Seventeen & In-Between By Barthe DeClements

At seventeen, things aren’t so simple anymore…

I got a number of requests for the final book in DeClements’s series featuring Elsie Edwards, as she evolves from gross 5th grade pariah to a beautiful but emotionally scarred high school student while dealing with a neglectful mother, bratty younger sister, absentee father, and newfound popularity with her male classmates picks up halfway through Elsie’s junior year of high school.

While the middle-reader Nothing’s Fair in Fifth Grade pretty much solved all of Elsie’s problems by putting her on a starvation diet (and successfully escaping from a kidnapping attempt….), DeClements added more nuance when telling the story from Elsie’s point of view in its YA sequel How Do You Lose Those Ninth Grade Blues? And like its predecessor, this one benefits greatly from Elsie’s point of view, as an imperfect heroine with no easy answers.

The Plot: While Elsie had successfully overcome some of her insecurities and established a relationship with hunky senior football player Craddoc Shaw, the astute reader might have already been thinking that Craddoc wasn’t all he was cracked up to be.

Now about to turn seventeen, Elsie is still a math genius and talented soprano vocalist, and Jenny Sawyer is still her BFF. She has a better relationship with her younger sister, Robyn, who finally seems like she’s growing out of her bratty phase. But her relationship with her terrible mother is still tense (at one point Elsie admits that they’ve “mostly been ignoring each other for the last couple of years”), and her father and step mother are still constantly trying to rope her into babysitting for their now-toddler. Her ostensibly-platonic friend Jack (last seen smoking pot behind the auto shop in Ninth Grade) has dropped out of school and moved to across the state to work in the lumber industry.

And then there is Craddoc, who now has to be like 20 and a football star at Washington State. He and Elsie are still together, but things are complicated by both her close friendship with Jack and Craddoc’s pressuring her to sleep with him.

And then there’s Elsie’s mother. Jenny can’t believe it when Elsie spends most of her babysitting money on a purse for her mother’s Christmas present:

“Gawd, you’re extravagant,” she said as we scurried out to my car in the rain.

“I know, but I hardly ever find anything I’m sure she will like.”

“She’s always been such a bitch to you, I don’t know how you can’t even spend five dollars on her.”

I was the target of her frustrations until I was fifteen. That was after the diets had finally worked and I had Jenny and Jack for friends and Craddoc for love. Even though the damage no longer showed on the outside, the years with Mother set my head up to expect rejection.

DeClements packs A LOT of drama and moral dilemmas into the 18 chapters, but still balances it with a comic tone (in a throwaway line we learn that busybody Sharon has joined a cult, which I found hysterical). There is a major subplot involving a couple of Elsie’s delinquent classmates trying to break into the school’s new computer system to change their grades. Jenny’s parents finally call it quits (CALLED IT), with her father and younger brother moving to San Francisco. Elsie’s mother has a breast cancer scare. Elsie tutors a Special Ed student that her male classmates (….including Craddoc…) regard as an “easy lay”. Her father’s marriage is on the rocks, and she has to threaten her stepmother with a call to Child Protective Services when she takes out her problems on her baby brother.  And every time Craddoc comes home from college for a visit he’s on Elsie’s back about going to Planned Parenthood and getting on The Pill.

As always, Elsie turns to Jenny’s mother for advice:

Mrs. Sawyer nodded. “It’s that time, eh?”

“Anyway, he thinks it is.”

“And you?”

“I don’t know. It’s just that I always thought I’d be burning all up with desire and could hardly wait. I’m stupid I guess. Or maybe I’m frigid. I like his kisses and all, but.”

When over Christmas vacation Craddoc makes a whole THING about it and drives Elsie to Planned Parenthood himself (although he finds out that it takes a month for The Pill to be effective, dude), the reader is already starting to figure out that although Elsie is less than enthusiastic about Craddoc in that way she is starting to feel that way about Jack, whom she carries on a lengthy correspondence with throughout the book, but doesn’t actually show up until near the end. While the scene depicted on the cover never actually happens, he makes a surprise trip home for Christmas and all of that fresh air and exercise has turned him into a major hunk:

There he stood, a foot taller than me and with shoulders about three feet wide.

