January 13, 2011

Fifteen by Beverly Cleary (1956)


"Jane Purdy is fifteen and a sophomore in high school. No one has ever asked her for a date except George, an unromantic boy who is an inch shorter than she is and talks of nothing but his rock collection. Then she meets Stan: tall, good-looking, resourceful, and sixteen years old--all she ever dreamed of. The circumstances are trying. Jane is baby-sitting with Sandra Norton, the toughest assignment in town. Stan appears just in time to prevent Sandra, by a skillful use of pig Latin, from emptying a bottle of ink on the Nortons' blond living-room carpet. But I'll never see him again, Jane tells herself despairingly the next day. I'm just not the type to interest an older man. And then one evening the telephone rings . . . " (dust jacket copy)

Finally!  A fifties teen romance actually written in the 1950s!  And possibly one of the most charming teenage novels ever written.  Beverly Cleary is mostly known for her children's books starring such memorable characters as Ramona, Henry Huggins, and Ralph S. Mouse, but she also wrote several heartfelt and funny teenage romance novels, the first of which is this one.  As the dust jacket copy on my copy reads, "It is hard to think of any other American writer who has so successfully put on paper the sorrows and joys and absurdities of girlhood."

The novel starts with these lines:
"Today I'm going to meet a boy, Jane Purdy told herself, as she walked up Blossom Street toward her baby-sitting job.  Today I'm going to meet a boy.  If she thought it often enough as if she really believed it, maybe she actually would meet a boy even though she was headed for Sandra Norton's house and the worst baby-sitting job in Woodmont."

And believe it or not--she does!  And not just any boy, but Stan Crandall, who is "at least sixteen, because he had a driver's license.  He had a nice smile and merry eyes--greenish-gray eyes.  He had brown hair with a dip in it.  He was not really tall, but he was tall enough so a medium-sized girl could wear heels and not feel she had to scrooch down when she walked beside him."  And he's a nice boy, which is apparently what girls were looking for in the 1950s.  I think I still have a little crush on Stan Crandall and his tan arms and silver identification bracelet.  Dreamy!

So we go through Jane's trials and tribulations when dating a boy seriously for the first time.  How to behave on her first real date, what to order at Nibley's ice cream shop, how to stop her parents from alternately teasing her and worrying about her, how to get through dinner at a real Chinese restaurant in the city, and what happens when he doesn't invite her to the big dance.

The charms of this book are many.  Not only does the book explore the heartfelt issues behind dating and really liking someone for the first time, but Jane also learns about who she is as a person.  But it's not all earnest -- there's quite a bit of subtle humor in the book, especially in Jane's interactions with her parents, who just don't understand, as well her babysitting adventures.  Jane has a sense of humor about herself as well.  In a scene where she orders flowers for Stan after an operation and receives a massive gladiola arrangement she has to hand-deliver to him:
"Since she had made up her mind to be herself and since she was the kind of person who always did the wrong thing, Jane decided she might as wll make the best of it and start out by delivering the flowers to Stan." 
The book also has a marvelous sense of place.  It's set in a suburb of a West Coast city (probably San Francisco), which has all the advantages of a small town (in the 50s, that is), which means walking to the movies and ice cream shop from home.  Everyone has lovely golden tans, and gracious old redwood homes abound, as well as the "nodownpaymenttoveterans" houses owned by Jane's babysitting clients.  The line drawings, by Joe and Beth Krush, beautifully capture the time period, from Jane's clothes to the decor at her house when Stan comes to pick her up.  It's also an evocative look at (sheltered, middle class) teenage life in the 1950s.  Before their first date, Jane starts to worry about Stan:  "What if he came in a T shirt and jeans?  Or one of those gaudy sport shirts with the tail hanging out?  . . . Or maybe he would chew gum and snap it and guffaw at the love scenes in the movie."  As for dinner in the city?  Jane wears a suit and white gloves, but makes the major decision to go hatless.  At the end of the book, Stan gives Jane his identification bracelet, which means they're going steady. 
"Jane's wrist felt small and feminine in the circle of heavy silver links.  Tenderly she caressed the letters of Stan's name with her finger tips.  Stanley Crandall.  The nicest boy in the whole world."
Sigh!  Even though the trappings are charmingly dated, certain truths about young love always ring true.  Beverly Cleary had an amazing gift of insight into the minds of children with her books for audiences, and her teenage novels are no different.  I only wish she'd written more than four.  They are still in print and hopefully, they still speak to a contemporary audience. 

