers.) Anyway, I think the universe is playing games with me. Because this weekend I was reading Sunday Dreamer by Bob and Jan Young, and in the middle of the book this fell out:


Could it be that for someone out there a grade school student ticket to a Mary College Marauders athletic event from 1970-71 has untold significance! I must find them! To the Google!


Monday, August 16, 2010

Raisin in the Arizona Sun

Title: Hold Fast to Your Dreams
Author: Catherine Blanton
Jacket: Harper Johnson
Publisher: Julian Messner, 1955
Setting: Blue Mesa (probably Tucson), Arizona
Provenance: formerly the property of Memorial High School, Newark, CA
Fun: the Fiesta of the Arts; a Hollywood producer-type who says "by gad"; tacos
Quote: Dorothea drew back. "Emmy Lou Jefferson, what a thing for you to say! You of all people. Remember this isn't just your battle or mine. It belongs to our generation. We may fail this time and even the next. But that doesn't mean we won't keep fighting."

Hold Fast to Your Dreams has a fairly familiar plot: Emmy Lou wants to dance, and in order to do so she must leave her small town for the wider world. The twist is that Emmy Lou is African-American, and this, too, would seem to make for a familiar plot. But Hold Fast to Your Dreams lacks the typical self-congratulatory tone of the social problem novel. For one thing, it was written in 1955. In 1955 the Montgomery Bus Boycott was still getting going. The Little Rock 9, the March on Washington, and the Civil Rights Act were all well in the future. (Even the play whose title I have ripped off for this post wasn't written until 1959.) In other words, there was no guarantee that segregation and institutional racism were going to disappear anytime soon. Hold Fast to Your Dreams gives us an America where attitudes vary widely and the future of what Blanton calls "the old, old argument" is unclear.
Emmy Lou takes the segregation in her hometown in Alabama, where she is her ballet teacher's only black pupil, for granted. She doesn't seek to challenge it, but to escape it, by moving to Blue Mesa, Arizona to live with her aunt and uncle. The school system in Blue Mesa is not segregated and Emmy Lou is befriended and accepted by a host of other students, both white and Hispanic. But Emmy Lou and her aunt are also turned away from a restaurant in Blue Mesa, and Emmy Lou's guidance counselor there suggests she give up the idea of becoming a professional dancer, telling her "for a Negro, it would be like batting your head against a closed door. Let's be realistic." Emmy Lou's father, aunt and uncle talk of patience as well: "...things are changing for us...we just have to learn to wait." Sit-ins and protest marches are in the future. Emmy Lou learns to swallow insults, including having the lead in the school ballet taken away from her after a parent complains.
In the end, Emmy Lou does fight, but she fights as part of a community. She is chosen for the lead in the Fiesta of the Arts ballet by a famous Hollywood director, but the head of the Fiesta (father of her friend Dorothy) refuses to sign the contract. Emmy Lou, Dorothy, and the other ballet students come together to fight for her, and it is then that Dorothy makes the remark I've quoted above: "This isn't your battle of mine. It belongs to our generation." Kind of prescient for 1955.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

In the Garden

Title: The Organdy Cupcakes
Author: Mary Stolz
Publisher: Harper & Row, 1951
Setting: Pre "Jersey-Shore" New Jersey
Provenance: formerly the property of the Butler Country Traveling Library
Fun: psychoanalysis; hats in the icebox; the daily drama of life and death.
Quote: "It was not an unfamiliar feeling, this one, for Gretchen had been more or less falling in love since she'd been fourteen. But not like this, she thought. Nothing like this at all."

The title and cover make more sense when you learn this book was later republished as Student Nurse.
The Organdy Cupcakes
takes us back to the days when nurses wore little paper caps, lived in residential dormatories with a matron, and dreamed of marrying doctors. Of the three girls -- Gretchen, Nelle and Rosemary -- only Gretchen achieves this, somewhat suddenly, at the very end of the book. Nelle marries a wealthy dilettante obsessed with Ancient Egypt (they don't make 'em like that anymore) while Rosemary dumps her doctor-boyfriend to join the Army nursing corps. (This is probably a wise move, since he has just psychoanalyzed her, which is a poor foundation for any marriage.)
Mary Stolz had a remarkable career, publishing her first YA novel in 1950 and her last in 1988, and negotiating the era of "serious topics" for young adult novels with some ease. She won Newbery Honors in 1966 for The Noonday Friends, which is the title that most rings a bell for someone of my generation. Style-wise, Stolz's novels are lush and dreamy, full of gardens and rain and glittering sunshine as the characters muse about their lives. As a child I found this kind of thing hard to follow, which is probably why I can't recall anything of The Noonday Friends now except the title. But as an adult I found The Organdy Cupcakes a beautiful book to read, particularly for its peaceful setting in small-town New Jersey before it became suburbanized. The details of hospital life are so well drawn that it's hard to believe that Stolz never trained as a nurse. (Stolz did suffer from severe arthritis in the 50s, so perhaps she drew her insights as a patient.) There aren't a lot of serpents in Stolz's gardens, but it's nice to see her characters moving into the adult world, knowing what they want for themselves.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

The First Time

Title: The Tender Time
Author: Denise Cass Brookman
Jacket: Stanley Dersh
Publisher: Macrae Smith, 1958
Setting: An unnamed state where it gets down to -14 in the winter.
Fun: Coke dates; wearing his ring; ennui; a slimy best friend
Quote: "I hope..." her mother began, and began again, "I hope...that's not starting all over again."
"That," Stephanie said, putting on fresh lipstick, "can start only once."
"Don't be flippant, Stephie!" Then, anxiously, "It's over, isn't it?"
Stephie smiled at her mother in the mirror. "Finished. Not over." She turned around and kissed her lightly on the cheek. "There's a difference."

