Beverly Cleary, bless her nonagenarian heart, is best known for her juvenile fiction about the Leave It To Beaver-type adventures of Henry Huggins, and Beezus (and especially) Ramona Quimby: books that manage to realistically capture the high drama that is inherent in being an 8-to-12 year old child.
Less well known are the YA Romances from early in her career: Fifteen (1956), The Luckiest Girl(1958), Jean and Johnny (1959) and Sister of the Bride (1963). In the early 1980s Dell reissued these four titles as trade paperbacks under the “Young Love” imprint with terrible cover art and jacket descriptions that have nothing to do with what actually happens in the book. In fact, Fifteen has been consistently in print for over 50 years (yay!) but subjected to a variety of dull and insipid updates to the cover art.
The Plot: It’s basically a few months in the ballet of social awkwardness that is adolescence, as 15 year old lower-middle class (plain) Jane Purdy deals with well-intentioned but TOTALLY EMBARASSING parents, catty cashmere-sweater wearing popular girls, various misunderstandings with the boy she has a crush on, and being a white suburbanite eating at a Chinese restaurant in 1956.
Jane meets Stan Crandall while she is babysitting bratty proto-Ramona Sandra Norton, who is holding Jane hostage by threatening to dump a bottle of ink on the carpet unless she can say “bottle of blue black ink” in French. Stan, comes to her rescue (he happens to be in the neighborhood delivering horsemeat for the Norton’s dog) by saying it in Pig Latin. Jane is immediately taken with Stan, described as having “a nice smile and merry eyes and brown hair with a dip in it” and as “not really tall, but he was tall enough so a medium-size girl could wear heels and not feel she had to scrooch down when she walked beside him.” I’m picturing Bobby Vee here:
But! Since it is 1956 Jane has to either come up with a devious way of accidentally-on-purpose running into him, or wait for him to call her on the telephone. Which he does! Now Jane just has to convince her parents to let her go out on a date with him:
“Oh, Mom, do you have to refer to him as ‘this Stanley Crandall?’ Jane thought. It sounded so awful, as if she had picked him up on a street corner someplace.” Jane tries to reassure her parents that “He’s not the type to ride around in a hot rod and throw beer cans out along the highway.”
Mr. and Mrs. Purdy want Jane to date her childhood friend George:
“He’s a nice boy with real interests. He may not seem very exciting to you now, but he is a kind of boy with purpose, the kind of boy who will be a doctor or a scientist when he grows up.”
Yeah, awesome, parents: nobody wants to date teenage J. Robert Oppenheimer! Especially when he’s an inch shorter than you are so you have to scrooch down when you dance, constantly yammers about his rock collection, has a cowlick, is chaperoned everywhere by both of his parents and (most damningly) “carried his money in a change purse instead of loose in his pockets and took her straight home from the movies.”
Her parents eventually relent, and Jane prepares for her big date by washing her hair (even though she washed it 3 days ago!) and “plucking six hairs out of her left eyebrow and five hairs out of her right”. She however fails to convince her mother to buy her a new dress or hire an interior decorator to make their house less embarrassing. Before sitting down to a hearty dinner of her mother’s onion casserole (GOD! MOM!)
Jane took the bobby pins out of her hair, because her father did not allow her to come to the table with her hair in pin curls…
Yeah, typical 50s father setting arbitrary rules to try and control the women in the family…
…He said it spoiled his appetite to realize that he had a pinhead for a daughter.
Oh. Wait. He’s supposed to be funny! Actually, both of the parents are pretty hilarious, from her mother’s constant hysteria over the thought that Bobby Vee is going to morph into Vic Morrow and take her daughter to a knife fight right out of The Blackboard Jungle, to her father’s excessive doting on the family cat (at one point in the book her father gets up in the middle of the night to shine a flashlight out the bedroom window and congratulate the cat on his skill at killing gophers).
After sitting through introductions with her parents, during which Jane dies of embarrassment at least 500 times, she and Stan are finally off to a movie, stopping off at Nibley’s Confectionary and Soda Fountain (great name for a restaurant! Take note, Love Comes to Anne!) where Jane runs into cashmere sweater queen Marcy, who ruins the thrill of being the first girl to be seen in public with the new boy in town by ordering black coffee when Jane has ordered vanilla ice cream, which she THOUGHT was more sophisticated than her usual chocolate coke. Yeah. Even I can’t keep the hierarchy of soda fountain choices straight. When I go back to 1956 in my fabric-based time machine, I’ll probably accidentally order the wrong thing and get branded a Communist. However, in the end, Jane has to admit that “she had a good time in a miserable sort of way”.
So successful is Jane in convincing her parents that Stan isn’t setting the stage for invading the town with his motorcycle gang or going to take her to a reefer party in the Mission District, she is allowed to go on a group date to a Chinese restaurant in San Francisco with her best friend Julie; Buzz, with whom Jane shares a murky past over an incident involving a stuffed onion in a 6th grade home ec class; and Marcy and her flavor-of-the-month, Greg.
