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 22, 2011

Betty Cavanna

The next four or so posts are going to look at books by Betty Cavanna, one of the more prolific and popular teen girl writers of her era, and someone who sort of put YA girls writing on the map. Cavanna's first YA, The Black Spaniel Mystery, was published in 1945, her last in the 1980s, and the Library of Congress lists 84 books for her, all told (some of them picture book collaborations with her second husband, George Russell Harrison,) including several mysteries written under the name Betsy Allen.

Betty Cavanna was born in Haddonfield, New Jersey in 1909. As a child she had polio and, like many sickly children, turned to reading as compensation for the long hours in bed. She went to what was then the New Jersey College for Women and later became part of Rutgers, and following graduation got a job with the Westminster Press in Philadelphia, in those days a major publisher of children's books. She eventually became art director there. From what I can discover about her personal life, Cavanna was married twice, but her first husband died young. I also can't find any record of her having children. But at some point, upon either her first or second marriage, she quit her job at the Westminster Press and turning to writing full time.

From the 1940s on, Cavanna's books were basically mainstream teen novels (Scarlet Sail, Paintbox Summer) with the occasional mystery. Cavanna traveled widely and many of her non-fiction books are about getting to know children from other countries (e.g. Demetrios of Greece.) She also believed in doing what her characters were doing: for A Girl Can Dream (1948), she took flying lessons. By the late 60s, however, Cavanna not suprisingly felt "out of touch" with the current generation of teens, and turned to writing mysteries exclusively. She continued to publish, though at a slower pace, through the early 1980s, when some of her earlier books were reissued. She died in 2001, in Paris.

Cavanna was not a terribly daring writer, but there is nothing fluffy about her books, either. Her travels were put to good use in creating far-flung settings for many of her novels. In spite of fairly conventional plots, her protagonists have an inner toughness and often make difficult decisions on their own. They are also typical teenagers in their resentment of family obligations and their interest in -- and confusion about -- boys. It's hard not to root for them and I imagine they must have appealed to thousands of girls who lived more ordinary lives in the 1940s and 50s.

The four books I read by Cavanna all come from a ten-year period between 1954 and 1964. Jenny Kimura (1964), which brushes up against the topic of racism, is probably one of her most memorable novels. Fancy Free (1961) is set on an archeological expedition to Peru. Angel on Skis (1957) has one of the toughest and most dynamic of Cavanna's heroines, while Six on Easy Street (1954) is a more charming large-family-runs-a-boardinghouse novel. The variety of settings and protagonists -- and the fact that Cavanna pulls them off so effortlessly -- is part of the fascination of her work.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Life in a Northern Town

Title: Green Eyes
: Jean Nielsen
Jacket: Mimi Korach
Publisher: Funk and Wagnalls, 1955
Provenance: Formerly the property of North Augusta (S.C.) Junior High School
Setting: Cascadeville, a lumber town in Washington
Fun: editing the school paper; self pity; rivalry; breaking your leg skiing
Quote: Jan turned on the water taps full force and shook in the soap flakes. She wouldn't always be doing dishes for other people. When fall came and she was editor she would be so busy she wouldn't have time to be home much and when that year was over she would go away. And she would make something of herself, too, because she had brains and willpower. If you didn't have brains all the curly hair and television sets in the world wouldn't give them to you.

Occasionally I'll run across a book that just stumps me. Usually it's because the book is a little dull and generic, but in the case of Green Eyes, it's just the opposite. Green Eyes is almost a perfect book. This is not the same as saying it's a great book or even that it holds up well against some of today's YA titles. But for the type of book I look at here -- girls' books about growing up from a more innocent era -- Green Eyes has got it all right. The heroine is realistic, the setting adds to the story, the writing is unobtrusive, and the story is based on character conflicts rather than a plot contrivance.

As might be guessed, Green Eyes is about jealousy. Jan, who is the new editor of the school paper, feels neglected at home, where her mother favors her spoiled younger brother. Spoiled younger brother had rheumatic fever a few years ago and is slowly being turned into what used to be called a "mama's boy." In a lesser book, the jealousy would be all in Jan's mind, and she would discover that her mother really loves her after all. Instead, as is made clear in a horrible Christmas Eve family argument, her mother feels trapped in a small town and would gladly clear out and leave Jan and her father behind.

Jan is also jealous of the new boy in school, Danny. Danny is from Seattle, and was editor of his high school paper there and the assumption is made that he ought to be editor in Cascadeville as well. Even after Jan fights off this threat and Danny seems to be less a rival than a potential boyfriend, Jan can't quite conquer her competitive feelings.

But even if Jan's reasons for jealousy are quite real, the conflict in Green Eyes is between Jan and herself. Nielsen quietly leads Jan through several experiences -- a school trip to Seattle, an assignment interviewing elderly residents of the community, a difficult winter -- that make her a stronger person and give her the ability to overcome her self-absorption. The one false note is that, at the end of Green Eyes, Jan is unrealistically given a plethora of good things: a college scholarship, a meaningful relationship with Danny, and a part-time job on a Seattle newspaper. But it's hard for the reader to think she doesn't deserve it.