The main business of most teen novels is less romance than personal growth -- learning to ice skate, or that being popular isn't as important as being yourself, or that rich snobs ought to go back to New York City where they belong. Boys are dwelt on and sometimes chased after, but they aren't taken very seriously and are rarely allowed to clutter up the plot.

Not so The Tender Time, which looks squarely and unashamedly at romance in all its phases, from miracle of the first date to the glory of going steady to -- alas! -- the all-too-common sequel of terminal boredom:

"She tried to remind herself that though the old exhilaration was gone, so was the old depression and no-middle feeling. And simply because the exhilaration was gone didn't mean that love was, too. It really was much saner this way, she reassured herself. And yet..."

Brookman maintains a light tone but she misses very little. Scott, Stephie's boyfriend, is an egomaniac who refuses to believe a girl would actually break up with him. Stephie is so gullible she doesn't see her best friend is out to steal Scott. None of this is a tragedy, for Brookman, in spite of the title, isn't trying to write about true love. She's writing about that first high school relationship.

And in the oddly philosophical ending to the book, Stephie reminds her mother that though her relationship with Scott is over, it will never really end, because she can never fall in love with anyone else that way again:

"And that's how it didn't end...Always to be remembered, nothing ever to be remembered quite like that. No matter how many times the same things are done...Never the same as the first time, the young time, the tender time."

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Ice Castles

Title: Skates for Marty
Author: Barbara Clayton
Jacket: Mimi Korach
Setting: Suburban Boston
Publisher: Funk and Wagnalls, 1959
Fun: Dates with Harvard men (was it really all right for high school juniors to date college guys?); Sadie Hawkins day; figure skating compulsories
Quote: "I know you've been through a great deal since her father died, but it's time you realized your daughter is growing up. Marty's too much of an introvert, and we've got to do something about it. Since she started school there hasn't been a sign of a friend and every afternoon she trots off to the library all by herself."
The incredulity of her mother's "No!" brought an even higher color to Marty's cheeks.

Starvation? Check.
"Then there was lunch - fruit salad instead of a banana split. 'Do you want to wear Chubettes or Junior Miss?' her mother had inquired. But now Marty felt hungry."
Strict foreign coach? Check.
"'You Americans are spoiled,' Josef laughed, 'In Europe we had to skate outdoors and I can remember one time at the Olympics when we did figures in an inch of snow.'"
Bitch rival? Check.
"'Another thing,' Marty put in, "If I don't look well, you won't either.'
Taff looked past her. 'And if I don't win the scholarship, you won't either.'"
Skating accident causing coma complicated by overbearing parental figure? Check.
"Far away Marty heard the fuzzy voices, then went back to weird dreams of skating down an unending rink. Skating...skating...always skating...Gram...skating...pushing...skating..."

I've just realized that all the horse novels I read a child had the same plot as Skates for Marty. Which is not to say that Skates for Marty isn't a lot of fun, though characters and scenes sweep by dizzily, never to be heard from again, and Marty is rather overloaded with good things at the conclusion. In fact, probably the most enjoyable thing about Skates for Marty is that she isn't really a great skater. She works hard, true, and eventually wins some kind of title, but she also falls down a lot, or gets so nervous she can't perform. Marty is, actually, a sensible girl who likes math. Early in the novel a character named Fred is introduced, who goes to MIT and encourages Marty to apply there. ("We need more girls," he says.) Fred turns out to be one of those characters who is whirled by -- we never see him again -- but Marty remains a ordinary girl who likes to ice skate. No matter what Gram and Mother imagine, I don't think she's been saved from a lifetime of trotting down to the library.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Little Monsters

Title: Junior Miss
Author: Sally Benson
Publisher: Random House, 1941
Setting: New Yorker-land
Provenance: formerly the property of Marjorie Tremblay, a present from Cousin Albert, 1941
Fun: playing "Stepano, a drunken butler" in The Tempest; lily of the valley perfume; Pink Beauty, a (dead) trained mouse
Quote: "Look, Fuffy!" Judy exclaimed, "There's George Wade's house. Did you ever see anything like it? They haven't got a furnace or anything and they live there all winter. They throw their cans in the front yard. We can come down and get some if we want them for anything."
"They have lice," Lois said.

I bought the cheapest, most smudged copy available on Ebay and got a reward.
Sally Benson wrote the stories that were turned into the movie Meet Me In St. Louis. Those stories were originally published in the New Yorker, as were the Junior Miss stories. (Junior Miss was turned into a Broadway play which ran for two years and had a subsequent life as a movie, radio series and tv show.*) All this would lead one to believe that Junior Miss will be winsome and cheerful and all about the magic of being a young lady. This illusion is destroyed 4 pages in:

[Judy] was tall for her twelve years and heavily built. From her shoulders to her knees she was entirely shapeless, which gave her a square, broad look in spite of her height. Her summer tan had faded and her face had rather a ghastly yellow tinge. Below her skirt, which was too short for her, her legs were hard, muscular and covered with scratches. Her dress, a soft blue one, smocked at the sleeves, was supposed to hang gracefully...but instead looked as though she had been stuffed into it. She wore two rings on her fingers -- an aquamarine and a turquoise in gold settings. She had outgrown them and they drew her fingers in at their bases and made them look like sausages. She wore two charm bracelets of a brassy color and a locket and chain fastened so tightly around her neck it seemed it might throttle her. In the locket was a rather dim snapshot of a kitten and a clear picture of Tyrone Power. Her dark brown hair hung straight below her ears and was held in place by numerous bobbie pins and two ready-made bows. Her toenails, under her wool socks and scuffed brown oxfords, were painted with a decadent pink mother-of-pearl polish.
She sucked in her stomach, held her breath, and pulled her dress in at the waist. And, while the change in her silhouette reflected in the mirror was almost imperceptible, her eyes shone with a terrible optimism.