Despite the incidences of angst and drama, these novels are still like riding in a powder-blue convertible on a sunny day with a nice boy who has a dip in his hair, and golden-brown hairs on his tanned arms.

January 6, 2011

Star-Spangled Summer by Janet Lambert (1941)

"Poor little rich girl Carrol hasn't been having a nickel's worth of fun.  But then she's invited to spend a summer with Penny Parrish--and things really start to happen!  Her first horse show.  Her first formal dance.  A moonlight picnic.  Summer suddently becomes a joy-filled season, bringing friendship . . . and love." (back cover - 1972 edition)

I have three editions of Star-Spangled Summer, one hardcover from 1941, and two Scholastic paperbacks: one from 1961 (shown above) and one from 1972, which is the one I grew up reading.  This innocuous little paperback introduced me to (as the back cover of my 1941 edition reads): "Stories about teenagers . . . written specially for teenagers.  The Famous Janet Lambert books for girls."  Star-Spangled Summer is the first in a sprawling series of books in which characters in two army families repeatedly intertwine--and marry.  You can find a partial listing of the series here.  Enough introduction!  On to the story!

As the novel begins, Carrol and Penny are on the train, heading to the army post where Penny's family lives for a visit.  They had recently met when Penny was visiting family in the city.  Carrol lives with her grandmother, and hardly sees her cold, rich father, so this visit to Penny's rowdy, big family will be quite a change. And they are rowdy, as we see when the whole family piles out of the station wagon, from Major Parrish to his wife Marjory ("attractive in a red-gold gypsy kind of way"), rambunctious children Bobby and Tippy, to handsome older brother David.  Don't forget colored olderly Williams and dear cook Trudy (who is a well-drawn, complex character--despite the "lands" and the "laws"). 

Carrol settles into her visit, getting to know the rituals of the post, and life among a group of fun-loving kids.  She goes riding with David, and they become friends despite her earlier contention that he was "terribly conceited."  The group plans a scavenger hunt that takes them all over the post--including to an attractive young officer's quarters.  Drama ensues when Carrol gets a large, unsolicited check and a cold letter from her father which Penny's jealous friend Louise discovers and badmouths her as a snob.  But it all works out.  But Penny has a plan--to reunite father and daughter.

The next big event (after a horse show) is the hop, or the dance on the post. 
"There were no formal programmes.  Someone asked you for a dance--and away you went.  When the first encore began it was sink or swim, for anyone could cut.  If you were popular you danced joyfully from one pair of arms to another and if you weren't, you probably went home and cried yourself to sleep."
Carrol's father does come to visit the family at the post, but he's cold and difficult to know.  Things change, though, after the moonlight picnic.  Mean girl Louise angles with Carrol's father for an invite to New York (not knowing that Carrol lives with her grandmother, not her father) and then Louise's horse acts up, and suddenly "Carrol lay on the ground, very white and still, and blood was trickling slowly down her forehead."  Despite being kicked in the head by a horse, Carrol recovers, reunites with her father who invites her to live in New York with him, and since David is on his way to West Point, they all fly off together in a private plane.  On to the next adventure!

There's no other word for these books than charming.  They are filled with engaging characters--Penny in particular is a hoot--and strong relationships, especially among the family.  The depiction of 1940s life, as well as pre-war army life, is so vivid you'd swear you were there.  I'll let the book jacket of the 1941 edition sum it all for me:

"A happy, wholesome story, full of high excitement, gaiety and keen humor.  The girls are delightful, the young men gallant--West Point bound.  Girls, and boys too, in their early teens are certain to find this tale of modern American army life absorbingly entertaining."

January 4, 2011

Carol Goes Backstage by Helen Dore Boylston (1941)

"Carol Page beamed upon them from the threshold--slender and dark-haired, her eyes startlingly green in a heart-shaped face.  She was so lightly and perfectly balanced that she seemed poised for flight in any direction, and her head, with the thick hair falling to her shoulders, tilted back with sudden, dramatic intensity.  'I was helping an old lady across the street,' she said.  'I was teaching boy scouts to build a fire in the rain.  My plane crashed in a snowstorm.  I've been all tied up.'"

