Book referenced: Jean and Johnny – Beverly Cleary and Beth and Joe Krush, Harper Collins, 2007 (reprint of 1959 edition)
Recently the New York Times Book Review had a nostalgic article by Joanne Kaufman about the girls’ “Malt Shop” novels of the 1940-1960s. It captured the moment in American history captured in these quaintly dated stories of teenagers in love, struggling with the problems of an ostensible simpler time. I enjoyed the article, but I strongly disagreed with its assumption that Beverly Cleary’s books for teens are in the same category with those by Rosamond du Jardin, Betty Cavanna, and Lenora Mattingly Weber. I write that with absolutely no disrespect to the authors of the Beany Malone series (Weber) or Boy Trouble, Junior Year Abroad, and Practically Seventeen (du Jardin). They are entertaining stories exploding with mid-century sexist values, but also some positive examples of possibilities for girls. They are genre novels, and that’s o.k. Beverly Cleary, who turned 101 last April, is not capable of writing according to a formula. Her teen novels, Jean and Johnny, The Luckiest Girl, Fifteen, and Sister of the Bride, transcend the repetitive if exciting tales of teens hanging out in malt shops and working through their issues with boys. A crucial element of Cleary’s books is the work of Beth and Joe Krush (about whom I have blogged before) that accompanies her text.
It’s interesting how little attention was paid to these books during the celebrations of Cleary’s one hundredth birthday. They do seem more dated than the Ramona books and her other classics, largely because adolescence seems to have changed in more obvious ways than the grade school years. However, it is a shame to overlook these Cleary-Krush collaborations, in which teenaged girls gain confidence and independence, partly by learning not to waste their time on worthless jerks. They are not picture books, but books in which words and pictures still work together to create unforgettable characters; the Krushes’ artistry is an inseparable part of these creations. I own an out-of-print collection of three of the novels, First Love, which includes all the original pictures. (Do not be put off by the cover art, which is not by the Krushes. I am actually not sure if the Harper Collins reprints also has the original illustrations; if they don’t, I strongly recommend finding out-of-print editions that do!)
Jean is a smart girl who wears glasses. She is small for her age. Her father is a postman, so their family cannot afford stylish clothes and other luxuries, although her inventive and pragmatic mother enters contests who has succeeded in winning a television set. Johnny is a popular and affluent boy who briefly develops a romantic interest in nerd girl Jean. It is never explained exactly why, but a manipulative and controlling personality seems a likely candidate. Eventually Jean wises up, realizing that she has more in common with Homer, who also wears glasses and has the good taste to prefer Jean’s simple dress to more lavish ones, “…because it is streamlined…It isn’t a lot of material cluttered up with stuff.”
The Krushes’ depictions of the mismatched Jean and Johnny may seem hilariously stereotypical of a bygone era, but look at them more closely. In one, Jean and Johnny stand in front of a locker, where a great deal of action set in high schools take place. Directly behind Jean’s face in profile is an “Exit” sign, and Jean is starting to figure out that it is indeed time to leave. Even slouching he is much taller than Jean. He towers over her, his face showing condescension, as he points towards her nose. Jean is actually clenching her fists, and who could blame her? She glares at Johnny, who has just broken a date with her because his grandmother is sick. This clueless emotional predator cannot believe that Jean doubts his story:
“Surprise flickered across Johnny’s face. He had expected Jean to show disappointment, to protest, perhaps to plead. That glimpse of surprise helped to support Jean’s pride….Jean looked Johnny straight in the eye. ‘…I have thought it over and decided I don’t want to go with you, because you don’t really want to go with me.’”
Compare this to an earlier picture where Jean, making coffee in her family kitchen, smiles as she watches her blue collar enter their house. Shaking out a wet umbrella from his rounds, he reports empathy and care for lonely residents waiting for mail that doesn’t arrive.
In the last pictures in the book, Jean and her new significant other Homer are visiting his pigeon house. He is the opposite of Johnny, and not only because he is nearsighted. He stands next to Jean holding a flashlight, while Jean cradles one of the birds. Homer is nurturing, not oppressive: “’Papa Pigeon is the father of those two…And that one is Mama Pigeon.’” He describes how he built the pigeon cote himself, with help from his father, presumably also a mentsch. Then he invites Jean into his home and carefully prepares a milkshake for her. No malt shop necessary.