It was bad enough when snobby Taffy Sinclair was just a pretty face. But now, she’s gone an developed you-know-whats…
I read this one as a pre-teen, and remember not being able to relate to it because the protagonists are such jerks and they never get their comeuppance. This time around I was completely distracted by the fact that it is such a blatant rip-off of Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret without any of the emotional honesty that Judy Blume brought to that work.
The Plot: A brief perusal of the reviews on Amazon tell me that I’m not the only one thinking that this concept wouldn’t fly today: five fifth-grade girls form a club specifically to torment and gossip about a classmate that they deem stuck-up.
Told from the point of view of Jana Morgan, the other members include Beth, who is basically indistinguishable from Jana, personality-wise; Melanie, the fat one; Christie, the smart one; and Katie, the strident feminist. When Beth calls to put the club on red alert when Taffy returns from summer vacation sporting a set of “you-know-whats”, Katie is typically combative:
“Do you mean breasts?” Katie asked, sounding really disgusted.
“Yeah,” I answered awkwardly.
“Then say breasts!” she shrieked. “That’s what’s the matter with women today. They can’t face reality. They’re not ‘you-know-whats.’ They’re breasts.”
“Okay. Okay. Taffy Sinclair has… breasts. Are you satisfied?”
“So who needs them? Men only point them out as a sign of our inferiority.”
While the club has already instituted a system of collecting dues so they can anonymously send Taffy hate mail and Kotex samples, Beth now wants them to donate their allowances to save up $19.95 to send away for something called the Milo Venus Developer, which she found in the back of her mother’s Redbook.
“The purpose of the secret order,” Beth went on “is to increase our bustlines faster than Taffy.”
(I know, I know, I’m cringing too.)
The girls also institute a program of exercises (more shades of Margaret) the exact mechanics of which were a mystery to me until I saw Valley of The Dolls some years later.
School starts the following week, and the Against-ers all develop a crush on their hunky 5th grade teacher Mr. Neal (eww) who they can TELL that Taffy is clearly trying to seduce (infinity eww).
Compared to the other characters, the reader gets a lot of backstory on Jana, which I assume is supposed to make her sympathetic, but doesn’t. Her parents divorced when she was three, and she hasn’t seen her father since. He sends both letters and the child support checks irregularly.
He also had also written promising to take Jana on vacation over the summer, before promptly going incommunicado again. Which Jana is forced to deal with when Mr. Neal assigns a what-I-did-on-my-summer-vacation essay.
This is the catalyst for Jana to start “acting out”, including writing an essay that is largely plagiarized from Nancy Drew books (complications ensue when Mr. Neal enthusiastically submits it for publication in the school newspaper); Jana sending a letter to her father telling him off; and finally sneaking out one night and spray painting TAFFY SINCLAIR HAS HER PERIOD on the sidewalk in front of the school.
Jana is at least somewhat wracked with guilt over that last act (the school custodian saves the day by arriving early and removing it).
Jana finally realizes that she has to cool it when she loses her Against Taffy Sinclair Club notebook, and it falls into the hands of Taffy’s mother. While Mrs. Sinclair’s outrage at a club that was designed to bully and humiliate her daughter seems, y’know, a reasonable reaction, she is portrayed as a monster, and Jana’s mother finesses the situation, leaving Jana and Taffy alone to work things out. Jana somewhat reforms and she and her friends agree to form a self-improvement club
“That way we can can work on ways to develop into the types of young women that are needed in this changing society. And raise money to buy books about the women’s movement.”
Haynes would follow up with a half-dozen more “Taffy Sinclair” sequels (she would go back to being The Enemy pretty quickly) as well as the long-running The Fabulous Five series, which follows the girls into Junior High school.
