It's all about...popular girls...rec rooms...summers at the lake...dates with wealthy, thrill-crazy 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.

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
"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.

Friday, February 5, 2010

Don't Mess With Candy

Title: Say Hello, Candy
Author: Bianca Bradbury
Publisher: Coward McCann, 1961
Jacket Artist: Paul Frame
Setting: Carlisle, Maine
Provenance: Formerly the propery of the Jessie E. McCuffy Memorial Library, Dixon, Missouri
Fun: sulky teens; fake antiques; summer people vs. townies

Quote: "You've changed, Funny-face. Do you know that?"
"How?" she asked.
"You're still as gorgeous as ever. I think you're the best-looking female woman I know. But you're more serious. I don't know, I look at you and I think, wheels are turning inside her head. You never used to have wheels inside your head. You were just my girl, an awful sweet, empty-headed doll."

The jacket illustration is striking, isn't it? I have it on my Flickr photostream and it gets far more hits than the other illustrations in the set. Although something about Candy's hair irritates me every time I look at it.

Say Hello, Candy starts with a serious situation. Candy Andrews' father has been paralyzed in a car accident. In 1961 this relegates him to the status of a cripple -- unable to go back to work or even navigate much of the outside world (in one scene he has to eat in his hotel room because the restaurant can't accomodate him.) Nevertheless, as a parental figure in a teen novel, he is not bitter. Since their income is gone, Candy's family moves from the pleasant suburbs of Long Island to Carlisle, Maine, her father's hometown, where they had formerly summered. They hope to settle in as permanent residents, with Candy's mother supporting the family by selling antiques. The drama of the book is provided by Candy's slow adjustment to this disaster. She knows she ought to be cheerful and helpful to her mother, but she just can't force herself to feel grateful and count her blessings:

Older people think that if they can put things in words then that takes care of everything. Her parents acted as though they were resigned to any blows fate handed out to them. I'm not going to give in, she thought, lying stiff and rebellious. I'm not going to sit around waiting for the night to come so the day will end. I'm going to fight! My life's not over!

Carlisle is so remote it doesn't even have television, and the only people Candy knows there are the "summer people." The story progresses in an episodic fashion. Candy helps her mother stock the antique store and then works behind the counter, sometimes enjoying it and sometimes resenting it. She has a confusing number of romantic encounters with both town and summer boys, all of whom seem to surface and vanish without much significance. She almost cheats a woman who buys a fake antique chest, but at the last moment feels remorse. She quarrels with her mother and makes up. Even on page 175, Candy is still whispering "I hate them, I hate them" as the summer people drive by in their cars, laughing carelessly (is there any other way to laugh?) And then miraculously, in the next and last chapter, she's fully accepted life in Carlisle and steady friendship/romance with a town boy.
Never mind the ending. The most powerful part of Say Hello, Candy, is Candy's discontent, a lightning rod that runs through the book, dominating it as she dominates the cover.