Things Do Not Go Well.
Despite Jane and Julie’s best-laid plans (“It did not take more than an hour on the telephone for the girls to decide they would not wear hats, because if they both went bareheaded it wouldn’t matter what Marcy did about a hat”) the authentic Chinese restaurant that is owned by the parents one of Stan’s old classmates is weird and terrifying: “bowls of strange sauces, platters heaped with crinkled brown objects, mysterious mixtures of unknown foods.” Jane panics:
Now if only she knew which was the won ton, and should she pour the sauce over it or dunk the won ton in the sauce? And what on earth could those floating things be that looked like little brown hands?
Although she is equally White and Suburban, Marcy does not have these problems and hijacks Stan’s attention for the evening. All is lost! But wait! Stan makes it up to Jane by apologizing for Chinese food being so Chinese and buying her a hamburger on the way home. By the time school starts the whole school knows that they are practically going steady!
However! Stan has oddly not asked Jane to the first school dance of the year. As the days go by she hints and finally throws out all decorum and asks him if he is going to ask her. He says he can’t because he already has a date. Jane does what any sensible 15 year old girl would do and freaks the hell out and completely avoids Stan, making Julie store her books in her locker for her, avoiding Nibley’s after school, and throwing herself into her babysitting and reading Julius Caesar, determined to forget Stan and become a top student so that “when she finished high school she would have a selection of scholarships to choose from, she would go to one of those Eastern women’s colleges…” she starts hanging around with Liz, who is on the staff of the school literary magazine and “writes poems with titles like ‘Life and Death: a Dialogue’”. She considers her employment options as a swingin’ single gal and decides on a career as
an airline stewardess , or a writer of advertising copy for a big department store or perhaps a job at the American embassy in Paris- something like the girls in the pages of Mademoiselle, who always managed to be clever about clothes and to be seen in interesting places with men who had crew cuts.
Oh, Jane you are a girl after my own heart!
Things go from bad to worse when Julie calls the morning after the dance to report that Stan’s date had been a sophisticated 5 foot tall city girl named Bitsy with “one of those sleek new haircuts” and a dress with a straight skirt, and whom everyone agrees is “perfectly darling”. Dang it, once again I was born too late to be a femme fatale on the solely on the basis of my height. Or lack thereof.
Thankfully, before Jane can sit down to compose another Hokku about her feelings (which is like a Haiku, but in 1956), Stan shows up on her doorstep, looking rather pale and exasperated and explains that he had promised to take Bitsy to the first dance of the year before he moved from San Francisco, even though he would have rather taken Jane, but he is a gentleman of his word, plus his parents made him. He apologizes for not explaining to Jane and generally acting like a huge dorkus for the entire week. He also explains that he had borrowed his parents car to take Bitsy to the dance because he wanted Jane to be the first girl to ride in his new car! Hear that ladies? Stan likes her where it really counts!
Hepped up on the joy of riding in a convertible Ford Model A with a boy, Jane starts feeling quite Marcy-like, and when they stop to show off Stan’s automotive riches to Buzz and Julie, Jane kisses Buzz on a dare. Stan is not pleased. Jane again dies of embarrassment and dorkitude 500 times as Stan drives her to her babysitting job and then drives off, looking quite pained.
Jane agonizes over Stan for four telephone call-less days until at last Julie calls with the wonderful news that Stan is in the hospital! Apparently that pained look wasn’t about Jane kissing Buzz, it was about the fact that his appendix was about to explode. Despite the fact that “she had never known a girl who liked a boy who had his appendix out, and so she had no precedent to follow” Jane decides to send flowers to Stan and goes to the local florist for advice on selecting “masculine flowers”. The florist shamelessly upsells her a monstrous arrangement of Gladiolas, which he then refuses to deliver to the hospital and “for a frantic moment Jane considered rushing out of the shop, never to return”. Yes, I have also been there! Jane eventually gets up her resolve to walk the arrangement to the hospital herself, even though the route takes her right past Nibley’s at soda drinkin’ time, and of course everyone in school is there. But! Jane handles herself with coolness and a sense of humor, and even has a snappy comeback for Marcy’s snotty remarks. Liz-the-intellectual thinks she’s cool and she even attracts the notice of “a boy in a second-year letterman’s sweater”.
When Stan finally returns to school he asks Jane to an outdoor movie fundraiser for the Junior class, where, during the screening of an educational film about John Quincy Adams, he gives Jane his ID bracelet and explains that 16 year old boys are also constantly dying of embarrassment every minute of the day. Yay!
Thus concludes our entirely age-appropriate YA Romance.
Taken Out of Context Department: “A girl shouldn’t hold a baked stuffed onion against a boy forever!”
Haircut Department: Am I the only one who notices that “Buzz” seems to have gone out of fashion as a nickname around the Kennedy assassination?
Sign it Was Written in 1956 Department: “Jane was knitting Stan a pair of Argyle socks for Christmas.”