Sunday, May 8, 2011

Book Review: Jean and Johnny by Beverly Cleary (1959)

I read the 1991 edition of this book when I was around 12 or 13, but all I could remember before sitting down to read it this time was that I really enjoyed it. Now that I've refreshed my memory and familiarized myself with the events of the story once again, I can see why it would have been a favorite.

Jean Jarrett is fifteen years old, and though her family doesn't have much money, she has a pretty decent life. She has a good friend named Elaine, and the two girls share a fascination with a young TV heartthrob named Kip Laddish. She also has a good relationship with her sister Sue, and the two sisters often daydream of nice things that might happen. Sue, especially, really wants to meet a nice boy and go on dates. 

Surprisingly, though, it is Jean who has this opportunity. One night, she goes with Elaine and her mother to deliver some decorations to the local lodge, and while the girls sit on the sidelines watching a holiday dance, a handsome boy named Johnny Chessler asks her to dance. Jean is nervous, but when the dance ends, she finds that her mind is now constantly occupied with thoughts of this tall, good-looking boy.

Jean's crush does strange things to her, however. Kip Laddish suddenly isn't nearly as interesting, for one thing, and Jean begins to sense that her sister, Sue is jealous of her newfound romantic interest. She also stops spending as much time with Elaine and starts working really hard to pursue Johnny. But chasing a boy turns out to be much more tiring than Jean expects, and she slowly starts to realize that maybe Johnny isn't the boy she thought he was.

What I love about Beverly Cleary is how well her writing reflects the daily lives of everygirls. There's nothing particularly remarkable about Jean Jarrett, but that is precisely what is so great about her. The dated references to clothing styles, and other 1950's vocabulary date the book somewhat, but Jean's experiences trying to make sense of a crush and to win the attention of the object of her affection are universal across time. I felt exactly as Jean does during my first dance, and on my first dates, and I'm sure many other girls do as well. 

I also think this book teaches an important lesson. It's a book about first love, but it is not a romance novel, and that is probably what I liked most about it as a kid. This story is about Jean, from beginning to end, not Johnny, or any of the other people in Jean's life. And though one message of the book does seem to be that girls shouldn't go after the boys they like, I think the larger theme is that girls shouldn't waste their time on good-looking boys simply because they're good-looking, and that there's no need to wait around for a boy who isn't interested when maybe there's another  boy out there who is. 

If I had a teenage daughter, I'd absolutely want her to read this book, and I think girls like I was - shy, uncertain, and nerdy - will appreciate this portrayal of an average everyday girl experiencing what many girls go through at the age of fifteen. It's no wonder this book has been reprinted so many times - it's truly a gem. 

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