The reader is not being invited to identify with Judy, but to scrutinize her, and to discover that she's fat, vain and sentimental about kittens. This, I think, puts Junior Miss outside the realm of teen novels, one of the basic concepts of which is self-identification on the part of the reader. Junior Miss' origin in the New Yorker would seem to support this, but I can't for the life of me figure out whom the book was written for. Judy and her sister Lois think about little but nail polish, facials, beauty tips from magazines, and growing up as quickly as possible so they can wear stockings, perfume and "perfectly stunning" cruise clothes. Some writers can make this sort of thing charming, but Benson keeps sticking the knife in. The reader is made aware not just that these obsessions are frivolous but that they are complete failures. There's a moment in each story when one of the characters -- usually one of the parents -- will glance obliquely at the futility of life in general, and then smooth everything over and move on. Did sophisticated New Yorker readers in 1940 find this soothing? Did they think Judy and Lois amusing creations just like their own daughters? Did the irritatingly mournful comedy of the stories make them chuckle? I can't really answer that, any more than I can decide if this is a book you're supposed to enjoy or one to send a chill up your spine.




*Per Wikipedia, Junior Mints candy, introduced in 1949, was a play on "Junior Miss," which was still going strong on the radio at the time.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Beyond the Dream

Title: Follow Your Dream
Author: Marjorie Holmes
Cover Art: James Talone
Publisher: Westminster Press, 1961
Setting: Hometown Washington, DC
Fun: Hamsters in the refrigerator; Georgetown grande dames; a crazy cat lady
Quote: "Beside her, holding a monkey, stood the tallest, handsomest and quite the most terrifying man Tracey had ever seen."

The authors of many of these novels, most of whom, according to the jacket blurbs, were the mothers of teenagers themselves, seemed to know very well that marriage did not preclude a career. In fact, in book after book, they are fully in sympathy with girls who want to do something or make something of themselves. Follow Your Dream is a textbook example of this -- there is never any doubt that Tracey will become a veterinarian. The twist is that Tracey wants a man as well.

We first meet Tracey Temple when she is being told, by a school Career Day speaker, that women can't be veterinarians. Tracey proceeds to heckle him, and is reprimanded by the principal. Being a vet is not just her dream, but her destiny, and when school ends, she is thrilled to get a summer job with Dr. Jane Baldwin, Washington D.C.'s only female vet. On the first day there, however, she falls in love with Whit, a third-year vet student. Whit, as it turns out, is in love with Diana, another student. And then there's Jeff, Tracey's old flame, who also falls for Diana, and good old Dudley, the boy next door. In short, it's a full-fledged love...well, pentagon, which winds through the story and pushes the animal-hospital vignettes into the background.

Tracey is a strong characters and Follow Your Dream never for a moment suggests she would be happier getting married and settling down. But what Tracey wants is Whit and a career, and what Follow Your Dream does suggest is that Tracey will never get both. Whit goes off to finish his education at the end of the book, hinting that Tracey ought to "stop knocking herself out over the wrong things. The things that were never meant for you." And Follow Your Dream leaves it at that. There is a future for Tracey, but, as with any of us, it may not be the one we anticipate.

Monday, June 7, 2010

D-I-V-O-R-C-E

Title: The World of Ellen March
Author: Jeannette Eyerly
Jacket: Charles Geer
Publisher: Lippincott, 1964
Setting: The Upper East Side; Cedar City, USA
Provenance: Formerly the property of Bridgeport Public Schools
Fun: Dover sole at the Plaza; hoodlum Johnny Ajax; how to make a fake i.d.
Quote: "I thought I could explain why your mother and I are doing what we are, but I...I find I can't. Right now, I don't think our reasons would be, well -- your reasons. Sometime, after the divorce is final and you come to visit it will be easier for you to understand."

Like most parents in divorce-themed teen novels (the early ones, anyway), Ellen March's parents announce the impending event without using phrases like "no-good bum" or "gold-digging floozy." Everything will work out fine. We still love you, we're just not going to live together, etc. Ellen's parents then get the best of all possible divorces -- the Sophisticated New York City kind. (Ellen even lunches at the Plaza with her father after the Big Talk.) Their exact reasons remain maddeningly vague. But if The World of Ellen March is not quite upfront about the messy details of divorce, it's very good with the emotional after-effects.
Ellen's mother, to "establish residency," moves them to a small Midwestern city where Ellen is afraid to confess to the other girls in school the reason her father won't be at the annual Dad's Dinner. These chapters are more realistic than the main plot, in which Ellen decides to kidnap her little sister and disappear, hoping this will bring her parents together. This, of course, goes awry in a way that involves a runaway juvenile delinquent and a car accident, only for it all to end happily, with Ellen waking up safe in the hospital to see her father standing over her bed.
Or...not so happily. The last chapter of the book is almost like the beginning of another book entirely. Ellen's parents are not getting back together -- in fact, her father is furious and her parting with him presages years of therapy. Everyone at school knows what she has done. She's left alone in the hospital with only the remote sympathy of a military nurse -- and the friendship of one Alex Quiner, who offers to update her in the requirements of how to get along with divorced parents:

"There's more -- if you'd like to sign up for the course: 'How Not to Act When Your Mother Remarries,' 'How to Be Unpopular with Everybody,' 'What to Call Your Stepfather Besides "Hey," ' just to mention a few."

Both the military nurse and Alex are remarkable hints at a different world -- a kind of outcast community, which has seen beyond Dad's Dinners and getting married right after high school. It is clear this is going to be Ellen's world, too. And it's clear it's not such a frightening world, after all.


Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Queens of the Genre, Part II: Beverly Cleary

Title: Sister of the Bride
Author: Beverly Cleary
Publisher: William Morrow, 1963
Setting: Bayview, California, just over the cloverleaf from Berkeley
Fun: folk songs, Tootie Bodger; the Latin Club Banquet; burlap placemats
Quote: "At the end of each semester there is a party," continued Rosemary with a mischievous smile. "That is when the girls who work while their husbands go to school are awarded their Ph.T. degree." Barbara had heard of a Ph.D. degree, but never of a Ph.T. This was a new one. "What does that stand for?" she asked, pulling on her nightgown. "Putting Hubby Through," answered Rosemary, laughing.

Beverly Cleary had already established herself with Henry Huggins and the first Ramona book when she began writing teen novels in the late 1950s. (She also worked on the novelization of Leave It to Beaver around that time, so perhaps she was willing to turn a hand to anything that would find a ready market.) The result was four novels -- Fifteen, Jean Loves Johnny, The Luckiest Girl and Sister of the Bride -- which have remained in print. All of these novels are fairly simple romances with fairly typical characters. And yet they have the mysterious characteristic of looking ahead, not backwards. They are time capsules -- right down to the cost of a can of tamales at Safeway (4 for 39 cents) -- but they don't read like them. Consider this passage from Sister of the Bride, describing the guests at Rosemay's bridal shower:

"Although the sisters had always lumped the Amys together, there was actually a variety of women in the room -- the Amy who wore leather sandals and wove her own skirts, another who was active in the League of Women Voters, the mother whose calm was never disturbed by her six children, the mother who wanted to write but couldn't find the time, an Amy whose rough hands and deep tan were the result of hours spent in her hillside garden."

It's hard to read this without a sense of recognition, even 50 years later. And so it goes with the plot of the book. Barbara's parents are teachers (her mother teaches "slow" students) in a hilly suburb of San Francisco. Her brother wants to be a folk singer. Her sister Rosemary, who is without a trace of political consciousness, attends Berkeley. Her fiance works in the "Rad Lab," there, helping to smash atoms. And upon hearing that her sister is engaged, Barbara naturally dreams of silverware patterns, a country-club reception and catching the bouquet. But then the book opens up. Barbara visits her sister's prospective new home -- a slovenly apartment they will occupy rent-free in exchange for playing landlord. She begins to think about marriage beyond the magazine covers, and about the two boys who sometimes occupy her attention. Suddenly they don't look much like marriage material -- if she wants to marry at all.

"Life was interesting, something to be explored, and suddenly a wedding did not seem nearly so desirable...She did not even know which she preferred, Bill's thoughtless exuberance or Tootie's fumbling seriousness. But she did know one thing -- it was going to be fun to find out."

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Queens of the Genre, Part I: Maud Hart Lovelace

Title: Emily of Deep Valley
Author: Maud Hart Lovelace
Illustrations: Vera Neville
Publisher: Thomas Y. Crowell, 1950
Setting: Deep Valley (a.k.a. Mankato), Minnesota
Fun: Little Syria; frog legs; the Browning Club; the election of Woodrow Wilson
Quote: "I'm through high school, I'm finished with something, but I'm not beginning anything. That's wrong. When you finish something, you always ought to begin something new. But I'm just going to go on doing housework, looking after Grandpa."

I have never counted myself a huge fan of the Betsy-Tacy books. Perhaps it was growing up in the 1970s, but I always felt there was something pallid about the whole series. Betsy never has any problems that can't be solved by going on a picnic and I think there is one recorded instance, in the whole ten books, where she says something not-very-nice about another girl. But one aspect of Betsy-Tacy has always seduced me, and that is the idea that to stand on the verge of adulthood about 1912 or so must have been bliss. Psyche knots, watch bracelets, organdy dresses, the Philomathians, Class Day, the Junior-Senior banquet -- all the girls happy and self-confident, the boys full of mischief and fun -- the entire insular American world at their feet.

Emily is a spin-off of Betsy-Tacy. Set in the same town, and full of off-hand references to Betsy Ray and Tib Mueller, it is also a little darker, as if Lovelace wanted to rework some of her earlier themes in a more realistic way. For Emily Webster, unlike Betsy, has problems that can't be solved by going on a picnic.

Emily has been raised by her grandfather, a Civil War veteran who lives mainly in the past. He sees no sense in sending Emily to college -- he thinks he was generous to let her finish high school. Unlike Emily's high-school friends, who troop happily off to the "U" anticipating sorority rushes and all kinds of fun, Emily knows that college would really mean something to her -- she wants to be a sociologist, like her idol, Jane Addams. Instead she is left in Deep Valley as winter comes on, without a friend, male or female, her own age.

Emily, however, does not repine. She buys a new hat, begins formal study of the works of Robert Browning, and learns to do the "Gaby Glide." And she takes a look at the community around her, including the Syrian immigrants who live on the wrong side of the slough. There's a notable anti-immigrant feeling in Deep Valley, but Emily, with the help of handsome, interesting, Jed Wakeman, organizes a boy's club as well as citizenship and English classes for the adults.

None of this comes easily. Lovelace was good at drawing scenes of adolescent fun and friendship -- sleigh rides, sing-a-longs, skating parties. In this book she inverts the usual: the most painful scene in the book occurs when Emily sits through such a sleigh ride with an unwilling date, knowing she doesn't fit in and detesting the silliness of the girls she has been friends with all through high school:

"[Their] talk would be about their colleges, their new experiences. She had had new experiences, too, she thought with proud resentment, but when she was with the crowd they seemed to be of no importance. It was true even with the girls...She wasn't tired of her friends, but she was tired of pursuing them as though her own life were worthless."