How can you beat a character introduction like that?  Helen Dore Boylston was also the author of the Sue Barton nurse stories, but I have a soft spot in my heart for the Carol books--and not just because of the name.  My copy is a first edition, published in 1941 and withdrawn from a public library in Chisholm, Minn probably due to the coffee spills, pencil marks and torn, yellowed pages.  Considering I got it in the 1970s, it's holding up quite well. 

According to the blurb on the back of one of Boylston's book, Carol is one of "Two Famous Young Heroines from the books of Helen Dore Boylston."  Here's the description:  "Carol Page, who wants to be an actress.  Attractive, full of spirits, but serious underneath, Carol treads the difficult path toward a career on the stage, finding all the hardships--and thrills, too--that the theater has always provided for the girl who wants to reach the pinnacle."  She wrote four books in the Carol series, starting with Carol Goes Backstage, and moving on to Carol Plays Summer Stock, Carol on Broadway, and finally, Carol on Tour

As the book opens, Carol is late for the dress rehearsal for the high school play.  After making the appearance noted above, she goes outside to rehearse her lines and is "interrupted by the jerky arrival of a battered roadster driven by a tall boy with a thin, eager face and tousled fair hair."  This would be Ned Long, and don't get attached--the Boylston books are about careers first, then love.  She goes off in his car with him, which naturally breaks down.  She hitches a ride to the school with someone in a "long, underslung coupe", who talks to her about acting.  She has a great success in the play and heads off for a trip to New York with her older brother.  As she gets tickets for Candida, she walks through Times Square lost in daydreams of theatrical success:
"Broadway elbows and Broadway shoulders brushed against her, but she didn't notice.  Nor did she know that her sensitive young face and startling green eyes stood out sharply in the crowd.  She didn't know that her body had grace and ease of balance, or that she walked lightly, her weight on the balls of her feet--a perfect stage walk.  But there were individuals in the crowd who knew, and who turned to look after her with brief interest."
As the play starts, she realizes that the woman who gave her a ride is Jane Sefton, a great lady of the theater.  She goes backstage and tells Miss Sefton that she plans to go on the stage as well.  Back at home in Milltown, much drama ensues as Carol informs her parents (Judge Page, mind you) of her plans to become an apprentice at the Stuyvesant Theater School in New York.  She auditions, along with her good friend and future character actress Julia, and meets an annoying young man named Michael Horodinsky.

All three, of course, become apprentices.  Julia and Carol stay at a highly respectable girls' club and begin to learn the theater, from all things backstage, to movement, to speaking exercises.  This lecture comes from Miss Marlowe, the director of the Theater School:
"Talent is not enough.  You must realize that, too.  You may be the most talented person in the world and still have no place in the theater.  The real essentials for a theatrical career are discipline, steadiness, willingness to work and co-operate, manners, and respect for the rights of others.  an actor with 25 per cent talent and 75 per cent character will go farther in the theater than one with 75 per cent talent and 25 per cent character."
They put on their own scenes (directed by that annoying Mike), and get to watch a production from backstage, including a magical production of Peter Pan.

Everything is going well, until Aunt Salome stops by to check on Carol, and runs into Mike, who confirms all of the family's worst suspicions about the kind of riffraff Carol is associating with at the theater.  Her parents demand she return home, but first she needs to finish her commitment to the theater by appearing in one more student production: Dear Brutus.  In the audience for this play, however, is the manager of a theater who has an acting job to offer for one outstanding actor.  Guess who gets the job?  Carol!  But Julia and Mike and a few others get apprenticeships, so they'll all be together again in summer stock.

The charm of this book lies in the detailed and fascinating depiction of life in the theater--from high school productions, to off-Broadway productions, to the Broadway show in which one of the apprentices gets a walk-on part.  It's also very evocative of life as it must have been for the young apprentices in the New York theater scene.  Boylston's novels are fast-moving, and her characters and dialogue are vivid and dramatic.  Carol learns a lot about herself and acting, and as she gets to know Mike, she gains respect for his talent despite his gruff exterior.  But the central focus in this novel is always Carol and her journey on her way to becoming a real actress, despite her family's objections and the hard road ahead.