“Jack! I can’t believe it. You look so different! Come on in. Let me take your jacket. Ohh, Jack!” I dropped the jacket he’d handed me on the floor and threw my arms around him. Pulling back, I searched his face trying to figure out why he looked older. “It’s that mustache!”

I mean, it was the 80s.

After the new year, Craddoc plans another trip home, specifically for the reason of doin’ it, but those plans are foiled Elsie has a sudden psychic urge that Jack has been injured, and calls around the lumber camps to no avail, until she finally gives in and calls his estranged mother to find out, sure enough, there was a freak accident and Jack has been airlifted to the hospital.

A few weeks later Elsie makes the trip to see him, forcing both to admit that feelings are being felt:

“Give me a kiss good-bye.”


“I don’t care. Give me a kiss good-bye.”

He shook his head slowly. “No, it’s too much of a game for you and it’s too much the real thing for me.”

“It isn’t a game with me, Jack.”

“Then you have to make some decisions- “

“I know.”

A major point in the book is that Elsie is finally realizing that her good looks, talent, and intelligence (as well as latent guilt on her mother’s part) allow her to exercise a sort of power over people, and her temptation to use that power for only her own ends. While some readers have complained that Elsie comes off as judgmental in this book, I think DeClements does a good job of rounding out all of the characters- even when the amateur computer hackers get caught and arrested, they are still given enough backstory that you understand what drove them to it.

Okay, except maybe Craddoc. I mean, I’m sure it’s hard dating a high school girl when you’re in college, but he’s kind of a sleaze in this one. Elsie breaks up with him via U.S. Mail and decides to take a summer job near where Jack is working to see if they have a future together. SENSIBLE!

Sign It Was Written In 1984 Department:

“Robyn’s Atari and the practice computers in the math room don’t need passwords. But the computer in the attendance office and the ones in the counselors’ offices are hooked up to the main computer in Olson’s office, where all the data is stored. So those computers need passwords.”

Callback Department:
Elsie is now driving the 2-seat sports car her mother wouldn’t let her ride in in Fifth Grade, although it is noted she sold it to her for the full Blue Book value.


I caught reflections of myself in the wide mirror. The sweater seemed to make my eyes look bluer.

references Elsie’s (rejected) overture towards her mother in Fifth Grade. 

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My Darling, My Hamburger By Paul Zindel

Senior year isn’t the end of high school- it’s the beginning of Life!

This week’s reader request comes from literally my oldest friend, who sent me an Instragam  screen shot with the caption HAVE YOU SEEN THIS????


(Also I am counting that as a “request”)

Background: I have a vague impression of Paul Zindel as an author whose YA work became extremely dated in the 20+ years between its publication and my becoming a YA myself: too aggressively zany, too much casual drinking, too many parents threatening to make you join the Army, too much wrestling with too many vague existential questions. There is also the fact that by the time I had gotten to my freshman year of high school, teachers of a certain age were embracing the fact that standards had relaxed enough that COOL and EDGY novels such as Zindel’s The Pigman were now allowed as part of the curriculum (Catcher in the Rye was another), without considering that anything being taught as part of the curriculum was automatically deeply uncool, and also I already read The Pigman when I was like 11, so I really lacked enthusiasm about Making A Poster To Illustrate The Themes…

Sorry, slipped into Annoying Autobiographical Pause-mode for a second.

(…but are we really cultivating and love and appreciation for literature by making us all pretend to have a TV talk show about Alienation?)

The Plot: Which despite all that, I actually do love Zindel’s work and his disaffected 1970s Staten Island teens- I still think about John and Lorraine every time I’m headed for the Goethals bridge and see the exit for Victory Boulevard. Continue reading

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Give And Take By Tricia Springstubb

New loves… old friends… Does growing up mean choosing between them?

gave and take

This is a recent reader-request, but also a book that I’ve picked up probably 20 times in the past two years, before rejecting it and throwing it back on the pile. Dell’s Young Love imprint doesn’t have the best track record, including both some of the best and worst titles reviewed here…

And this is yet another one where the cover art and jacket-copy doesn’t do justice to the actual content. In fact, this is on my short list for “most misrepresented”.

