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Are Beverly Cleary’s Teenage Girl Books Silly and Outdated?

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Beverly Cleary’s Teenager Books


Cleary’s YA books were written in the late 50’s and early 60’s. These teens at school lunch look strikingly like some of the original illustrations in the books although most of her characters bring their lunches to school because their families consider school lunches too expensive.

Flickr/US Department of Agriculture: Teenage high school students eat lunch in the at the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s school lunch program in the 1950s. Photo courtesy National Archives and Records Administration.

 

Each time I read a Beverly Cleary book, I am surprised, again, at really how good she is. She knows how it is to be a kid. It’s hard to pin down, what she is about, really, because her stories seem so everyday, but that trait is their genius.

Of course, Cleary is most well known for her children’s books, but she also wrote four books about, and presumably for, teen age girls.

To me, even now, they are a guilty pleasure. I liked them when I first read them, and I enjoy them now.

S.E. Hinton, the author of The Outsiders, has said that she wrote The Outsiders because most of the books for teenagers focused on concerns like going to the prom, which is not what the lives of kids she knew about were like. When I think of that quote, Cleary’s four titles about teenage girls come to mind, and I sort of cringe.

Because I like them. 

On the surface they might seem silly and retro, but honestly, every time I read them, and I ended up rereading all four for this article, I am pleasantly surprised. I intended to reread one for this article, and I ended up reading all four. Again.

But I also remember why I like these books. Sure, they do not mirror the experiences of EVERY teen, but certainly they reflect concerns that a lot of preteen and teenage girls have at some point. And Cleary’s characters and families are also realistic in that economizing is always a part of the story, and, surprisingly for the time, both parents almost always work outside of the home in some capacity, and teenagers, and dads, help cover the housework in return.

Yes, there were and are a lot of silly and trite seeming books for teenage girls. But the reason that so many books for teenagers focus on things like friendships and dating is because teenagers are concerned with these things. Come on.

That doesn’t mean they don’t have jobs, and activities, and families, and more often than not, some kind of serious problems of different natures, but they still are concerned with navigating social lives that are suddenly much different from anything they have ever encountered before.

And while Cleary’s teens don’t confront the problems that Hinton’s teens do, none of them are as privileged as the Soc’s, and most of them, in truth, come from families that are more like the Greasers, albeit more stable.

Most of Cleary’s teens work outside of the home, and all of them do inside, including making many of their own clothes. They know how to get good value for their money: sales and specials are frequently mentioned, even on everyday items like groceries, and clothes are made at home for economic reasons. They also participate in school activities and spend plenty of time studying. And the books stand out to me the most for the importance of the home and family in every teen’s life. Even though, in reality, they spend most of their waking hours outside of the home, Cleary gives a lot of space to their relationships with family, inside the home.

And no matter what else is happening in a teenager’s life, the most important thing that ALL of them are trying to figure out is how to make that next big transition, into adulthood.

 

I’m sure there are very few Americans who don’t know Beverly Cleary’s work in one way or another.  I remember Ramona the Pest as being the very first chapter book my first grade teacher read to us, and I think it was one of the first chapter books I read to myself.  I don’t think they really had “beginning chapter books” in those days, but I remember that same teacher pulling a few of the easier chapter books off the library shelves for those of us who were ready to choose from, and Ramona the Pest was one of them.  And of course the public library had a lot of Cleary’s books.

The Lois Level reads Beverly Cleary 

I remember first encountering Cleary’s “teen” books in the school library when I switched from a “Christian” school to the local public school in fourth grade.  They were thick books with that old fashioned library binding that was very sturdy but also plain, and of course there wasn’t a word of description on these books.  I do remember that the edges of the pages were worn soft by years of use (they almost felt fuzzy), and from the titles and length, I got the idea that these books were about teenagers: Fifteen, Jean and Johnny, The Luckiest Girl, and Sister of the Bride.  I read all of them, but Sister of the Bride was my favorite, and I later owned it in paperback.

 

All four of these books, written in the late 50’s to early 60’s are in print and as far as I know, have been almost continuously.  I took a look at Beverly Cleary’s page on Amazon, and I was right in my guess that they are not nearly as popular as her kids’ books: the first titles (Fifteen) appears in around 24th place, after the first of Cleary’s two memoirs, and some Spanish editions of her more popular books appear before the others.