By the end of Emily of Deep Valley, the last tie to her old crowd has been cut when she turns down the patronizing Don for Jed Wakeman. They will stay in Deep Valley, Jed teaching, Emily continuing her work with the Syrians. In the Betsy-Tacy books, "the crowd" is a source of strength -- a rock of friendship in the tumult of life. But Emily creates a satisfying, independent life for herself only by growing beyond the crowd. I never read Emily of Deep Valley as a child -- as it wasn't part of the regular Betsy-Tracy books the Lexington library didn't have it.* But if I had I think it would have redeemed the entire series for me.

*By some miracle, the Henderson Public Library, which does not have most of the upper books of the Betsy-Tacy series, has a 1950 first printing of Emily of Deep Valley. So far they have not cast it off onto the "Pages for Pennies" shelf.

Monday, May 3, 2010

The Original: Maureen Daly

Title: Seventeenth Summer
Author: Maureen Daly
Publisher: Dodd, Mead, 1942 (Currently available from Simon and Schuster)
Setting: Pre-Pearl Harbor Fond Du Lac, Wisconsin
Fun: Beers at Pete's; Cokes at McKnight's drugstore; the bakery truck; meeting the train.
Quote: "It's almost like a secret police system -- no one escapes being checked on. At least no one who counts. The checkers keep their eyes open for new prospects among the young sophomore girls who are growing up and showing signs of datable promise. They only watch out for the very pretty or very popular girls, so it is the most serious catastrophe of all not even to be noticed by the checkers...Most of them didn't know my name until I began to date Jack."

In 1941, Maureen Daly, a college student, wrote a novel about a girl who falls in love with a boy just outside her social circle. Published a year later, Seventeenth Summer became the first "young adult" novel -- targeted specifically to girls too old for Nancy Drew but unwilling to read adult literature. More simply put, Maureen Daly established the genre I write about here. But Seventeenth Summer is more than some obscure 1940s novel. It's a classic work -- a beautiful, subtle and haunting story which distills, moment by moment, the suspense of adolescent love, the cross-currents of family life, and brevity of the Wisconsin summer, all against the background of small-town life in the months before World War II.

Nominally, Seventeenth Summer is about the relationship between Angie Morrow and Jack Duluth, who comes into her life because he drives the bakery truck. Although the social gulf between them is not immense, Jack has no prospects beyond the bakery, while Angie is going to college at the end of the summer. In actuality, much of the book is caught up with Angie's observation of her family-centered life. She is poised between the brand-new idea of what independence with Jack might mean and regret at the disruption of everything she knows. She observes other teenagers at roadhouses and keg parties with the distance of an anthropologist, preferring the structured world of her close-knit family. And yet she can't quite turn away from the thrill of Jack. One of the things that marks Seventeenth Summer as "young adult" is that Daly acknowledges Angie's physical attraction to Jack:

His shoulders above the water were smooth and brown, shiny with the wet, and when he moved the muscles in his arms made a barely perceptible ripple. He swam out a short distance, and then signaled me to come in.
Why is there always that self-conscious feeling about looking at a boy in swimming trunks?

I had always thought it was something like voting, that you weren't really supposed to start feeling with your heart till you were at least twenty-one. And here I was looking at him so hard I could almost feel myself seeing the clean, wet look of his crew cut and the familar coarse knit of his football sweater, while my heart was pounding till it made my voice quavery.

Although Angie politely refuses to elope with Jack, at the end of the summer she leaves Fond Du Lac for the outer world he represents.

Maureen Daly never wrote another teen novel. She married a journalist and later wrote about her travels with him, as well as some books for younger children. If Seventeenth Summer was to a large extent drawn from her own life -- and it reads that way -- this is understandable. The teen writers who came after her would be more prolific, and more professional, but also shallower and lighter. But the same themes established by Daly -- the pull between family and independence, the thrill of attraction, and the quest to grow up, would be at the center of them.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Behind the Scenes at the Card Shop

Title: A Valentine for Vinnie
Author: Marjory Hall
Publisher: Funk & Wagnalls, 1965
Cover art: unknown
Setting: a unnamed state with fogs, long winters and towns with names like Rock Harbor and Pine Bay
Provenance: formerly the property of the West Bend Public Library
Fun: inside knowledge of the retail card biz; college weekends; queer old maids
Quote: "Halloween!" she said aloud. "Who ever heard of a such a thing? I never sent a Halloween card, and I never got one either."

Vinnie works in a card shop. After a slow beginning, she discovers that she likes the card shop. She has ideas about the card shop. A new window display, for instance, and better inventory procedures. And the aforementioned Halloween cards. Then there's the good looking salesman (alas, married) who stops by and befriends her. And Ted -- her crush since high school, who comes in to buy a card as well.

Marjory Hall began her writing career in the 1940s, with maltshop romances, and A Valentine for Vinnie seems closer to that era, and genre, than its 1965 publication date would indicate. There is a college weekend -- driving up to meet a date for the big game and a dance -- and a subplot about building the new country club. Vinnie, though not terribly insightful, is pure-hearted and hopeful. But maybe Hall was, by 1965, a little tired. Certainly by about half-way through Valentine she has lost interest in Vinnie. You hear less about the card shop, and more about new characters. And then Ted invites Vinnie to a college dance, and, the day before the dance, uninvites her -- not even in person, but by letter. This could have been the book's emotional core. Instead, Vinnie just has a good cry and decides it's all for the best:

"Her great devotion to Ted had put blinders on her. She hadn't enjoyed the good things, or the right people, all this time. Hal, for example."

Exactly 22 pages later Hal is giving her his pin.

