Cute Is A Four-Letter Word By Stella Pevsner

You are about to witness… The Year of the Clara!

I wasn’t very impressed by Stella Pevsner’s Call Me Heller, That’s My Name, a pretty generic coming of age story about a tomboy becoming a young lady in the roaring 20s,  when I reviewed it a few years back. This one touts that Pevsner received a Carl Sandberg Award for it… but it’s unclear exactly what that IS. An award by that name is given out annually by the Friends of the Chicago Public Library, and recipients include heavy hitters such as Judy Blume, Margaret Atwood, Alice Walker, Tom Wolfe and Kurt Vonnegut, but the awardees listed on their website only goes back to the year 2000.

The Plot: While I found this one marginally more entertaining than Call Me Heller, for goofball cheer squad-adjacent antics, I still prefer The Plot Against the Pom-Pom Queen.

The book opens as incoming eighth grader Clara Conrad sees her older sister Laurel head off to Julliard to study piano, which has been her lifelong passion and single-minded goal in life. Now that it is just her and her widowed mother, Clara is determined that things will be different in eighth grade: she’s going to ditch babysitting the annoying kid next door and finally do something for herself for once! Namely, make the Pom Pon Squad, become popular, and win Skip Svoboda,  the hunky captain of the basketball team for herself.

Invaluable in these efforts, is Clara’s life-long BFF, the Popularity Queen Angel Barclay:

She has a Life Plan, a Weekly Plan, and a Today’s Plan. She has a notebook with spaces marked off for each division.

Luckily for Clara, Angel has decided to discard both Pom-Pon and Skip in favor of working with class nerd Fergy on a project for the school science fair:

“I’ve been revising my Plan. And science, I discovered is an area I’ve overlooked… I’ve put a question mark after Skip. He doesn’t even read Newsweek.”

Angel agrees to personally coach Clara for the Pom Pon Squad try-outs in exchange for a little favor: convincing Mrs. Conrad to let her and Fergy raise rats in their basement for their Great Rat Experiment.

Complicating matters is that before Clara can ask her mother about the rats, Mrs. Conrad breaks the news that they are going to be hosting a sort of “domestic-exchange program” when Mrs. Conrad’s old sorority sister calls in a bind: her grand-niece has to leave boarding school under somewhat murky circumstances, and is refusing to attend public school in New York City. The adults have hammered out a deal in which preppy Halcyon will come finish Junior High with the Conrads in the Midwest, while Laurel will live rent-free with her parents while she attends college.

Can you follow that? It really seems needlessly complicated.

Snooty Halcyon is unbearable starting when she disembarks from the plane:

She had long, dark hair smoothed back by a headband and wore tight pants and a fluttery madras top. All this was topped by a peevish look.

“I just can’t believe this scene,” Halcyon said, pacing like an executive. “Here I am, nauseated, and now this delay. In New York you don’t have this kind of inconvenience. I need a coke. Where’s the refreshment stand?”

And then she STEPPED on the BALL.

Halcyon is also single-minded in pursuit of a career as a photographer and is constantly going on about how her rich parents own an art gallery and she is going to have a “one-man” show there. Additionally, she thinks Pom Pon is a drag, and also might eat the Conrads out of house and home.

Adding insult to injury, Halcyon take a great interest in Angel and Fergy’s rat project, extensively photographing the subjects, and befriends Jay Frank, Clara ex-babysitting charge.

She also horrifies Clara’s mother by taking the train to Chicago WITHOUT EVEN ASKING ANYONE!

“My mother says as long as you have cab fare and a sense of direction you can get any place.”

Angel makes good on her word to get Clara on Pom-Pon, but even she is astonished when the harried squad advisor finally holds the election for Captain and Clara is chosen over the presumptive candidate Liz.

Skip is paying Clara a lot of attention as well, usually accompanied by a wink and a comment about how “cute” she is (blech).

And this is the point where the thread of the plot gets lost. Clara and her mother go to New York for Thanksgiving and visit with Laurel, Halcyon’s family and Mrs. Conrad’s sorority sister, and we learn that all of the above are not really supportive of Halcyon’s photographic aspirations, but are very concerned about her weight, which is just sort of brushed off. Clara never makes the connection between Halcyon’s parents and the fact that her own mother doesn’t understand her desire to be on Pom Pon Squad.

Back in the Midwest, Clara has overextended herself by agreeing to host a slumber party for the Squad… but even that doesn’t seem like much of a crisis, even after she comes down with the flu in the middle of the party and ends up spending it barfing and sweating it out in the bathroom all night.

Back in school, she is starting to become suspicious about Skip’s motivations for liking her, but since Skip is a big zero, it is hard to care about that. Angel spells it out:

“That’s the way he is.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“It means… Skip chooses winners.”