 

Of course, that doesn’t make them bad.  They just aren’t what Cleary is best known for.  And they are closer to 100 years old than they are to 50.  So yeah, they are a bit dated.

 

Which is what got me thinking about them.  Exactly how dated are they?

 

I struggled with whether I should even do a column on them because normally I write about YA books that have adult appeal, and I wasn’t sure that these do, but guess what?  I found myself reading all four of them again, and rather quickly.  They appeal to me for the same reason they always have: Cleary writes well, they aren’t hard to read, and yes, in one sense they may be a little dated  because of more strict dating rituals at the time, but for the most part, the values that are transmitted through the rituals are universal and I think are actually helpful in a time when the “rules” are less clear. 

 

As an adult, I wouldn’t mind a little more space devoted to the parents in these books, but these books are in fact meant for teenagers so it makes sense they there isn’t.  I think the reason I have always liked Sister of the Bride the best is because it has the most about negotiating the transition from adolescence to adulthood as (character) watches her sister, who is only 19, prepare to cross over as the family prepares for her wedding.

 

What all of these books show, somewhat unexpectedly, is how important home lives are for all of these girls.  Most of the action in all of these books takes place at home, where the girls pursue their own interests, help their parents, and negotiate life with their parents and siblings.

 

For the record, I’m going to give the list of books in my preference, then in their sales ranking on Amazon, but I’m going to discuss them in the order of their themes.

 How do the novels stack up with each other?

Lois Ranks Cleary’s YA Novels

 

1.     Sister of the Bride: This isn’t a book about a bridezilla. It’s about Barbara’s learning that relationships are about more than hearts and flowers and her first serious reflection about what she wants for her own future.

2.     The Luckiest Girl: Shelley grows up by going away from home for a year to live with her mother’s college roommate’s family. The family’s idea is for Shelley to be a role model for their 13 year old daughter, but Shelley does just as much growing up. This book also features a pretty evolved home life in terms of gender roles even for 2020.

3.     Jean and Johnny: Jean basically learns that dating isn’t that much different from forming friendships: it’s about finding people with good character who build two way bonds founded on give and take. Oh, and also good dating advice for all of us, male and female: when people are rude to you, it’s not you, it’s them. Assume you are lucky to get away from someone who is treating you badly; the truth is probably worse than you know.

4.     Fifteen: Things flow pretty easily for Jane Purdy in this novel, which is why I guess it’s my least favorite. I like that both Jane and her boyfriend, Stan, are hard workers and take responsibility for their actions. The biggest mistake Jane makes in the book is bending social rules having to do with respect and decency, which results in her hurting some one she likes and herself. The messages are, “be loyal”, “don’t be a prima donna”, and “don’t be a brat” come through loud and clear.

 

 

Amazon Shoppers Rank Cleary’s YA Novels

1.     Fifteen

2.     The Luckiest Girl

3.     Jean and Johnny

4.     Sister of the Bride

I guess girls are still curious about dating (Fifteen). I can see where a book about moving away from home, which so many teens dream about, it relatively popular. I like Jean and Johnny now, but yup, the first time I read it, even though I was 9 or 10, I cringed at Jean’s “lost puppy dog” behavior. I’m sad to see Sister of the Bride is last, and I wonder if it’s misunderstood because of its plot?

 

How Cleary’s YA Novels Show Development of Maturity

As I read through these novels again, I noticed that each one illustrates a kind of key point in adolescent girl’s development and emotional growth. 

1.     Jean and Johnny: Growth from being what we would call a middle-schooler to a high-schooler, beginning to date, beginning to develop an identity…stops thinking about “What do others think of me?” and starts thinking about “What is important to me?”

2.     Fifteen: Identity developing, first relationship…learning that having a good boyfriend comes from being a good girlfriend…not in the patronizing way, but in the same way that you have good friends by being a good friend.

3.     The Luckiest Girl: Further exploring the idea of “Who am I?” and “What is important to me?: this time, in the somewhat unusual context of getting to live away from home while still in high school and with an emphasis on academics and career interests and options (yup, for the girls and the moms). Also the beginning of recognition that adults are people who are separate from their relationships with teens, if that makes sense.

4.     Sister of the Bride: Even more exploration of “Who am I?” and “What is important to me?”, this time in the context of marriage and family.