As I mentioned, I’m not alone in finding the behavior of the girls downright vicious, and it is unclear what the reader is supposed to take away from the book. While Jana “reforms” and decides to stop being such a creep at the end of the book, none of the others suffer consequences of any kind (and Christie is the daughter of the school principal!) Neither the writing nor the characterizations are sophisticated enough to presume that they are supposed to be anti-heroines, and the half-hearted ending doesn’t seem to suggest a Blubber-like “sometimes people are terrible and get away with being terrible” message.
In fact, a lot of terrible behavior on the part of a lot of the characters is dismissed as NBD, including Jana’s absent and deadbeat father, whom her mother insists is really a great guy and they divorced because they just weren’t compatible!
(In response to Jana’s epistolary telling-off, her father sends her a box of candy, which she leaves uneaten and growing dusty on the coffee table, a detail that still tries my suspension of disbelief: no matter how much you hate the sender, you don’t let a Whitman’s Sampler go to waste, Jana!)
Still, there is one mystery that remains as unsolved now as it did the first time I read it: how do you think that Milo Venus Developer works?
It was almost time for Mom to come home, but I decided that before I threw the bust developer away I had to at least see what it looked like. I tore the paper off and opened the box.
There was a tube of cream and a book of instructions, but most of the box was taken up by a funny cone-shaped thing. I was glad that I had decided to throw it away, because I didn’t like the looks of that crazy contraption.
Sign It Was Written in 1970 Department:
Everyone was there except Katie Shannon, who had to stay home and help get things ready for her mother’s encounter-group meeting. Katie is the radical feminist of our group. Don’t get me wrong. We’re all deep into the women’s movement, but Katie is in really deep.
Meta! Department: Jana’s favorite book is Cowslip, which *also* happens to be written by Betsy Haynes.
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Now as a grown up adult who could be the mother of these girls, I found this to be a very hard read and wondered why or even if I liked these so much? Perhaps I had bought the Against Taffy series for nostalgic sake at a used book store.
You are right, there’s nothing to like or even learn from the main characters. I must have read the Fab Five series first and hope they are more tolerable.
Not only has the language aged badly but I swear every page Jana is going to die or wants to die. Hello mellow drama.
I later on skimmed the Taffy Sinclair Soap Opera book. Which was worse. Again one friend was at one point fat and then skinny so she must have anorexia. Another girl Mona is ugly. The class nerd is a drip. Heaven help me why any boy (Randy) be interested in the main character because the only thing she has in common with Taffy is being self absorbed.
I grabbed all of the 5 or 6 Taffy books I had and put them on the giveaway shelf. These were cringe worthy books that hadn’t aged well at all.
Thanks for commenting! This is the only one of the series I’ve read, I should go hunt up a few others (and maybe soem Fabulous Fives too). It really is interesting how much times have change and what is considered age appropriate for young readers!
I read this one when I was in 5th grade and really didn’t like it, and I really didn’t like Jana, even though she’s the one I was supposed to. She was as bad in her way as Taffy was in Taffy’s way. That was kind of a new experience for me, since I usually sympathized with main characters (even when their experiences were different from mine). Jana just sucked, sort of like Jill in Blubber.
I agree! I reread this a year or so ago out of nostalgia & did not remember why I had fond memories of it (maybe it was the Fabulous Five I was thinking of? I think in those books they had moved on to a different enemy. And I know there was one book where Jana and Taffy sort of became friends after discovering an abandoned baby). It was pretty awful.
But I still love The Great Mom Swap by Betsey Haynes:) That one holds up pretty well.
I’ll keep an eye out for that one too!
After reading this Taffy book, I went and pulled out Pinballs by Betsy Byars. Wow. It was iconic then in my memory and it was still great to read even as an adult. I also reread the Castle in the Attic by Elizabeth Winthrop. This one (I guess for boys? Would it matter?) also good, taught life lessons and more fantasy/castle like. But shows that those 2 above did fine with age.
I loved the after school special made of The Pinballs with Krist McNicol too!
No. It doesn’t matter. There are no “for boys” or “for girls” when it comes to literature.
I loved The Great Mom Swap! “My mom’s crabbier than your mom!”
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