Phoebe By Patricia Dizenzo

Let’s take a closer look at that cover:

So, this week, we’ll be looking at a novel that is based on a Canadian Public Service Announcement about teenage pregnancy. Which got me to thinking about other foreign PSAs that could be made into YA novels! How about a series about the shrouded figure of Death from the British Dark Water PSA stalking a new group of working-class accented children and finding creative ways to drown them? Christopher Pike could probably use the work!

(On a lighter note, I would pay actual money for a picture book about the CBC’s North American House Hippo’s nocturnal adventures. Top dollar, if it came with a pull-out section of House Hippo stickers and paper dolls!)

Despite the book’s Canadian origins, it is set in the U.S.; the state isn’t revealed, but the city is referred to in passing as “Midland”. I imagined that it is Midland, Texas, home of former President and Mrs. George W. Bush. Because I also read the entire book as a thinly-veiled indictment of the U.S. health care and education system. Sneaky way to get smug there, Canada! 

The Plot: 16 year old Phoebe is already pregnant when the book opens, a direct result of permissive parents allowing her to hitchhike to the lake and come home at 4 am all summer. Now school has started and she is pondering how to break the news to her parents and boyfriend, Paul.

The resources she finds at hand are not helpful: she mentally sketches empire-waist dresses over the diagrams in the school library’s Encyclopedia Britannica to see how long she can get away with hiding her condition, and attends a hygiene class led by the girls’ gym teacher who reminds the reader that “any girl who allows a boy to touch her breasts is asking for trouble”. So much for comprehensive sex ed. I’m sure this kind of thing doesn’t happen- in CANADA!

Phoebe is also disappointed to learn that Paul has never told anyone that they’ve been dating, and that he plans to quit smoking and become an astronaut. He is also obsessed with quoting from a copy of the Kinsey Report that he has purloined from a friend’s older brother:

“Everyone is a sex maniac compared to me. They do things I never even thought of! And those country guys- you know they look so innocent on television, playing the guitar, smiling? Listen, there are statistics on them. These guys are willing to try anything once!”


Phoebe repeatedly imagines confiding in a responsible adult (her parents, a sympathetic teacher, her family doctor) and mentally rehearses the best-case scenario, in which everyone will be happy and/or helpful. Unfortunately, she immediately then imagines the worst-case scenario, which involves a lot of yelling, shame and being kicked out of school.

Where is a 16 year girl old to turn? To another 16 year old girl. Phoebe finally confides in her best friend, Joanne. Joanne is less-than-helpful, and the next thing she knows, Phoebe’s delicate condition is all about Joanne:

“She had wanted sympathy, but Joanne’s crying didn’t help. She needed someone to be kind, but not cry or be upset. If anyone was going to be a prima donna it should be she… No doubt Joanne was crying because she felt sorry for her. But also because the thought of such trouble must have stirred up feelings and imaginings about her own life.”

Joanne does at least have an older sister, Marion, who is away at college. She reluctantly agrees to call and see if she has any advice regarding the situation. Phoebe and Joanne head off to the privacy of a local diner to place a person-to-person call from the pay phone. Unfortunately, they’re sidetracked by a tableful of BOYS who want to flirt with them and play the Rolling Stones songs on the jukebox. Which agitates Phoebe to the point that she starts suggesting made-up song titles:

“More specialized, naming names like ‘I hate Sam Daley but I like John Bertone so I’m going to start going out with John if he asks me, but not Sam. My own name is Sylvia Bradley.’  And stuff like that… the next thing she thought of was ‘I’m worried to death because I think I’m pregnant, but maybe a miracle will happen and I’m really not after all; if I am, and I probably am, I’ll probably have to get an abortion or else go to some kind of home and then give up the baby for adoption, or maybe my parents will kill me. My name is Phoebe Altman.”

I don’t think either of those are going to be covered by The Archies.

At last they reach Marion, who (also reluctantly) agrees to check out some options for Phoebe, since she had one college-acquaintance give up a baby for adoption,  and another have a pre-Roe v. Wade abortion.

In the meantime, Phoebe’s parents are still in the dark about what going on with their daughter and are busy fighting over Mrs. Altman’s spending too much time with her hypochondriac sister and accident-prone offspring. This leaves Phoebe to reheat meatloaf for her disgruntled father.

Marion finally calls back, but will only offer Phoebe information on a home for Unwed Mothers in Vermont. Marion (and later the family doctor) are reluctant to help her procure an illegal abortion not on a moral or even legal basis, but because they are concerned that it might accidentally kill her. This wouldn’t be a problem if only she lived in CANADA!

Phoebe finally does work up the courage to make an appointment with the family physician to request a Frog Test (because in 1970 pregnancy tests still involved live frogs!), but loses her nerve when she actually gets there and imagines the doctor immediately calling her parents (because in 1970 pregnancy tests did not involve the HIPAA Hippo) and instead tells her doctor the exact opposite of what is really going on: that she and her boyfriend have definitely not been having sex and there is no way she can be pregnant.