 

 

Cleary’s Young Adult Quartet, Book by Book

Reasons why you should read Jean and Johnny

 

In Jean and Johnny, 15 year old Jean gets a crush on an older boy after he unexpectedly singles her out.  

Jean is such a sweet character.  At the beginning of the book she and her best friend are still chasing celebrities, but by the end, they have learned to branch out from their tight relationship and get involved in hobbies that suit their individual temperaments. 

Jean also to judge the boys she meets on their character as much as their appearance. 

The overarching theme of the book, about how you shouldn’t chase boys, might seem retro, but the message that I see, about realizing that when people don’t treat you well, it’s because of THEIR problems, not yours, are universal. 

Near the end of the book (spoiler alert) Jean discovers that Johnny breaks a date with her, well, an hour after the date is supposed to start for the following reasons:

1.     His dad won’t let him have the car because he got a ticket for driving at 90 miles per hour.

2.     The “buddy of the moment” he has been using for rides picks that moment to get sick of him and also doesn’t want to be a third wheel on a date.

3.     He won’t just suck it up and walk over to Jean’s house in the rain.

4.     Instead of being honest about it, he claims “unexpected dinner guests” at home.

See?

Top Three Takeaways from Jean and Johnny

 1.     It’s important to figure out who you are and develop your own interests. 

2.     Relationships that don’t work out are still good because they still usually help you grow as a person, which is something to appreciate even when it’s time to move on.

4.     If a relationship is causing problems in other parts of your life, there a problem with the relationship.



crazyapplefangirl/flickr. Simplicity 2518 (1960s). January 1, 2009.

Home sewing comes up in nearly all of Cleary’s YA books. If you have ever worn homemade clothes, you will know the fun part of the process (in my opinion, and I did quite often as a child): Picking out the pattern packet, such as these vintage designs which shows clothes similar to what the characters might have worn.

Jean and Johnny opens with Jean berating the fact that she has misaligned the plaid on a skirt she sewed for herself, which is perhaps similar to the jumper shown.

I learned about matching plaids and stripes from that detail and have always checked my clothes for them, especially if the clothes are inexpensive.

I really do miss the option of putting on a preferred neckline or sleeve.


crazyapplefangirl/flickr
Simplicity 2570 (1950s) January 1, 2009


Why you should read Fifteen

 

Jane Purdy meets “the boy of her dreams” while they are each working respective part-time jobs and start dating.

This is my least favorite book because it’s hard to do much with a book that ends (spoiler alert) with being given a boy’s ID bracelet to wear and having your first kiss.  Sweet, but boring unless you are very young. 

Given that caveat, Fifteen is a good blueprint for how to have a healthy relationship.  Jane is reasonably patient and understanding.  The key thing is that she doesn’t make fun of Stan (for example, when he drives her around in a delivery truck) and she is understanding that boys can be shy and insecure too (for example when he doesn’t have the nerve to explain to her that he can’t take her to the dance because he had promised to ask a girl from his last school to the first dance at his new school even though he clearly likes Jane).

Jane also has to live with the consequences of her actions when she breaks a “dating rule” (which I would also just call general classiness) by turning down a friend date for a dance in hopes that Stan will ask her…even though given the circumstances, she really isn’t wrong to expect an invitation.  Or to bring it up herself, which even in the late 1950’s is considered fair if a boy is making his interest in a girl as clear as Stan is. Still, fair is fair, and Jane ends up home alone.

And honestly, the dance storyline isn’t as retro as it might sound: Cleary gives Jane the same choices (bring up the dance herself and/or accept the friend date) that anyone might have in 2020 and lets Jane live with the consequences.  It’s a little boring if you are long past your first dance or big “adult” event, but the lesson is basically about being a decent person.

It’s also nice that both Jane and Stan have part time jobs that both respect; in fact, they frequently have “mini dates” when Stan drives Jane to her babysitting jobs in his delivery truck. 

Prima donnas are not appreciated in this world, and if you read Fifteen, you will learn that lesson well.

Top Three Takeaways from Fifteen 

1.     Even though it might seem (traditionally) that boys hold all the “power” in dating, it’s scary for them too.

 

2.     When you don’t follow ethical or social guidelines, even seemingly minor ones, you will probably hurt people you like and also mess things up for yourself, even if it’s something seemingly small.

