Going on Sixteen By Betty Cavanna

Fervently Julie whispered to the mirror, “I hope.”

Betty Cavanna was one of the queens of the Malt Shop genre: gentle coming-of-age stories featuring young heroines facing teenage crises and growing up. Published from the 1940s through the 1960s, these books often focus on girls trying to walk that delicate balance between fitting in and cultivating their unique talents in order to stand out.

The Plot: Following two years in the life of shy Julie Ferguson, living with her widowed father on a farm outside Philadelphia, Going On Sixteen is as much a dog-story as it is a girl-story.

Opening near the end of her freshman year of high school, Julie still has one foot in her tomboy phase, and is waaaaaaay more interested in in the pregnant prize collie that comes to board at the farm than giggling about boys over Cokes at the local drugstore.

But she is sensitive about the way her father teases her for looking like “ a picked chicken” and resents a long-ago comment about how “she’s not a bit like Margaret”, her long-dead artist mother whose talent Julie practically worships.

She is similarly worshipful of Anne Sawyer, a childhood friend who has become a popularity queen, widely acknowledged as the prettiest girl in their class. Julie feels left out of Anne’s new circle of friends, who all seem to have something special about them, although Cavanna notes that these qualities aren’t good looks, but confidence and special talents of their own.

Anne’s mother was also the best friend of the late Mrs. Ferguson, and so she takes it upon herself to bestow womanly fashion advice upon Julie, as the girls prepare for the Freshman Frolic, for which Julie has been given permission to buy a long dancing dress. Spending the weekend of the dance with the Sawyers “in town” and dress shopping with Anne and her mother is all that Julie dreamed it would be… until Anne gets asked to the dance by the improbably-named Chunky Spencer.

Then a really horrible thought swept her. What about coming home? She wouldn’t walk home with Chunky and Anne. She would not! But even worse would be to rout Mr. Sawyer out with the car to come for her alone…  She’d have to think some way out.

She could pretend to be sick, and leave in the middle of the evening.

While the dance doesn’t live up to the girls’ expectations (the boys are more interested clowning than dancing, the girls mostly dance with each other), Julie decides to ask Dick Webster, her longtime pal who lives on the neighboring farm to walk her home… but Dick doesn’t get it, shrugging Julie off since he has a ride home.

When Julie returns home after her weekend with the Sawyers, she is alarmed to find the town vet at the farm: Scarlet, the Fergusons’ star boarder has given birth to her puppies, but has contracted a dangerous blood infection. When Scarlet doesn’t make it, Julie convinces her father to help her bottle-feed the three surviving puppies.

Self-conscious that Anne and the “town” crowd seem to leave her out of their plans (and Dick is paying attention to Connie, a more popular classmate), Julie devotes herself to raising the puppies, becoming especially attached to the one she nicknames Sonny, who she thinks has the makings of a champion show dog.

So she is taken aback when her father mentions Mr. Lonsdale will soon return to claim the dogs and sell them, taking the pick of the litter for himself. Inspired by the illustrations in a copy of Lassie Come Home that Mr. Lonsdale sent her in gratitude for her work with the dogs, and a conversation with her rival Connie, Julie comes up with a plan: she’ll spend all of her spare time and considerable artistic talent sketching the dogs, and take the sketches to Connie’s aunt, an assistant to the art director at a major Philadelphia publishing house and sell her illustrations for enough to buy Sonny for herself.

Playing hooky from school for the first time in her life, she takes the train into the city and calls on Connie’s aunt, who indulgently agrees to have the art director look over her work. The adults are very kind, and carefully examine Julie’s sketches, remarking on her talent. Mrs. Lytton, the art director, breaks the news gently that illustrators are engaged for specific projects, although they do occasionally buy work from recent graduates of the local art schools, suggesting a number of institutions that Julie could look into. Julie announces her plans to attend the Philadelphia Academy of the Fine Arts, as her mother had, and Mrs. Lytton assures her that is a fine school, urging her to return to have her work reviewed after she completes her course of study there.

Having used all the confidence she could muster, Julie is grateful to get out of there:

It didn’t matter that the art director had been understanding or kind. What mattered was that she was out of that office, on the street again, walking to the station the way the trolley had come. Her sense of relief was so immense that she was filled to the brim with it.

