Sunday, May 1, 2011

Book Review: The Luckiest Girl by Beverly Cleary (1958)

Beverly Cleary, who just turned 95 on April 12th, has had a long and admirable career writing for children. She is the author of the famous Ramona Quimby series, as well as the recipient of the 1984 Newbery medal for Dear Mr. Henshaw, an epistolary novel about a boy's correspondence with his favorite author. But in addition to these well-known works, Beverly Cleary also wrote four young adult novels in the late 1950s and early 1960s that, though somewhat dated, are still in print. In order of publication, they are:  Fifteen (1956), The Luckiest Girl (1958), Jean and Johnny (1959), and Sister of the Bride (1963). Today I'm discussing The Luckiest Girl

Shelley Latham is sixteen years old, and bored with her life. She's been going steady with Jack too long - although he's nice, she finds him tedious. And her mother just doesn't understand a thing. Shelley wants a yellow rain slicker, for example, but her mother insists upon buying her a pink raincoat with fur trim. When Mavis Michie, Shelley's mother's college roommate, extends an invitation for Shelley to live with the Michies in San Sebastian, California, for her Junior year, Shelley decides that will be just the thing to cure her boredom.

And life with the Michies is definitely interesting. For one thing, they have two kids - fifteen-year-old Luke, who is into science fiction and spends all his free time trying to get an old motorcycle running, and thirteen-year-old Katie, who's going through a difficult stage where she argues with everyone and nothing is fair. They also have unconventional ways of doing things. They hang laundry by moonlight, their doorbell operates with an old-fashioned crank, and each of their bathroom towels bears the name of a different school team. As for Shelley's personal life, there are no more boring dates with Jack. Rather, she's caught the interest of Hartley, a school newspaper reporter, as well as Phil, the unattainable boy everyone wants, who shares her biology lab table. Which of these boys will turn out to be the one she's always wanted to meet? And how will she cope when it's time to say goodbye?

I absolutely loved this book. It's very gentle, with minimal physical contact between Shelley and either boy, and few real problems, but the emotions ring very true to a girl's first experience having a boyfriend. I was surprised, actually, by how much this book really does have in common with YA books currently being published. This was written before teen romance novels started to become really popular, but it adheres to many of the conventions I associate with that genre. And Shelley, especially, is a great YA heroine. Some of her interests and concerns - the yellow slicker, whether it's too forward to let a boy know she likes him, etc. - are decidedly dated now, but her voice has that same sympathetic quality that hooks me in to any good YA novel. I also appreciated that the writing in this book is simple, and straightforward, as Cleary's writing always tends to be, but also more sophisticated than her books for children. Compared with newer books, there isn't much drama, or much difficulty, but I actually found that refreshing - Shelley's trivial concerns reflect many of mine when I was that age, and her lack of earth-shattering disappointments and tragedies rang very true. Beverly Cleary has always had a talent for writing about day to day life in an interesting way, and this book lived up to my expectations a thousand times over.

I think The Luckiest Girl might not resonate very much with older teens anymore, but it's perfect for young teens who like a gentler read. The language is richer than many middle grade novels, but without the sexual content or foul language of a lot of YA books. I really enjoyed it, and I'm looking forward to reading the other three titles in this First Love series.


  1. I'm a big Cleary fan, but I've never read this series. Thanks for the review! It's definitely increased my curiosity!

  2. I've just read Fifteen (loved it!), but I have a compilation with two of her others, so I'll have to check those out, also!

  3. +JMJ+

    I haven't seen this around, although I bet I "bumped into" Fifteen at the bookstore the last time I was browsing through the Beverly Cleary titles.

    Cleary is probably the best "relationship writers" for children that I know. Do a close reading of the Henry books, for instance, and it's "obvious" that Henry looks up to Scooter and that Beezus has a crush on Henry--but Cleary never actually says anything. I can believe that when she writes more explicitly about feelings, she does just as well making her characters seem real.