 

3.     The quickest route to happiness is self confidence and the ability to laugh at yourself.


If you want a cringe from the past, check out this advertising cartoon from Pepsodent toothpaste where the babysitter has to hear from her charges’ dad, through their mouths, that her dingy teeth are costing her dates.

Because no one has anything to do but sit around and discuss Millicent’s personal life, apparently. And it’s also kind of implied that Daddy has been checking out the babysitter.

This probably partly explains why Jean’s dad will let her take sitting jobs from family friends, so Jean has to make extra money by sewing.

If nothing else, this ad shows that girls needed to read about characters like Jane Purdy, who meets Stan while she’s sitting the most difficult child on her roster and at the worst moment.

James Vaughan/flickr.

 

Why you should read The Luckiest Girl

 

Shelley accepts an invitation from her mother’s college roommate to travel from Portland, Oregon to spend a year with them in southern California. Her temporary home is quite a bit different from her own family, and she comes to see herself through different eyes and understand her parents better.

 

Even as an adult, the idea of living away from home for a year in high school seems daunting, and in the 1950’s being away from home means letters, very occasional and short phone calls, and no trip home for Christmas. 

 

But what both Shelley and the reader learn is first, how to get a little perspective on the whole high school experience and also that confidence comes from within, not from adherence to the fads, which are very capricious and completely random.

 Top Three Takeaways from The Luckiest Girl

1.     A guy can be good looking and nice and still not be right for you.  It’s all ok as long as everyone is respectful of everyone else. 

2.     If a relationship is causing problems in other parts of your life, there is probably a problem with the relationship. 

3.     Happiness doesn’t come from what you have or whom you date; it comes from self confidence and self acceptance.


School dances are ill-fated affairs in Cleary’s YA books (and generally overrated based on most of my experiences). Shelley in The Luckiest Girl shows that you can have a good time even if it’s ultimately with the wrong boy.

This picture gives you an idea of what they might have been like in the 50’s…and shows you why Jean feels so awkward by being asked to dance at once while dressed in her most casual clothes (to help with decorations).

Patrick Q/flickr:

1953 Dance Party

Mom is in the green dress on the right. The dress reminds me of that “Bare Naked Ladies” song “If I had a Million Dollars.” You remember that line, “If I had a million dollars, I’d buy you a green dress, but not a REAL green dress, that’s CRUEL…” That old green gown hung in a closet up in my grandmother’s attic from 1953 until we emptied her home when she died, about 40 years later… Was she a packrat? You betcha!

Taken 6 March 2006

 

Why you Should Read Sister of the Bride

 Barbara’s sister Rosemary unexpectedly gets engaged after her first year of college(!).  Barbara’s romantic ideas about marriage and the practical realities of her sister’s plans go head to head. Barbara gets a new perspective on the realities of women’s lives, which helps make her aware of her own options as she heads into her last year of high school and starts envisioning her OWN future rather than blindly following her sister’s path, as has been her habit.


This photo gives a rough idea of how the bridal party in a semi-formal wedding such as the one in Sister of the Bride might have been dressed in the year the book was published.

brett jordan/flickr: Avril, Wally, Clive, Christina, Gwyn & Jenny. St Paul’s Church, South Harrow, 2 July 1960.

Top Five Takeways From Sister of the Bride (this one is my favorite for a reason)

1.     a. Marriage is not about walking down the aisle in a fancy dress; it’s about a balance of sacrifices to build a life together.

b. You don’t need to spend money you can’t afford to put together a nice event (This book is almost spookily 2020 in this regard).

2.     Enjoy the process of growing up.

3.     Don’t let people take advantage of you.

4.     Happiness doesn’t come from what you have or whom you date: it comes from self confidence and self acceptance.

5.     a. Women (and men too, but that’s not what this book is about) get the job done by sticking together.

b. Friends with like interests is good, but friends with diverse interests is better.

For All of You Grown Up Cleary Lovers

If you like Cleary, and I know there are lot of you, these books make quick, enjoyable reads.

But also DO NOT MISS Beverly Cleary’s two memoirs. A Girl From Yamhill is about her childhood, and you will find out where Cleary got her inspiration for her children’s stories.

My Own Two Feet is about Cleary’s adult life and career, starting with her training and work as a librarian (I love a librarian story) and marriage.


You Tell Us

What do you think of Cleary’s YA books?

 

 

 

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