Monday, April 12, 2010

So You've Ruined Your Life

Title: April Wedding
Author: Eve Bennett
Publisher: Julian Messner, 1959
Cover art: unknown
Provenance: formerly the property of the Grand Forks (ND) Public Library
Setting: Adolescent Denver
Fun: Teen Times radio show; selling insurance door to door, teenage motherhood
Quote: "Bill's somber eyes stared straight ahead. 'They might feel that their trust is betrayed if we go on like this. Jeannie, you know as well as I do what ails us. We either ought to give each other up, or we ought to get married.' "

You've probably seen this after-school special. High school seniors, deeply in love, decide to get married. A year later they're broke, living in a squalid apartment with a screaming baby. Boy begins to drift away, hanging out night after night with the guys. Girl turns into a nag with hair curlers and a rolling pin. Divorce, and a lesson for us all, are just around the corner.

It could be that Eve Bennett is just a little too independent-minded to accept this script. Or possibly she just doesn't want such bad things to happen to two nice characters like Jeannie and Bill. Certainly the major plot points are there, portrayed with Bennett's usual wit and realism. A courthouse wedding, a run-down apartment, Bill selling insurance door to door to pay the bills, followed by Bill quitting several jobs and being jealous of Jeannie working, topped off by Jeannie becoming pregnant and hating it. Bennett doesn't skimp on the reality of morning sickness, mood swings and the uncertainty of taking care of a first baby.

But Bennett is not trying to scare her audience straight. Sure, babies cry and pregnancy makes you feel unattractive, but there's always the possibility that your husband will come home on your birthday with a new dress ("smoke-gray pleated nylon skirt spangled with velvety black flowers and sparkle dust") and take you out to dinner. And that, after a year of ups and downs, your father-in-law, impressed by your commitment, will offer to pay for college for both of you. As Bennett comments on the back of the book, she is not "usually in favor of teen-age marriages...[but] I think most marriages could be worked out if both parties really tried, and the one thing on the side of young marriages is that youth is more resilient."

Is Bennett painting an over-optimistic picture? If the after-school-special version of the tale is grimmer than it needs to be, in order to sell the lesson of the story, is Bennett, working in the confines of popular fiction, bound to put a happy ending on things for the same reason? The answer is probably yes. But all any writer can do is try to describe the world as they know it, and that's something Bennett does very well.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

The Right Sort

Titles: Then Came November; When Debbie Dared
Authors: Nan Gilbert; Kathleen Robinson
Publisher: Whitman, 1963
Cover art: Olindo Giancomini; Jim Tadych
Settings: Fairhills, a small town turned suburb; Karidale, a suburb of St. Louis
Provenance: "Helen Snyder" written inside front cover, raised seal on first page "Library of Ernestine L. Snyder."
Fun: homegrown watercress, fear of heights, going deeply into debt for the perfect coat.
Quote: "This is authentic Fraser plaid, woven in Scotland especially for our clan. I believe the firm now offers it for general sale, if your mother is interested in ordering, but whether they maintained the quality of the wool, I couldn't say--" (Then Came November)
"[Merry] was the only girl in Karidale to have ridden to hounds." (When Debbie Dared)

This was an era when class struck terror into the hearts of millions. In book after book, heroines are acutely aware of their social position, marked by such things as Chinese salad bowls, pedigreed dogs, and where they summer, as well as proximity to horses and booze.
In these two Whitman teen novels, Then Came November, and When Debbie Dared, Dulcy Rolff and Debbie Robyne both run up against snaky girls who, while pretending to be their friends, are secretly snobs. In Dulcy's case the motivation is Dulcy's superior social position. Dulcy is not wealthy, but her family bears a pioneer name in the town and gets frequent mention in the society column. As Elaine, the snake, puts it:

"Rolffs don't have to be rich. They don't have to butter people up and pull strings and -- don't you think I get sick, sick of watching Mother do it, every new town we go to?"

Dulcy, previously shy, and not blessed with a lot of foresight (she nearly kills her dog by giving him sleeping pills so he won't bark when she sneaks out) is completely suckered by Elaine, who shows her how to open a charge account ("just give them your father's name") and then, when she is in trouble at home and school, steals her boyfriend.

Debbie, on the other hand, is an ordinary soul taken up by Carlotta, a "New York girl" whose father has been transferred to Debbie's hometown. " 'Personally,' " Carlotta says, "with a twist of golden bare shoulders, 'I think it's gauche to dine early.' " Fortunately, Carlotta mispronounces gauche, and Debbie becomes disillusioned with her. Carlotta is also driven to a jealous fit when another senior girl drops out to marry her fiance, a West Point cadet. (The lucky thing -- she gets to start her married life on an army base in West Germany!) It turns out that she only cultivated Debbie to get her help on her French homework. Carlotta ends up alone and unloved, while Debbie rides the ferris wheel at the state fair with her new boyfriend -- the son of an orthopedic surgeon.
While it might seem that the common folks prevail, in fact neither Dulcy nor Debbie questions that there are certain things one ought to have or aspire to. When Debbie looks over her mother's dinner table before a party, she sees her grandmother's silver candlesticks, Calyx dinner ware, a linen tablecloth and "unmatched flat silver, all old and much of it worn thin." Dulcy, for her part, is comforted by her family's loyalty to anyone in trouble.
As for poor familyless Elaine, she and her Mother will evidently have to once again move to a new town and start pushing their way in among the right people.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

From Surfer Girl to Science Nerd

Title: Run, Sheep, Run
Authors:
Bob and Jan Young
Jacket illustration: Jon Nielsen
Publisher: Julian Messner, 1959
Setting: The coast of California
Fun: hoodlums on motorcycles; paying for college by selling smoked fish; up close and personal with sea anemones
Quote: Sue had warned the idea would be startling, but Judy was hardly prepared for that murmur of surprised voices. "A party?" Derek looked flabbergasted, "But the Science Society never has parties."

The Youngs often picked important topics for their books -- political corruption in One Small Voice, prejudice against Hispanics in Across the Tracks. Run, Sheep, Run's topic is the social prison that is high school, or, how "society's demands for conformity often crushes the individual's courage."