During Julie’s sophomore year, she gains both a reprieve from losing Sonny (at least temporarily) when Lonsdale decides to leave the dog to be raised on the farm a little longer and begins carving out a niche for herself in the high school social scene.

She scores a major victory when her poster design for the class production of The HMS Pinafore is chosen over all of the other entries and wins the admiration and respect of the senior class’s best artist. Her friendship with Dick (and jealousy of Connie) continues to be tweaked when her father hires Dick as a farmhand. Encouragement from her art teacher, Miss Farrell, keeps her going when she doesn’t get asked to the cast party (and has to take her father as her “date” to the performance). But something has changed:

Winning the poster contest had done something for Julie. She wasn’t afraid anymore. She still had moments of agonizing shyness, but she was no longer frightened that the girls might consider her queer or plain or stupid.

She was Julie Ferguson, and she recognized her emerging personality for the first time. She also understood dimly that this very readiness to be herself was the same quality she had always admired in Connie Blake.

With a new attitude, Julie successfully wins a spot in the art department for the school paper, attracts the admiration of Dick’s hunky older cousin the former “Tubby” Ford, who shares her enthusiasm for artistic pursuits, and takes on a very large home improvement project in the shabby farmhouse, completely redecorating their seldom-used living room. Urged by both Miss Farrell and future-architect Tubby, Julie begs her father to open up the room’s fireplace, long ago plastered over. He puts her off, until the inevitable happens: Mr. Lonsdale returns for Sonny.

She couldn’t visualize Sonny in a dog-show ring, though she had been to several shows with her dad. She could see him only as she saw him last, standing, surprised, on the back seat of Mr. Lonsdale’s car, his tulip ears cocked, his eyes questioning, and a series of staccato barks racketing from his throat.

And while I am not one much for animal stories, please excuse me there is something in my EYYYYYYYYYESSSSS…

After a few futile suggestions to raise Julie’s spirits, her father finally agrees to renovate the fireplace, and Julie throws herself into the project. Some weeks later she is surprised to receive a note that she has a special-delivery parcel at the freight depot- when she and her father go to claim it, they are more baffled than ever when it turns out to be a huge crate. Upon opening it, Julie finds one more gift from Mr. Lonsdale, an expensive wing-back chair for the living room.

But Julie is disturbed by the note that accompanies the gift, catching her up on Sonny’s progress as a show dog, noting that he’s “disappointed in his spirit”.

Later that spring Lonsdale invites father and daughter to attend the Philadelphia Dog Show to see Sonny compete, which causes a kerfuffle with Dick, who was planning on asking her to the Junior Jamboree, which is the same night.

In a final bit of wish-fulfilment, Julie watches Sonny win Best of Breed, but is disappointed when Lonsdale announces that he’s pulling him out of the Working Dog category, citing that same mysterious “lack of spirit”. Julie boldly proposes that she substitute for Lonsdale’s usual handler, and Sonny takes the prize. Acknowledging that he truly is Julie’s dog. Lonsdale hands him over, Julie agreeing to show him a few times a year.

And she even gets home in time to go to the Junior Jamboree with Dick after all. Whew!

Sign It Was Written In 1946 Department:

Of course, Julie knew, she was terribly young. She wasn’t a proper artist. But just last month she had read a newspaper account of a book written by a girl of seventeen.

Maureen Daly is that you?????

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5 Responses to Going on Sixteen By Betty Cavanna

  1. Uly says:

    But Julie is disturbed by the note that accompanies the gift, catching her up on Sonny’s progress as a show dog, noting that he’s “disappointed in his spirit”.

    What the heck did he expect would happen when he took the dog away from his beloved human?

  2. Jola says:

    I want you to know how much I loved coming across this post. I still have my 1946 copy (published by The Westminster Press) that I read many, many times in the 1960s and 70s. I always pictured Julie with a certain look. In my young adult years, I came upon a hinged metal box, with a painting on the lid. It was a girl and a collie, running through a field of daisies. They looked just as I had imagined Julie and her beloved Sonny would look!

  3. Virginia says:

    I was thinking of this book the other day and couldn’t remember the name. I really enjoyed it as a girl, but missed that it was published in the 1940s.

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