October 06, 2008

Wicked Cool Overlooked Books: Non-Pink Jean

Welcome to the first Monday of the month, and another episode of Wicked Cool Overlooked Books! I completely missed September somehow -- but I'm back!

Even now, if I sit down and just read the first few pages of a Beverly Cleary book, I'm hard pressed to set the book down. There is something about the tone and setting that make even the most dated of her books seem as alive and real as they must have been when the first readers opened them ages ago. So, when I saw an old copy of a Cleary I'd never read at a used book sale, I immediately picked it up.

I wish you could see my copy of the book. Harper Collins has done a reissue, and so all of the new editions are bound either in sort of girly-pink with party dresses or sort of random pink with hamburgers and telephones and other stereotypical sixties teen era detailing. Now I love the pink and I love the sixties, don't get me wrong, but this is an atypical YA romance, and I prefer my cover. My library bound, 1965 edition of Jean and Johnny, which was first published in 1959, is a distinct brick red and has a beige and black drawing on the front of a boy in a plaid shirt walking with a shy-looking girl with horn-rimmed glasses and a realistically slightly terrified expression. It's adorable.

And so is the story. Jean Jarrett is fifteen, and enjoying the first day of a two week Christmas break. She's a terrible dreamer sometimes, which shows up in her work -- though she's made her own skirt, it's plaid, and none of the lines match because she forgot to leave enough material for the skirt to gather, which is kind of a disaster. She's a decent girl who admires her older sister, Sue, as being the smart one and the pretty one -- though it's worth noting that she admires her without angst, which is refreshing. Both girls wish for something exciting to happen, to maybe meet a nice boy. When Jean, wearing her horrible skirt, goes down the street to her friend Elaine Mundy's house to write to her pen pal, they take an unexpected trip to Mrs. Mundy's club, to drop off some Christmas decorations. A holiday party is in progress, where gorgeously attired dancers spin in a room of candlelight and flowers. The girls stop to watch the dancers -- and Jean gets asked to dance.

In her hideous skirt.

It's both deeply embarrassing, and completely magical, as Jean realizes that dreaming about a boy is vastly different from the reality of trying to dance with one, and make small talk. Jean is quickly obsessed with finding out more about this boy, Johnny. He's a senior at her own high school. Why did he even notice her?

The late fifties setting of this novel gives it a really fun feel. The television commercials are described with Cleary's drolly sardonic touch. Jean's contest entering mother, competing for appliances by writing why she likes specific products (in twenty-five words or less), and her newspaper-rattling sarcastic father who makes disparaging comments about Jean's choice of television shows, are perfect. At school, the band kids and the dramatics of the modern dance girls give a humorous, realistic touch and remind the reader how little high school has changed in some ways in the last fifty years.

The Jarretts are definitely working class, and certainly aren't rich -- the sisters sew and only splurge occasionally on Cokes because they know the value of a dime (which is what a bottle cost back then). However, the girls also know when to buy a store-bought dress, and their father knows when to give them a little spending money. In subtle ways, Beverly Cleary has constructed a loving, functional, balanced, frugal family, who sometimes quarrel but always make up. They're not perfect, but they're real.

I read this book the first time, expecting Mrs. Cleary to have written a traditional girl-crushes-on-boy YA romance -- and to have earned that pink cover -- but it in fact, this story isn't routine or predictable, especially for its time period, which is why I am so glad I took a gamble and bought it. Jean learns a thing or two about relating to boys which are still relevant to this time, and more than that, Jean learns a thing or three about her herself -- and comes out definitely ahead of the game. This is one wicked cool book, and if you see it in your library, by all means, pick it up!

More Wicked Cool Overlooked Books today at Chasing Ray!

5 comments:

Colleen said...

I missed this one - how on earth (in all of my Cleary reading) did I miss it??

Thanks for writing about it - I'll go add a link to my post!

TadMack said...

That was my EXACT reaction. I was thinking "Whaaat? A Cleary I *haven't read?* It was well worth picking up.

liquidambar said...

I loved this one! I still have my old Scholastic paperback ... read so many times, it's falling apart.

My 2nd favorite Cleary after this one was The Luckiest Girl.

a. fortis said...

I was such a huge fan of Ramona Quimby when I was growing up--not because I wanted to be like her, but because I was mostly NOT like her and she made me cringe but laugh.

When I was a bit older, I liked Fifteen and Dear Mr. Henshaw. It's funny how dated her books actually aren't. Though they have a bit of the sweetness and innocence of an earlier time, they still ring true.

Alkelda the Gleeful said...

It was a treat to go through all of the Ramona and Henry books only to discover that Cleary had written books about teenagers as well. I need to reread Jean and Johnny, but if I recall correctly, it totally doesn't play out how one would expect. Fifteen was the book I read repeatedly, and it really doesn't get old.

Something that struck me when reading Cleary's fiction books and then reading her biographies is that Cleary herself had an overbearing mother and a passive father (am I remembering that right?), but manages to give most of her characters emotionally-healthy, functional parents.