A New Penny By Bianca Bradbury

Or: So You’ve Decided to Ruin Your Life.

a new penny

Most YA works dealing with teen pregnancy end before the baby is delivered; Bianca Bradbury takes a different route and instead paints a relentlessly grim portrait of young marriage.

The Plot: 17 year old Carey and 21 year old Hank Carter have already gotten past the “in trouble” part as the book opens: married almost a year, Hank and Carey are now sharing two-room trailer with their infant son, Jody, in the college town of Waterford, Anystate, USA.

Hank is a biology major at the local college; his parents have grudgingly agreed to pay his tuition, while Carey’s parents are supplying them with $150 a month to live on. Hank is overworked and uninterested in helping out with the housework; Carey is just not interested in doing any housework:

“For starters, how about cleaning up the brat?” Hank demanded.

Not that at this moment Jody was any great shakes as a miracle. His diaper was soaked. His evening cereal had dried on his face and his shirt was smeared with his morning orange juice. He did smell sort of ripe.

Hank is kind of a mama’s boy, and can’t understand why his teen bride’s cooking repertoire consists entirely of Tuna Wiggle and toasted cheese sandwiches; Carey is pretty spoiled herself, and when she runs home to her parents after this most recent marital spat, she is horrified to find that they have given her room to her younger brother.

Carey is also isolated from the other young marrieds in the trailer court, all of whom are enrolled at the local college and are focused on their studies; when she does convince Hank to invite a few of his friends over (despite the fact that he finds the state of the trailer so embarrassing) the conversation goes way over her head and she is unable to get the other young women interested in talking about babies and housekeeping.

The book deals largely with Carey’s quest to relieve her boredom amid pressure from her parents and in-laws to return to school, while health and money crises constantly swirl in the background.

Tired of begging for a few dollars from Hank, she secretly takes a job at a local beauty parlor as a sweep-up girl and shampoo trainee, thinking that she might go to beauty school and become a cosmetologist. But after several months, she finds the idea of flattering middle-aged clients and making their hair “look more like a wig than a wig” somewhat depressing. Maybe everyone should grow their hair wild and free, like her hippie neighbors, whom Carey idolizes.

The issue with the salon is settled when the entire family comes down with the flu, which for Carey and the baby turns into pneumonia; when Carey comes to after three days in bed her mother has taken charge of the household, including filling their icebox and informing Carey’s boss that she has quit. Carey had decided that she doesn’t want to become a beautician- but what does she want to do with her life?

Exacerbating the generally tense situation with her in-laws is the class difference between the two families: Hank’s father is he president of the local bank; Carey’s father is the local plumber. Hank’s older sister, Irene, is especially snooty about Carey’s modest background, refusing to even extend an invitation to Christmas dinner.  However, it is a sign of the times that Carey is expected to go to college: although she was a poor student, both families constantly nag her to finish high school and go on to college.

Although Hank and Carey’s parents could help out their children more financially, they choose not to: the phrase that is constantly repeated is that they “need to pull their own little red wagon”. However, Carey finds a wealth of social supports available to help her out: a county-subsidized daycare center is clean and cheerful and only 50 cents an hour (which translates to $2.56 in 2013 dollars. Jeez.); and the local employment agency is immediately able to place her in a sales position at the local dime store, with the understanding that she may miss work if her son is sick.

Hank is still kind of a clod, though. He may have the best of intentions in getting Carey to return to school and then enroll in college, but he’s kind of a condescending jerk about it, at one point urging her to go check out the college library because she’s such a dumb poor she’s probably never even SEEN a library or something.

Not that Hank is such an amazing genius of science himself: he gets bit by a squirrel in the biology lab and lets the wound go untreated, landing him in the hospital with a serious case of blood poisoning. It couldn’t come at a worse time, as Carey has finally gotten up the nerve to go talk to the superintendent of the local school district: the hip, bearded (okay, it doesn’t actually say he has a beard, but he totally does) young super takes the time to rap with her about a program that will allow her to start in February instead of waiting until September.

