It all starts the night Johnny Chessler asks Jean to dance…
Beverly Cleary celebrates her 100th birthday on Tuesday, and so OF COURSE we are looking at another of her early YA titles today! Best known (do I really need to say this?) for the Leave It to Beaver-style adventures of sisters Ramona and Beezus Quimby and neighborhood everyboy Henry Huggins, Cleary’s YA romances from the 1950s are less well-known, although they have been consistently in print for nearly 60 years: Fifteen, The Luckiest Girl, Jean and Johnny and Sister of the Bride were all reissued by Dell in the 1980s as part of their Young Love series.
Which of these is my favorite? The answer is “Whichever one I just finished re-reading.”
The Plot: Like Fifteen, Jean and Johnny deals with the whirlwind of changes in the life of a plain, ordinary fifteen year old girl when a boy finally notices her. However, unlike Fifteen’s Jane Purdy, things do not work out so well for Jean Jarett, but it is what she learns about herself along the way that turns out to be to be the point after all.
The Jaretts are that instantly recognizable and relatable Cleary family: not impoverished, but they still struggle to buy “extras” (Jean wishes they could buy an avocado to put on their salad every night); Mr. Jarett is a mailman with a gruff exterior that covers a heart of gold; Mrs. Jarett works at a fabric store that sells remnants and odd pieces, a boon for Jean and her older sister Sue, who thriftily supplement their wardrobes with clothes they make themselves. Mrs. Jarett also is constantly entering contests to write advertising copy, which she is pretty good at, recently winning a television set for the family
As the book opens Jean and her BFF Elaine gather to compare notes on the weekly TV appearance of teen idol Kip Laddish (Mr. Jarett: “He probably can’t even read music and yet has the nerve to stand up there in front of a television camera wearing a coat a tinhorn gambler would be ashamed to be seen in”), when Elaine’s mother asks the girls to help make wreaths for the country club Christmas party (Elaine’s father is a partner in the local plumbing business, slightly elevating their social status).
This will prove to be a life-changing night for Jean, as the girls help deliver the wreaths to the club and find the club’s Christmas formal in progress. While Jean and Elaine are content to watch the glamorous high school upper-classman and college kids, a hunky senior boy suddenly appears and asks Jean to dance.
Jean spends the rest of the winter vacation walking on air, spurred on by Elaine’s enthusiasm to learn how to dance, in case she runs into the mystery boy when they return to school. Still, Jean’s expectations are modest:
She wouldn’t even expect him to ask her for a date. She would just like to know that a good-looking boy felt friendly toward her and would pay her a little attention beyond saying, “Hi,” in the halls. That was the trouble with her and Elaine and a lot of other girls- nobody paid any attention to them. Jean and Elaine had both had a left-out feeling since they had transferred from junior to senior high school.
She understood what Elaine meant. They were girls whom no one would ever expect to dance a ballet, fly an airplane or run for congress.
Jean and Elaine do some sleuthing and discover Jean’s mystery boy is Johnny Chessler, a senior who is very popular with the high school girls.
When Jean learns that Johnny (who is also a Saturday morning DJ on the local radio’s high school program) is going to be MCing the school’s talent show, Jean enthusiastically joins the Costume Club, putting her sewing skills to work. Soon Johnny and his BFF Homer (who like Jean is short, serious and wears glasses) are walking her to the bus stop every afternoon. Or most afternoons, when Johnny feels like it.
He does ask if he can call on Jean at her house on Friday evening, and she throws herself into preparations. Sue, who shares a class with Johnny, is skeptical, pointing out that he calls all the girls “cute”, including her. Still, she aids her younger sister into successfully arguing her reluctant father into the breakfast nook for the evening, so Jean and Johnny can have the living room to themselves. Jean’s mother is more supportive, chipping in her housekeeping money so Jean can buy the ingredients to make a Chocolate Wafer Roll.
The wait for Johnny’s arrival is excruciating, and he doesn’t even bother to call to cancel the date until 9 o’clock, with a lame excuse about his parents having unexpected guests. Take note, ladies! Only a cad skips out on Chocolate Wafer Roll.
Jean is prepared to give Johnny the cold shoulder on Monday, but he shows up after Costume Club, eager as all get-out to walk her home, so she forgives him. Even better, he calls her Saturday to take her for a Coke at the local drive-in (Sue is skeptical- what kind of boy asks you for a Coke at 9 in the morning?). Jean has a very agreeable time, listening to the pre-recorded broadcast of Johnny’s radio show.