January 3, 2011

Practically Seventeen by Rosamond du Jardin (1943)

"His name is Jon," I lied shamelessly. "He goes to Whitfield . . . sort of blond, with nice blue eyes. That's all I'm going to tell you. Wait till the Prom, and you can see for yourself!"  Tobey's fight with Brose Gilman has left her without a date--so she creates a Dream Man. Now everybody believes her! (back cover)

The copyright date on my battered, beloved copy of this book is March 1971, almost thirty years after its first publication in the early 1940s.  And to me, reading this in the late 70s, it hardly showed its age at all.  Let's meet Tobey! 
"My name is Tobey Heydon and I am practically seventeen years old, since my sixteenth birthday was five whole months ago.  Actually, Tobey is my middle name and my first is Henrietta.  My mother got sort of desperate when her third child turned out to be another girl, so she named me for my father.  But, thank Heaven, my grandmother's maiden name was Tobey.  Otherwise it would have been too ghastly.  People might have called me Henny for short, and I would have simply died."
This is the first of six books Rosamond du Jardin wrote about Tobey Heydon (and her family)--books that followed Tobey through high school, college and finally marriage.  Although the book primarily follows the adventures of Tobey, and her steady date Brose ("I am pretty crazy about Brose.  He is quite tall, and he has brown hair with a little curl in it which he is always trying to discourage by the most drastic methods."), it's very much of a family story and their lives in an "average-sized town called Edgewood".  Tobey has three sisters (two older, one younger) and parents who are much more droll and funny than Tobey realizes.  Du Jardin's characters are vivid and memorable, and Tobey is a delightful narrator who is slightly less insightful than she thinks she is. 

The novel starts off during Christmas and all sorts of shenanigans ensue like a visit from Santa that goes awry (the police are called) and Brose's present (leather bound Ramona, but with lipstick and My Sin hidden in the package).  With one sister engaged to a department store heir, and the other down in the tropics, Tobey has her hands full with romantic dilemmas to solve. 

After finally getting her sister married off, it's time for the rest of the family to relax for a few weeks at Green Lake.  But wait?  Who's that girl Brose is talking to?  Well, it's Kentucky Jackson ("her hair was pale blond, like silver gilt, and done in a soft, long page-boy, with not a strand out of place") and she's about to make Tobey's summer look pretty miserable.  But don't give up on Tobey--armed with a tippy canoe and a fortuitous thunderstorm, she gets back her man. 

Things are really looking up now, but we still have a few chapters left.  Back at home, everyone's gearing up for the Heart Hop ("it is terribly splash, and everyone gets new formals and has a super time") where the girls invite the boys.  But thanks to another misunderstanding, someone else asks Brose to the dance before Tobey can.  What can she do now?  Clearly, make up a new boy, Jon Hayward from neighboring Whitfield, who she invites to the dance, planning for him to get ill the day of the dance. 

All is going well, and her parents even surprise her with a new dress for the dance ("It was the most absolutely swoony formal I'd ever had in my whole life--plaid taffeta in tones of violet and gold and black, with an off-the-shoulder neckline and a skirt so wide and rustling I couldn't even believe it!").  Finally, it's the night of the dance, and Tobey is feeling guilty and regretting her deception when a young man appears claiming that Jon sprained his ankle and asked him to substitute. 

Tobey goes off with the mystery man ("He was tall, with nice broad shoulders, and he had brown hair and blue eyes with a nice twinkle"), only to discover her little meddling sister and her friend read about her dilemma in Tobey's diary and sent the friend's brother, Dick Allen, to save the day.  But don't worry: Tobey and Brose make up and Brose gives her his class ring to wear. 
"At that moment, it seemed as though Brose and I were the only two people in the world, and I liked feeling that way.  I liked it very much, indeed!  Apparently, Brose was experiencing similiar emotions.  All he could say was, "Gee, Tobey--gee . . ."
This is a throughly charming novel, with lots of dry humor (much resulting from Tobey's practical point-of-view).  It's also a vivid look at a time gone by, complete with teens dancing at Joe's Grill, new formals for dances (complete with orchid or gardenia corsages), holiday events like sleigh rides and house parties, and friends named Itchy, Gil, Sox and Barbie.  The beauty of du Jardin's writing, though, goes beyond such retro charm.  She has wonderful insights into human nature, and those are universal--just as relevant (and funny) in the early days of the 21st century as they were in 1943.