Having nowhere else to turn, Phoebe tracks down Sue Driscoll, a girl who was a senior at her high school when she was a freshman who left school after getting pregnant and her boyfriend ran off to join the Marine Corps. Phoebe shows up on her doorstep, much to the mortification of poor Sue, who would have been happier never knowing that she’s still known around school as That Girl Who Got Knocked Up And Then Dumped By Her Boyfriend Who Ran Away To Join The Marines. Sue gave up the baby for adoption at birth, and is basically really uncomfortable that Phoebe showed up without even calling first.

Now really, really having nowhere to turn, Phoebe gets up in the middle of the night and calls Paul and screams “I’m pregnant!” at him over the phone and hangs up. The book ends with her parents banging on her bedroom door at 3 am demanding to know what’s going on and why Paul is hysterically calling her in the middle of the night.

Now, being based a (Canadian) PSA, I guess this is the point for class discussion about how Phoebe is going to get out of the corner she’s painted herself into. I really think her only choice is to move some place with more enlightened attitudes and better comprehensive sex education and socialized healthcare. Like CANADA!

Sign It Was Written in 1970 Department: Rampant casual teen hitchhiking not a big deal.

 Choosing Your Choices Department: “I thought most girls today wanted to be career girls or hippies.”

Insufferable Nerds Department: Phoebe and Joanne’s boyfriends take them to the drive-in to see 2001 yet again.

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16 Responses to Phoebe By Patricia Dizenzo

  1. Susan says:

    I got this from the Scholastic book club in eighth grade. I wonder who was monitoring the Scholastic choices back then — I think I got this one, “You Would if You Loved Me,” “Mr. and Mrs. Bo Jo Jones”, and the “New Penny” book all within the same year or so. Phoebe was a thin book that kept me in great suspense. It got to where there were only a few pages left and I thought, how could they possibly resolve this so quickly, and then we were left with a DRAMATIC CLIFFHANGER, NEVER TO BE RESOLVED! That made me so angry but the book as a whole scared me to death. So maybe Scholastic did know what it was doing 🙂 .

  2. Deb says:

    Young adult literature when I was a teen was, for the most part, well-written and reasonably believable. I owned the book Phoebe, and imagined a variety of scenarios for what happened when Phoebe opened her door and let her parents in. I don’t remember her boyfriend wanting to keep their relationship a secret; I thought everyone knew they were a couple. Phoebe’s imaginings of Paul’s possible reactions to her news seemed real to me, like something a real teen would think about.

  3. C. D. Wilmet says:

    I read the book in the 7th or 8th grade. I remember thinking that she didn’t have anyone to confide in and that compounded an already frightening turn of events. While I remember being frustrated that the book ended with so much unresolved I also thought it was that’s exactly how it goes…you are jumping into an abyss. Now I think it was absolutely right. Any kind of resolution would have been for the readers comfort.

    • mondomolly says:

      I am thrilled to hear so many readers remember this book! It’s true, some of the others dealing with teenage pregnancy end with the parents swooping in to deal with the situation, this one is unique with its lack of resolution. Thanks for commenting!

  4. CNJ says:

    I read this book in 9th grade back in the 1980s…the cliffhanger ending left me wondering just what happened.

    I remember thinking as I read the book *Egad…what kind of a world was the late 1960s to force a young girl to live with that kind of burdensome “secret” and force her to deal with it with no support?*

    Anyone want to speculate whether Phoebe told her parents?

    I suspect poor Paul was a bit traumatized by the sudden blurting of the news late on a Sunday night.

    I wonder if Marion was left worrying also after Phoebe refused her help with the home in Vermont.

    Perhaps Phoebe might have been lucky enough to hitch a ride to Canada and have an abortion there, though it’s unlikely.

    What do you all think…..?

    • mondomolly says:

      The book Too Bad About The Haines Girl has a similar set-up, and also ends with a cliff hanger as the teenage couple together tells the girls parents about their situation- it ends with the parents deciding to take the daughter out of school, but doesn’t really address further steps.

      If you’re interested in non-fiction, this is a great oral history of girls who were “sent away” as pregnant teenagers in the 50s and 60s and were convinced/forced their children up for adoption:

  5. Susan says:

    I think the cliffhanger is what made us all remember this book so vividly. And it’s funny that we all wonder what happened next because … nothing happened! Because she was fictional 🙂 !

    But the fact that we do wonder means the author did an effective job!

  6. Pingback: You Would If You Loved Me By Nora Stirling | Lost Classics of Teen Lit: 1939-1989

  7. Vivian says:

    I’m 63 now and I read this book back in the 70s when I was in 8th. grade at a gender-segregated Catholic school. It was required on our summer reading list before the semester began. The nuns knew what they were doing including it on the list – it scared the heck out of me! I never wanted to be that girl…

    • mondomolly says:

      I love that thsi one is so well remembered! I have a lot of family who attended Catholic school in the 1960s and I’m still surprised when they mention some of the reading they were assigned (definitely as a scare tactic), this one definitely fits right in. Thanks for commenting!

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