I recently discovered something about Beverly Cleary that made me look at her a bit askance, an experience akin to learning that your sweet old great-aunt used to pole-dance for a living. You see, back in the 1950s, before there was Ramona and Beezus and Henry and Ribsy and Ralph S. Mouse, Cleary wrote Maltshop Books, i.e. teen romances featuring female protagonists whose main preoccupations were The Boy That Drives A Car or The Boy That Didn’t Call. For those of us who love the spunky Ramona Quimby [Yard Ape! Tin-can stilts! Crown of burrs!], this is nothing short of a betrayal.
Cleary’s four Maltshop Books (the other three are The Luckiest Girl, Jean and Johnny and Sister of the Bride) have been re-issued as modern paperback “stories of first love” with splashy pink and yellow cover art. During a recent cottage weekend, Fifteen was passed around as communal reading material, like a dirty magazine, and one of my friends became thoroughly confused by how sexist it was. It only started to make sense when she realized that it had been written in 1956.
In Fifteen, Jane Purdy meets Stan Crandall, the new boy, while she is babysitting and he is delivering dog food. The plot is pretty standard: Girl likes boy, girl seeks to impress boy, boy ditches girl, boy appears disinterested, girl resolves to forget boy, boy turns out to be interested after all. As my friends and I took turns reading the book, much hilarity ensued over excerpts such as these:
Marcy brushed a lock of hair out of her eyes and smiled back at Jane with the kind of smile a girl riding in a convertible with a popular boy on a summer day gives a girl who is walking alone.
“People like Stan and me don’t get into the papers. I told you before I went out with him he wasn’t the type to drive around in a hot rod, throwing beer cans around.”
Just before dinner Jane took the bobby pins out of her hair, because her father did not allow her to come to the table with her hair in pin curls. He said it spoiled his appetite to realize he had a pinhead for a daughter.
But first she would go to college and have a career. Just what career, she did not know—an airline stewardess, or a writer of advertising copy for a big department store, or perhaps a job at the American embassy in Paris—something like the girls in the pages of Mademoiselle, who always managed to be clever about clothes and to be seen in interesting places with men who had crew cuts.
My question is: besides providing amusement to a bunch of thirtysomethings, why should anyone today (particularly a kid raised on Gossip Girl) read Fifteen? I don’t have an answer (were you expecting an answer?), except to say, semi-cryptically, that it’s a question to which maybe this blog is trying to respond. What is the value of literature whose social mores and lessons are clearly outdated? Especially when the book is not recognized as “classic” or “canon”?
Yet if you cut through the swaths of anachronous gender norms, there is a certain universal truth to these “stories of first love”. Jane’s reaction when Stan calls her for the first time created a throb of recognition in me: “To think that she and this boy she wanted so much to know were connected with each other by telephone wires strung on poles along the streets and over the trees of Woodmont! It was a miracle, a real miracle.”
After all, who among us—male or female, old or young, queer or straight—has not spent time agonizing about whether that certain someone was going to call (or text or tweet or whatever the kids are doing nowadays)? Who among us has not undergone periods of self-examination and self-doubt, wondering how we will measure up to a particular person’s gaze?
Some notes about my two pet topics, food and ethnic minorities:
- On one of their first dates, Stan invites Jane to have dinner in Chinatown with some of his friends. The group selects a restaurant based on how “authentic” they think it will be. Marcy suggests the place on the corner. “That’s a tourist trap,” objects Buzz. “Let’s go to a real Chinese restaurant.” “Yes, one where the Chinese eat,” agrees Stan. How very Stuff White People Like for 1956!
- Jane timidly suggests ordering chow mein, the only dish she recognizes, and her suggestion is vetoed by Marcy, who says snarkily, “Only tourists eat chow mein.” See above.
- Buzz makes jokes about eating “flied lice”, and Stan whispers to Jane, “He thinks he’s saying fried rice with a Chinese accent, but I have lots of Chinese friends in the city and I’ve never heard anyone talk that way.” (Swoon! That Stan is definitely a keeper…)
- Jane is acutely uncomfortable during the meal: she has trouble using her chopsticks, burns her tongue on a piping-hot shrimp roll, and is totally weirded out by the food: “One dish, especially strange-looking, made her pause. It was a thick red sauce in which floated pieces of onion, green pepper, and what appeared to be tiny brown hands.” This is not surprising, but I was surprised to recognize Jane’s discomfort. I always assumed urban North Americans were all relatively familiar with Chinese food, or at least American iterations of Chinese food—until I went to lunch a few times with my Québécois colleagues (all educated middle-class professionals), who glanced dubiously at the menus, suggested that I order for them, and then asked for forks.
- At the restaurant, Stan greets Tom, a young Chinese waiter, who proceeds to say, “Golly, Stan, I haven’t seen you for a long time.” Whaaaat?!? No pidgin English, soft-footed shuffle, buck teeth or pigtails, à la Cricket of Times Square???
- So I was reading along and loving Beverly Clearly for her progressive outlook on cultural minorities, and then I had a nasty thought: what if this scene had been “cleaned up” for the 2007 edition? I guess I’ll have to get a copy of the original edition to find out.
Favourite quote: “When a boy sees a girl every day and takes her to dinner in the city and buys her a back-scratcher and notices the fog on her hair, naturally he asks her to go the first school dance.” Naturally.
Reading Age: 10 to 14