And the Jarett sisters have even more exciting things to think about: the school’s a capella group need new stoles for their choir robes, and instead of buying them, the director is supplying fabric to any competent sewers and will pay $1.25 for each finished stole. Sue and Jean are the only takers, as they realize they have a potential gold mine on their hands:
Eight stoles equaled a ten-dollar bill, something Jean almost never had in her possession. There were so many things a girl could with ten dollars. With luck and a sale, she could buy a ready-made cotton dress, a dress that was not cut out by a pattern that had to be altered for a girl who was shorter than average. Jean was rapt by the limitless possibilities of a ten-dollar bill.
The inflation calculator tells me that is the equivalent of $81.48 in 2016. I’d be excited too!
Sue, something of a late-bloomer herself, gets a sub-plot of her own, as she runs into an old childhood playmate, Ken Cory, whom the sisters had dubbed “Old Repulsive” back in grade school. While he hasn’t exactly turned out to be a hunk, he has grown into an attentive, nice-looking college man with good manners. While Jean secretly gloats that Johnny so much better looking and more popular, Sue still isn’t sold on Johnny being all that great.
As with all of Cleary’s work, it’s hard to not just quote and quote and quote (the school talent show’s Modern Dance troupe and their “haunted house” dance in bat costumes with 8 inch glittery glue-on fingernails is especially memorable), but we must move on to the climax, in which Jean finally works up the nerve to ask Johnny to the Girls’ Association dance.
Johnny breezily accepts, and Sue reluctantly lends her support to the enterprise, accompanying Jean to an upscale boutique to select a gown and loaning her the money for dye-to-match pumps. Since they already spent $17.99 on a dress, the sisters throw caution to the wind and decide to have a Coke at an upscale tearoom. Jean come crashing back to reality when she overhears two older women gossiping in the next booth about a teenaged lothario:
“Madly pursued by all the girls?”
“Oh my, yes. And by one girl in particular. Poor little thing.”
“Doesn’t he like her?”
“I suppose he’s flattered. After all, what boy wouldn’t be? It is really too funny for words. She has a friend, and the two of them walk over past our house, although I am sure they live nowhere near- probably they hope to run into him- and they giggle.
“She even asked him to go to a school dance. Of course the dance is girl’s choice, but she asked so far ahead he had to say yes.”
While it turns out to not be Johnny’s mother, the spell is still broken. Jean isn’t ashamed to have chased a boy, but she does realize that she is much more invested in Johnny than he is in her.
And then Jean decides she has to do the unthinkable: break the date with Johnny, because she really doesn’t want to go with him.
Of course, when she works up the nerve to speak with him, he beats her to the punch, cancelling on her, with yet another lame excuse about a sick grandmother. Jean is incensed (she knows nobody will believe that she wanted to cancel on him first), but Elaine rallies her, urging her to ask somebody else and not let her elegant new store-bought dress go to waste. Elaine suggests Homer.
Homer, who hasn’t been hanging around with Johnny recently, is genuinely surprised and pleased to be asked. He even offers to pick up Jean in the family car, and arrives with impeccable manners and a camellia corsage.
The actual dance is something of a let-down (Homer isn’t much of a dancer, either), although he tells Jean that he friend-broke up with Johnny because he realized that he was being used for his car after Johnny got his license suspended for reckless driving. Both Jean and Homer are shocked when Johnny arrives at the dance with a glamorous classmate who has her own car. Jean tries to avoid him, but he is unavoidable
“Isn’t it miraculous the things they can do with wonder drugs these days?”
“Wonder drugs?” Johnny did not know what she was talking about.
“Yes. Your grandmother- I am so glad she is feeling better,” said Jean with a smile.
SICK BURN JEAN!
Jean and Homer ditch the dance, and Homer declines Jean’s invitation to the drive-in with the popular kids, instead inviting her to his parents’ house to make milkshakes and see his collection of homing pigeons. Jean ends up having a much better time visiting with Homer than she did at the dance and, although she declines his suggestion of a good-night kiss, accepts a second date with him.
Arriving home that night, she has a mature outlook on the situation, deciding to not throw out the photograph that she had saved of Johnny after all, but instead reflects on the experience:
Good-by, Johnny, she thought. I am not sorry I knew you. Maybe she should be sorry, but wasn’t. In her heart she would remember Johnny. Always.
Sign It Was Written In 1959 Department: Jean is overly sensitive about her mother’s budget shopping, and the fact the family doesn’t have their milk delivered in glass bottles:
[The milk] was stored in half-gallon cartons which Mrs. Jarret bought at the market, because she saved two and a half cents a quart.