Hank’s mother shows up and freaks out when she finds her son is in the hospital’s charity ward and has him moved to a private room; all of the parents are impressed with Carey’s progress toward adulthood and announce that they will increase their monthly allowance and buy them health insurance. Hank probably isn’t going to die. The book ends with Carey laying out her outfit for the next morning’s return to high school:

“Other kids at Waterford High could wear freaky clothes, but she couldn’t. She was going to feel like an ancient married woman joining a bunch of kids, so she might as well dress like one.”

While she is still sour on the prospect of college, it is hinted that she’ll eventually parlay her interest in gardening into a botany major.

Sign It Was Written In 1971 Department: “Was this why kids turned off and dropped out and stopped wearing shoes and joined together and went back to nature?”

Snob Hill Department: Hank’s parents are always inviting him out to eat, including to “lunch with the businessmen who belong to Mr. Carter’s private luncheon club”, leaving Carey alone to cry into her Tuna Wiggle.

Unexplained Department: The title refers to Carey’s conviction that the morning she returns to high school will be “a penny right off the press. Right out of the mint.”

The copy I own is actually a paperback reissue by Scholastic under the title Love Is Never Enough, which actually makes more sense. I chose to go with the original title and cover art because Square From Squaresville Hank would totally not be caught dead with shoulder-length hair and an Abbie Hoffman shirt.

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10 Responses to A New Penny By Bianca Bradbury

  1. Susan says:

    I also got this in junior high from the Scholastic book club with the new title. This book was my introduction to the existence of trailers and trailer parks, just as the elementary school book “Amy Moves In” was my introduction to the existence of apartment buildings 🙂 .

  2. K says:

    I owned this book and probably read it 30 times as a child. I was born in 1964. I have no idea what made me look it up online tonight.

  3. Susan says:

    Out of curiosity I looked this up on both Amazon and Ebay to see the cover of the version I read, which was the Scholastic paperback version called “Love is Never Enough.” (None on Ebay at the moment but some used ones are on Amazon.) Interestingly, I had no memory of that title, but did remember the little subtitle saying “Orig. Title: A New Penny” and had unsuccessfully looked for that before finding your blog! I also discovered that the versions being sold in Ebay were hardcover former library copies, which I had never seen.

    • mondomolly says:

      Re-titled Scholastic editions certainly can make things more complicated when trying to place a cover with a title in your memory! Also, seriously, Hank would never dress like that 😉

  4. Susan says:

    I don’t remember a lot of details from this book but I think there was a part where Carey would bring home gossip-style magazines from the beauty shop to read, and one of the neighbors acted appalled when she saw them. Am I remembering that right? I don’t know why that stands out to me.

    • mondomolly says:

      You’re remembering correctly! There is a lot of class friction going on in this one, between Carey and both the college students and her in-laws, and gossip magazines are soooo trashy 😉

  5. Susan says:

    So I found the paperback “Love Is Never Enough” version and just reread it. I liked it better than I expected to! I think it was actually somewhat representative of the times. Carey is young, and she matures throughout the book, causing her to fight less with Hank. Getting married because a young woman was pregnant was fairly common, and with more girls going to college, some students did get married while in college, causing a rise in married-student housing, although in this case it was the trailer park rather than official student housing.

    I was intrigued by the beauty salon dynamics. When I was growing up, my mother and her friends had standing appointments at the neighborhood beauty shop to get their hair done (rollers, sitting under dryers, comb-outs, teasing). (My sister and I still talk affectionately about this salon — it was the ladies’ neighborhood hangout and we occasionally got our haircut there before we got older and went to the more trendy, youthful places.) This was a very steady business at the time this book was written in 1971. Over time, though, a lot of the older women started going for simpler haircuts they could do at home. We could see the shift among our mother’s friends and our friends’ mothers 🙂 !

    • mondomolly says:

      Wow, I’m glad you found a copy! I liked it for the reasons you mentioned as well, it really seemed to capture a time just on the cusp of when girls were expected to attend college. I also thought that Carey had an exceptionally good dramatic arc- one of those random books I picked up and got more than I expected out of it!

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