“So. It’s true. If Liz had been chosen, Skip would have…”

Honestly, Liz is a pretty good sport about all of this as well, as she seems to have no hard feelings about losing out Captain to Clara, teaching the squad a “dynamite variation” she learned in her “disco dancing class” (!!!)

But when Big Game starts, Clara is summoned to the office for an emergency phone call from Jay Frank, and all he can get out is “Clara, help!” She rushes home to find out what the big crisis is and… it turns out that he got the rats mixed up.  Clara gets the rats straightened out, but she returns to school in time only to see Liz dazzle the crowd in the Pom Pon routine.

She has a mild confrontation with Skip before the next game,  when he tries to bawl her out for missing the routine despite everything he did to get her elected Captain.

Skip’s face turned a deep furious red. “You can cut me down all you want, but just keep in mind that I’m still number one on the team. Think about that when you’re sitting on the sidelines.”

“But Skip, I won’t be sitting on the sidelines. I’m Pom Pon captain. Remember? And as captain, I’ll be right out front leading the routines.”

After the game Angel and Halcyon congratulate her on being “a smash”… and I guess everyone is friends now?  Ok, sure.

And that is where it ends. Did Clara learn any lessons? Did any parents accept their daughters’ interests? What is going to happen to Halcyon once eighth grade is over???? What are Angel and Fergy going to do with all of those rats after the science fair????? Why did this book win an award????

I finally updated the Name That Book! page, so take a look and see if you recognize any of the ellusive titles! I also received a request for info on a Cherry Ames fan club or convention-type group, if you know of one please leave a comment!  

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11 Responses to Cute Is A Four-Letter Word By Stella Pevsner

  1. Susan says:

    Molly, I did a little research and found that the Carl Sandburg Awards were first presented in 1979, to two people, and in the second year, a Children’s Book category award was added and given to Stella Pevsner for this book. There were some comments at the time about whether it would be sustainable to continue to give awards in four categories every year since the award is given to Chicago-area authors. She received a medallion and $500.

    From your summary, the character of Halcyon reminds me of Ellie, the sophisticated teenage ballerina who makes Donna Parker feel so insecure.

  2. Sheesh says:

    I forgot about Angel in this book, but when you brought her up I remembered the reference to her perfectly feathered hair.

    SP wrote 2 other better books, I’ll Always Remember You…Maybe and Lindsey Lindsey Fly Away Home.

    • casadega says:

      Oh, I loved Lindsey Lindsey! Pevsner also wrote And You Give Me a Pain, Elaine and a book that I forget the title of revolving around a girl whose sister commits suicide. The protagonist from that book meets Andrea, the protagonist from Elaine,at school after one of the families moved as part of the healing process, and they bond over having lost a sibling.

  3. Cee says:

    I loooooooooove this book. I read it in the 8th grade and my name is also Clara and I also plotted to become popular with full-on campaigns. I totally identified with her! I even thought Skip was dreamy (although a shallow jerk in the end). And Halcyon was so irritating but once you overhear the conversation she has with her parents, you feel sorry for her. And Angel was a great friend and a great character–so much more than just her looks.

    The one thing I didn’t like was the Big Emergency. I would’ve absolutely killed the kid. You made me miss the game for that? In general I hated the guilt trip she got for pursuing her own interests instead of continuing to look after him. She’s not his peer and she shouldn’t be made to feel bad for not wanting to hang around a little kid.

  4. casadega says:

    OMG this was one of my faaaaaaaaaves as a kid, even though it did and still does drive me crazy that they call it “pom-PON” instead of “pom-POM” – I never saw it spelled that way anywhere else. And also, Skip? Seriously, SKIP? It’s definitely light on plot, but I was always the kid that wished she had a sister or a super BFF who was *practically* a sister, so I loved the Halcyon moving in plot. Even as a kid I felt kind of sorry for Halcyon after the trip to NY where you saw her brushed off and ignored by her parents. I don’t remember her weight being an issue but it’s been a while since I read it. Also, even as a kid I thought Angel was super annoying with her life plan lists, and didn’t she wear days of the week underpants? So I was rooting for Halcyon to become the new BFF. What can I say, I was a weird kid 😉

  5. IMO, Halcyon could have been lifted right out of the story. She started out inexcusably arrogant, and then basically disappeared. (When she said “I’ll have that bag over there,” Clara should have lifted it high and dropped it on her foot. Either that or said, “Who are you talking to?” Neither girl had any influence on her; she served no purpose.

  6. Darn it, no edits! Neither girl had any influence on the other, is what I meant.

  7. #40 in the Name That Book list is Connie, by Anne Alexander.

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