I have written about Beverly Cleary before. One thing I have meant to blog about for a long time, and somehow never got around to doing, is Beverly Cleary’s First Love series, a quartet of YA (for the time) novels written in the ’50s and ’60s.
Beverly Cleary is now 99, and in her most recent interviews, from the time of her 95th birthday, she is asked how her work has managed to stay relevant and popular for so long. She answers, “I think [it has remained popular] because I have stayed true to my own memories of childhood, which are not different in many ways from those of children today. Although their circumstances have changed, I don’t think children’s inner feelings have changed.”
If you read her young adult books, I think this still holds true. She remains very true to the emotions of what it’s like to be fifteen and sixteen, and to enter the world of relationships for the first time. Now, I think some people might be under the impression that kids today grow up faster, but since the early ’90s, teen pregnancy has decreased and teenagers are waiting longer to have sex as a whole. While there have always been the Staceys who have tons of boyfriends in middle school, if you’re reading this blog, you were probably on the nerdy side and most likely didn’t attract any interest in that way until you were 15 or 16, like the girls in this series.
I recommend all of these books, each of which explores an aspect of “first love,” as the series’ title might suggest. (I’m not sure if they were originally written as part of a series, or if later publishers/editors have just decided to package them this way.) Fifteen deals with self-esteem and being yourself around guys, and not acting like some bitch who presents herself as sophisticated. The Luckiest Girl is about understanding the difference between being in love and being in love with idea of someone, as well as the complexities of the mother/daughter relationship. Sister of the Bride may be the one that seems the most out of date, somehow, but it contains the themes of generational differences and what marriage is in reality vs. fantasy. It also contains the important lesson of, “if you need to bake cookies every day to keep a boy coming around, don’t bother.” Another interesting thing in Sister, which I absolutely would have never known if I hadn’t read this book, was that at the time of publication (1963), it was considered that young people were getting married younger than ever. I had always assumed that this was a demographic trend that went steadily up with time, not up and down.
Anyway, Jean and Johnny, for me, is the one that really feels the most real, the one where there are scenes that are hard to read because I just cringe with secondhand embarrassment and recognition. Jean is helping set up decorations at a lodge where there is a dance going on. She is asked to dance for the first time in her life by a very cute older boy, who also happens to go to her school, the titular Johnny. It may seem reminiscent of Dawn and the Older Boy, but it is far more realistic and relatable. (Travis’s motive has never made sense to me.) She acts the way many girls with a crush do, and she tries to sneakily track information down on him and see him at school when she thinks he’s not looking. He does start to notice her, and pay attention to her, but, as her family says, she shouldn’t accept crumbs from a boy like Johnny.
I think it’s a book about how you move through stages in adolescence, sometimes rapidly. In the beginning, both Jean and her best friend, Elaine, have crushes on Kip Laddish, a teen idol with a weekly TV show. As the story progresses, Jean moves onto her crush on Johnny, leaving Elaine behind. At the same time, Jean’s older sister, Sue, has moved beyond crushes like Jean’s on Johnny, which was really not that much more based in reality than Jean’s crush on Kip, to a dating a guy whom she may well marry. Despite the things that may date the book, like sewing being a class that a high school girl would take, it all rings as very true and universal. In her memoirs, Cleary mentions a professor she had in college who stated that the proper subject for the novel is the universal human experience, and Cleary just nails that so well. The feelings and experiences in these books feel universal, even if the particulars of your own experience are different.
The relationships in the BSC, in contrast, have always seemed flat to me. They are simply adult relationships, minus sex. I don’t think there’s ever been a person in the world who has said, “My eighth-grade boyfriend was just like Logan Bruno!” It is just as much fantasy as Middle Earth is in Lord of the Rings. At 28, I still don’t feel like I’m reading about middle schoolers. They seem to conduct themselves like my peers.
In Beverly Cleary’s books, it’s like going back in time, and not just in the sense that these books were written 50, 60 years ago. She conjures up exactly what it is like to be that age, and to have a boy like you for the first time, and to go on your first awkward dates. I STILL feel like I’m not as mature and adult as the BSC, and over twenty years has passed since I read Kristy’s Great Idea for the first time.
Part of it is, I think, the way middle-grade/YA books are written. Middle-grade books are written for an audience that is younger than the people who feature in the stories, and same with YA. The world they depict is just as much a fantasy for their readership as the world of actual fantasy books are. BSC definitely presents a fantasy–a world of fancy vacations, mysteries, independence from adults, and mature, yet sexless, relationships.
Jean and Johnny, the other First Love books, and really all of Cleary’s other books (besides the mouse ones) are firmly grounded in truth and the universal human experience. They are books about the emotions and experiences that accompany our lives as we grow and mature. The relationships in the BSC are presented in a way that is unrealistic because everything is unrealistic, and that is what is appealing about them. The relationships in these four books are presented in a realistic way that rings true, and that is what makes them enduring.