Judy Cannon starts out as a member of a crowd of young people who hang out on the beach all summer and who consider anyone who gets good grades an "apple-polisher" and teacher's pet. Judy's first error is taking biology and liking it. Then, in a mild setback to her social life, her mother gets sick (the doctor doesn't say exactly what she has, but it has something to do with her working in an underground bank vault all day) and the family moves to a house on an isolated point, the better for sea air and sun. Judy becomes fascinated by tide pools, helps out with her family bait business and, the final straw for her friends, joins the Science Club.
It turns out, however, that the Science Club members are just as set in their ways as her former friends. Tall, blond Derek, who had seemed so friendly on that field trip to the marine biology lab, now tells Judy, "the student who is seriously interested in science hasn't time for other interests." Hmm. Were this a B-movie, Derek would end up rescuing Judy from a Giant Crab Monster and would indeed discover that he has other interests. Instead, Derek skulks off, aloof scientist to the end, and Judy's old crowd gradually comes back into the picture. They've grown, too, and they kind of admire Judy's independence.
Is it a little odd to write about social conformity by setting a novel amid bait shacks and marine biology labs? Yes, but it's the kind of thing the Youngs were good at. There's something grandly optimistic about Run, Sheep,Run, and like One Small Voice, it belongs very much to its time. I sometimes wonder if along about 1970 or so the Youngs weren't wishing they could put the non-conformity genie back in the bottle.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Regionalism

Title: The Hundred Steps
Author: Holly Wilson
Jacket Artist: Albert Orbaan
Publisher: Julian Messner, 1958
Setting: "Clifton" (Marquette), Michigan
Provenance: Unknown
Fun: Pyromania; sea chanteys; berry-picking interrupted by a bear
Quote: "Flannelmouth!" said Susan, and she went off into a burst of giggles that infected the group around her. They laughed heartily and slapped each other on the back, repeating, "Flannelmouth! You're all a bunch of flannelmouths!"

One of the nice things about many of these 1960s teen novels is that instead of being set in the bland suburbia we associate with that era, they are actually grounded in specific places -- like the California desert town of One Small Voice -- and so draw a nicely detailed picture of particular American regions. The Hundred Steps is dominated from page one by its setting in Clifton (evidently based on Marquette), Michigan. The steps of the title lead from the Lower Town, home of the fisherfolk, to the Upper Town, home of the iron ore millionaires. Marcy McKay lives in the Lower Town, naturally, and her father works on an ore carrier, shipping cargo across Lake Superior. The lake is as important as any other character in the book, and the climax of the novel is a shipwreck and rescue in Clifton Harbor. This event brings together the Upper and Lower Towns and smooths out the class divisions that form the major theme of The Hundred Steps. Marcy has begun hanging out with Upper Town girls, although she's not sure they really accept her. The Upper Town is epitomized by wealthy pyromaniac Walt Hamilton*, who tops off a date with Marcy by setting fire to the town's ski slide. The police investigation of this provides the drama of the first part of the book, though the eventual court case is anti-climactic. Then, after a couple of filler chapters, a big storm blows through, Marcy's father's ship runs aground and Walt proves a decent person after all. (Walt is not actually the hero of the novel, safe and less interesting Bill Carlson is.) And if you don't want to go on vacation to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan after reading this novel, something is wrong with you.


*Walt seems to be the name of choice for male characters. Other books with Walts: One Small Voice, The Paris Hat. Perhaps it was the Disney influence?

Monday, March 1, 2010

There's Something about Casey

Title: Concerning Casey
Author:
Eve Bennett
Cover Art: Georgeann Helms
Publisher: Julian Messner, 1958
Setting: Mountain View, a small mining town in Colorado
Provenance: formerly the property of the Grand Forks ND Public Library
Fun: a mayoral election; the state speech contest; a shotgun wedding
Quote: "What am I?" she asked, "I wish I knew. Maybe something has been left out of me. Maybe I'm not all there. Maybe I'm - sexless. Maybe I'm that horrid creature, an ambitious woman. But ambitious for what? What am I besides a girl with a beastly temper and a tongue she can't control very well?"

There's a lot of old-fashioned fun in Concerning Casey. Our heroine is the oldest of a large family. Her father is a crusading newspaper editor, who in the course of the book runs for mayor of their small town. His particular issue is the clean-up of the local slum; his rival is the evil developer who owns the slum. This subplot, threaded through Ladies' Aid meetings, town gossip and schoolyard fights, perks along in the background, while Casey studies for exams, goes to basketball games, enters a speech contest, votes on where to hold the school dance, dates, breaks up, listens to her friends' problems, buys Christmas presents and quotes poetry.
Concerning Casey, is, in fact, less a teen novel and more like Irene Hunt's Up a Road Slowly or the Anne of Green Gables/Betsy-Tacy books. Like these books, it focuses less on a specific plot and more on overall coming of age, and like these books there is a vivid background of small town characters and the bustle of family life. (Eve Bennett based this book on her own adolescence in Yankton, South Dakota.) Casey's family is lively and passionate, fond of debating politics at the dinner table; there's a wise town doctor, a sharp-tongued aunt and a run-down general store where everyone buys Christmas presents.
And yet...nostalgia can only take you so far. Up a Road Slowly looks at alcoholism, mental instability and death. Anne of Green Gables also has a major character die, and even the Betsy/Tacy books glance in that direction. The great theme is that difficult as these experiences are, the heroines gain something from them which is essential to their growth and their art. Concerning Casey, on the other hand, brushes by anything too serious. Tom Town, the local slum, is given only scant mention, as is the reason for her brother Rick's sudden marriage.
And then there's quote above, late in the book, pegging Casey as unlikeable, which is something of a surprise. After all, Casey's envious little sister describes her as "the most popular girl in town." She has two ever-faithful swains named Bob and Butch. She comes in second place in the state speech contest and is asked out by the first place winner. All in all, there's only the vaguest hint she thinks of life beyond high school. Bennett seems to want to have it both ways: to create a independent, thoughtful, lone-wolf heroine and at the same time make her a popular girl, blithe and feminine.
In the end, the independent girl wins, but it's a strange victory. Watching her younger brother battle meningitis, Casey decides she wants to go to medical school. The town doctor agrees to pay her way, in the name of the son he never had. She also agrees to marry Bob (who's going to medical school, too) even though she's not really in love with him. There's no pretense, in these last pages, that Casey's necessarily going to be happy, only that she's going out to experience life. If all of Concerning Casey were as daring as the final chapter, it might be better known today.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Stay Away from Boys Who Like Wagner

