Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Beverly Cleary's Jean and Johnny

Original pink cover of Jean and Johnny with ink wash line art of a boy and girlThe short review: It wasn't what I expected.

Published in 1959 (the year I was born), Jean and Johnny isn't the classic "first love" teen novel like Seventeenth Summer or Wait for Marcy. The girl doesn't end up with the boy in the title, and the boy she does connect with isn't portrayed as the love of her life either, which was a nice bit of perspective. Though I probably would have found it frustrating if I'd read it as a teenager.

What was most interesting about the book was the glimpse it gave of American life in the late 1950s, and particularly the economic realities of a single-income, working-class family at the time. Jean Jarrett and her family live in a two-bedroom house too small to allow a private conversation. They watch every penny so literally that Jean is concerned about spending the money to buy cookies and whipped cream to make a special dessert for a guest one night.

The girls make all of their own clothes, while their mother works Saturdays at a fabric store (I'll bet in part to get a discount on fabric). The idea of buying a ready-made dress is a dream that finally comes true in the course of the story.

This was very familiar territory to me, having grown up with friends who made their own clothes (including jeans and underpants) and a grandmother who made dresses, pants, shirts and doll clothes for my sisters and me. Jean's Home Ec sewing classes definitely rang a bell as well, although I had escaped those by high school in the mid-1970s.

One fascinating example of class difference is Jean's awareness that Johnny, who's clearly from a well-off family, has five different plaid wool shirts that require dry cleaning. It's highly significant to her, since it's mentioned more than once. Jean is also slightly ashamed that her family buys milk in paper half-gallons, rather than having it delivered in glass bottles, and butter in whole pounds rather than quarter-pound sticks... also to save money. "It seemed to her that quartered butter and milk in bottles always looked so elegant in a refrigerator."

I wonder if anyone ever gathers books like this to read with teenagers as a way of learning about life in the recent past. I'd think it would be more informative than historical fiction about a similar period. Or perhaps it would be fun to compare the two. Hmm.


Alyssa said...

I love this book! I quoted your summary on my blog, I hope that is OK.

Alyssa said...

I love this book! I quoted your summary on my blog, I hope that is OK with you.

Daughter Number Three said...

What's your blog?

Ill-Used Heroine said...

I've been reading and re-reading children's and young adult books like these for years. One of the reasons was for the historical description, as in Beverly Cleary's books. A couple of my favorite malt shop authors are Margaret Maze Craig, with her books "Marsha" and "Trish," and Anne Emery's "Dinny Gordon" series. When I found Image Cascade Publishing online, well, what a treasure trove of titles! Unfortunately, most of them weren't available at the library, but I've found quite a few of them at online used book stores. There's nothing so relaxing as kicking back with a few books of this genre. Lately, I've been trying to find them in epub format, so I can read them on my phone. They definitely make the time fly while on the subway! ;)