Shelley Latham is sure about one thing: The upcoming year is going to be different.
Back to school! Time to start the year with a
good attitude cautionary tale wacky scheme inspirational message epic wish-fulfillment fantasy!
Background: Beverly Cleary (who turned 99 this past April!) 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.
An Annoying Autobiographical Pause: However, it was the original hardcover edition, pictured above, its dust-jacket securely wrapped in clear acetate, that I read at the age of 8 or 9, having checked out every other Cleary book out of the local library, including the one narrated by Henry Huggins’s dog. I’m not going to lie: 8 year old me was bored to death by this one.
The Plot: 8 year old me was kind of an idiot.
While nothing earth-shattering happens in Cleary’s extremely gentle coming-of-age story, rarely has “nothing” happened with so much warmth and good humor.
16 year old Shelley Latham has saved up all year for a yellow rain slicker, the “must-have” item for starting the new school year in Portland, Oregon. Her mother thinks the craze for slickers is silly and JUST DOESN’T UNDERSTAND:
“Those slickers get so dirty and there is no way to clean them. And they get torn and shabby in no time at all,” Mrs. Latham pointed out. “They really aren’t practical.”
“But a slicker isn’t- well, mellow until it gets dirty,” Shelley tried to explain.
Mrs. Latham laughed. “Shelley, I don’t know where you girls get such ideas.”
The importance of a yellow slicker was so hard to explain. A dirty yellow slicker, mended with adhesive tape and covered in names in ink- the right names, of course- was the smartest thing a girl could wear to school. It showed a girl was… well, Shelley was not quite sure what wearing a shabby slicker showed. It was one of those things that was difficult to put into words, but it was important.
The sartorial tension with her mother reaches its breaking point when that evening the local department store delivers a fancy new pink raincoat with a black velveteen collar and (horrors!) matching hat. In a fit of pique, Shelley gets back at her mother by shoving a whole bouquet of roses down the garbage disposal.
Equally disturbed and amused by her daughter’s act of rebellion, Mrs. Latham is sympathetic enough to allow Shelley to take up her old college roommate on the invitation to spend the school year in southern California, giving mother and daughter some breathing room.
Shelley’s wish for the new year to be “different” is granted in literally every way: San Sebastian is a wonderland to her, as is living with the Michies (whom insist that she call them Tom and Mavis!) and their two children, 15 year old Luke and 13 year old Katie, to whom Shelley is supposed to serve as a “good influence”.
It is hard to resist the urge to just quote and quote and quote the passages describing life in California, with its orange groves and dinner on the “Pergola”, and hanging out the washing by the light of the full moon and the Michies converted boarding-house. In fact, the one very minor complaint about the book is that Californians are depicted as so aggressively eccentric and unfailingly jolly. Let’s spend Saturday doing the ironing with an old-fashioned gas-powered mangle! Everyone makes newspaper hats if there is an unexpected rainstorm! Why drive a car when you can take the tandem bicycle?
Shelley relishes life at San Sebastian’s Union High School, where she immediately gets noticed by introducing the student body to donut holes, and particularly by both shy and handsome basketball star Philip Blanton and the energetic and intellectual class president, Hartley Lathrop.
Shelley accepts a date with Hartley to the nearby town of Vincente, where they conduct donut hole-based research, but their goodnight is awkward when Shelley realizes that Katie has climbed up on the top of the refrigerator to spy on them through the transom window.
Katie is the ostensible reason why the Michies extended the invitation to Shelley, hoping that the older girl will provide sisterly influence though an adolescent rough patch, which includes an obnoxious best friend and a crush who doesn’t know she’s alive.
And that is one of Cleary’s greatest gifts as a writer: she extends sympathy to every single character, never making fun of adolescent crises, no matter how minor or solutions to said crises, no matter how outlandish (Katie plots to win over the boy of her dreams by attending a school dance wearing a hat made out of lettuce leaves). This sympathy extends to the adult characters as well, as Shelley gains a new understanding towards her sometimes-overbearing mother, learning that she was ashamed that she never had a proper raincoat during her own childhood during the Great Depression, which is why she was so keen to force the fancy one on her daughter.
As the school year progresses, Shelley starts dating Philip, and really does feel like the luckiest girl in the world. The idyll is only marred by her end-of-term report card, when she gets a D in biology, having spent more time mooning over Philip than studying.
The news is worse for Philip, who gets an F for the term. He’s suspended from the basketball team and his strict parents refuses to allow him to go on any more dates until he brings his grade back up. Disappointed but resigned to his punishments, Shelley is shocked to learn that Philip isn’t actually all that concerned about the F and doesn’t care about going to college (which is Shelley’s main concern about her own D); having started a tree-trimming service, he hopes to make forestry a full-time job.
Shelley returns to school after Christmas, determined to raise her biology grade, and also with a renewed interest in Hartley, whom it seems like she has much more in common with anyway, especially their interest in Journalism.
When a famous cowboy-poet, Jonas Hornbostle, comes to speak at the local college, Shelley sees the opportunity to indirectly ask Hartley on a date and gain a celebrity interview. But when Hartley can’t make it, she finds herself out of her depth amongst the collegians and she embarrasses herself when she attempts the interview:
“Does it matter what I think?” he asked ironically but not unkindly
Shelley felt confused. Probably what he thought didn’t matter, but that was not the sort answer she expected him to give.
“Well…” she gulped and tried frantically to think of a question that would sound intelligent and start him talking about himself.
“Uh- how old are you when you wrote your first poem?”
Mr. Hornbostle raised one of his famous black eyebrows. “Poems?” he queried gently. “Have I written any? I am not so sure of that.”
Confessing her failure to Hartley, he consoles her and she comes up with an even better idea for an article based on the whole debacle.
Shelley puts off thinking about both having to return to Portland and telling Philip that she is dating Hartley, but the latter resolves itself when they run into Phillip with another girl at the school carnival and everyone handles the situation with grace and maturity. Shelley is relieved that Phillip’s new girlfriend is a better biology students than she was so she can stop feeling guilty about that as well:
Shelley knew she had been mistaken to have felt that way in the first place. Philip had earned his F that same way she had earned her D- he had not studied enough. His grades were not her responsibility.
The night before her parents are due to arrive to drive her home, Shelley and Hartley have one last date and share a heartrending good-bye: they are both very sensible teenagers and know that time and distance means they will both find other people to fall in love with.
Thus concludes another entirely age-appropriate romance.
Sign It Was Written In 1958 Department: “But Mommy, Pamela’s mother lets her stay up to watch the Hit Parade!”
Insufferable College Students Department:
“I’m glad I didn’t waste my money on the LP record he made. I’ll bet he’s even worse on hi-fi,” said the young man. Suddenly he rose from his seat. “I’ve had my intelligence insulted enough for one afternoon,” he announced, and left.