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, 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
: 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.