The Plot: While it does nominally have to do with the changing relationship between long-time friends (one popular, one dowdy) because of BOYS, the changing points of view manages to empathize with every single one of its characters, including douchey boyfriends, Bitter Divorced Moms, and even ex-middle school bullies, all in prose that is constantly colorful and occasionally poetic. Continue reading

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Teenage Marriage: Coping With Reality By Jeanne Warren Lindsay

If you know a married teenager, you will know someone who will read Teenage Marriage: Coping With Reality

Did you overdose on Valentine’s candy? Well, no fear, I am here with the antidote!

Although, to be honest, this book isn’t the trainwreck the title and some of the chapters (“5. People Are Not For Hitting”, “11. Sex Starts In The Kitchen”) would have you hope.

I suspect the publisher really didn’t believe that this tome was going to stop and make teens seriously consider running off and getting married; nor was it going actually help those high school marriages that were already in trouble. This seems more like a cynical sell to schools and libraries to fill out their social-problems quota, a book of cited statistics for 10th graders doing their English class debating unit or 12th grade policy papers (“Pro: The Age of Marriage Should Be Raised to 21”).

Despite this, I can’t really find much fault with the very generic advice in the book. It tells you to talk about finances and division of household labor, which is a good idea for couples of any age. It isn’t even very dated, taking a modestly progressive viewpoint that husbands doing their share of cleaning and childcare should be a given.

Some Highlights: 

One young wife was shocked to find her husband ‘s mother cooked beans in a different way than her mother did. To make it worse, her husband thought his mother’s beans tasted the best. His wife did not agree.

So, yeah, your basic bean-drama. The whole thing is pretty much on this level. Continue reading

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High Trail By Vivian Breck

Her father lay helpless, his leg broken. No other campers for miles around. How would she get help in time?

This is a reader-request from so long ago I can’t find who requested it or in what context, but I am glad to have finally found a copy to oblige them!

This book was originally published in hardcover by Doubleday in 1948, but the Scholastic reissue from 1966 is the one pictured above… and it (at least initially) fits into the publisher’s format of the era, in which the reader suspects authors were paid by the word

The Plot:  The first couple of chapters are kind of a slog, as Chloe Cassidy uses way too many words inside her head to ruminate upon how happy she is to finally be able to join her father on his annual camping trip into the Sierra Nevadas. Chloe has been waiting since she was four years old for the opportunity, when her 10 year old brother was allowed to accompany their father (who has the extremely annoying nickname of The Old Sourdough, which he is prone to referring to himself in the third person) (SIGH, SCHOLASTIC); while Chloe had been promised that when she turned 10 she would be allowed to attend as well, childhood diseases and World War II intervened, so Chloe is only just now making her first trip at the age of…. well, we don’t know, exactly. Chloe’s age becomes a central mystery of the story and (spoilers) one that doesn’t get resolved! We learn that her brother has graduated from college, so I was initially thinking she was about 16, but by end I was starting to suspect that she was actually in her early 20s. Continue reading

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That Certain Girl By Dorothea J. Snow

It had been common knowledge for several months that the Taylors were moving away from their home on Colfax Street to a big new mansion on Holly Tree Hill…

Another title suggested by a couple of readers during last fall’s run of Whitman-published hardcover novels!

The Plot: This one reminded me both of Beverly Cleary’s YA work (low on the external drama, high on the internal conflict of the heroine) and Julie Campbell’s Trixie Belden series (poor little rich girls rescued by vivacious country-folk; warnings of the dangers of putting on airs). Continue reading

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Baby Island By Carol Ryrie Brink

What would you do if you were shipwrecked with four lively babies in the middle of the ocean?

Continuing with Reader Requests this week, this title comes courtesy of my friend Carrie (author, bird enthusiast, endlessly patient soul in the face of my many philosophies regarding Cold War teenage werewolves…), and she reports:

It’s a grave mystery to me why I liked this so much as a kid. I hated babies then and I hate them now. I did love stories about children alone in the wilderness though, but there are plenty of those that don’t involve unnecessary babies.

I mean, juvenile readers love the very idea of being stranded on a desert island, The Swiss Family Robinson, The Cay, The Black Stallion… uh… Lord of the Flies….

The Plot: Carol Ryrie Brink (best known for Caddie Woodlawn) was the daughter of Scottish immigrants, which adds some helpful context to the excessive pride Mary and Jean Wallace take in their Scottish heritage on every page of the book. Continue reading

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