Title: I, Judy
Author: Eve Bennett
Publisher: Julian Messner, 1957
Setting: Outdoorsy Denver
Fun: Aspen before the celebrities ruined it; singing folk songs; dressing up as the Unsinkable Molly Brown
Quote:
"Ever since she had been a bit of a girl and had dreamed up stories and believed in fairies, and had read every moment she was allowed, Judy had meant to be a writer."

A lot of teen novels don't deal very directly with romance. Sure, there's a steady boy somewhere in a background subplot, but he's the kind of boy only a matronly novelist would designate as the hero -- handsome but not arrogant about it, even-tempered, full of common sense and possessed of a one-syllable name like Bill, Joe or Walt. Of course there's a very good reason for keeping boys out of books that are mainly designed to help girls sort out growing up. Boys are a distraction. They lead to bad decision-making. Therefore the easiest hero to have is an understanding one who stays entirely in the background except for the moment he asks the heroine to the Spring Formal.

Give some credit, then, to I, Judy, for focusing a plot on what to do when you have a bad boyfriend. Judy is an unusual heroine -- skinny and neurotic. She's a latchkey kid (her father's dead and her mother supports the family) who in the first chapter is elected to the school newspaper and receives a poison pen letter insulting her sloppy appearance. On a trip to Aspen as a reporter she meets Riley, a passive-aggressive rich kid. Danger appears when Riley invites her to his house when his parents aren't home and plays his favorite classical records, all of which, Judy notes, seem to have the word "death" in the title. Riley tells her listening to them makes him feel:

"As if I'm standing apart, 'way above everything. As though I can see clearly all the little things, the little people. I'm above them and they don't matter. I'm sorry for them and their little crawling insignificant lives -- but they don't really matter. There are the stars and the sun and the moon and storms all about me -- the lightning and the thunder and all the elements -- I love it! I feel like God!"

At which point Judy suddenly remembers she has some homework she's forgotten to do.

Judy finds her voice writing for the school paper, makes some more friends and begins to see her mother as a human being, but through it all Riley hangs around, throwing tantrums, not calling and playing the neglected-rich-kid card at every opportunity. Judy doesn't quite get rid of him because she recognizes that she shares some of his emotional peculiarities. However, because this is a teen novel, I, Judy does not end with a double suicide to the strains of Die Walkure. Instead a deus ex machina sends Riley to military school. (Love of Wagner plus military school. Great combination.) With him goes the last touch of realism in the novel, for in the final chapter Judy is awarded a college scholarship, gets a part-time job writing for an actual newspaper and has at least two potential new boyfriends, one of whom says "It's OK if you can't cook, because I can."
I suppose it's unfair to quibble about the happy ending. Judy sort of deserves it, after Riley. And I, Judy does a good job of walking that line between benign entertainment and something a little deeper.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

The In-crowd

Title: Stranger No More
Author: Iris Noble
Jacket Artist: Evelyn Copelman
Publisher: Julian Messner, 1961
Setting: Sophisticated San Francisco
Fun: Cooking with oregano; juvenile delinquency; student council elections
Quote: A date -- now that was something she knew from the magazines she had read. A date was an appointment a girl had with a boy.

The conceit behind Stranger No More is that Kathy Norman, an American girl raised mainly in Europe, is a stranger in her own country and must be introduced to such New World concepts as waffles, cable cars and drive-ins. (Wait, don't waffles come from Belgium?) Kathy has come to San Francisco to live with Aunt Debra, who is sure they'll get along fine once Kathy learns to follow a timetable and all the house rules. Aunt Debra is a career woman -- an executive secretary at a fancy hotel -- and though at first she's portrayed as a rigid, dried-up spinster, over the course of the book she becomes something more: an intelligent, resourceful woman who enjoys her job and provides important support for Kathy. (If you've ever read Anne of Green Gables, you have the Kathy/Aunt Debra relationship in a nutshell.)
Beyond that, Stranger No More devolves into Being Popular vs. Being Yourself. Kathy is taken up by "The Crowd," a supercilious clique whose philosophy is articulated by next-door neighbor Troy:

"We do the absolute minimum; we keep their rules when we have to, but beyond that we make up our minds and our rules and live our own lives. We're rebels," she said proudly, "And we stick together. They talk about loyalty to the school -- phooey! -- we're loyal to each other."

Noble points out that, for rebels, The Crowd is slavish about thinking and doing things in unison, but she seems a little mixed in her feelings towards them. As with Candy's discontent in Say Hello, Candy, the seething restlessness of The Crowd is part of the allure of the novel, and some of the drama goes out of Stranger No More when Kathy leaves The Crowd for the more fulfilling world of high school journalism.

As you might have guessed from the cover, there is a romantic subplot, involving Bob McDonald, the editor of said high school paper. He causes Kathy to think briefly about marriage, and then to decide she'll think about it later, after she's done with college. In spite of everything I have been told about this era, I have yet to find a teenage novel in which the heroine puts marriage and a man before her own plans for the future.