15 Going on 40

Post Date: January 22nd, 2011

“The ’50s was a stupid time.” — my mom

Someone once told me the 1950s was a Golden Age and how she wished life now could go back to what it was then. To which I replied, “Sure, as long as you weren’t black, brown, a woman, gay…”

So when I reminisced with a friend the other day about Beverly Cleary’s Fifteen and found it at the library–a book I’d read and reread growing up in the early eighties–I checked the copyright date. 1956. No wonder this book about a teen’s love life was fine for me to read in fifth grade.

Modern teens ought to read it, even if only to make them incredulous that high schoolers could ever be this innocent and nice. In contrast, the 16 year-old protagonist of my novel sees life through a lens of adult skepticism, dismissing trust and eschewing kindness because she’s seen way too much. First, there’s a personal trauma she’s survived, and then there’s what she sees every day on TV. Sex and the City. Marilyn Manson. Hugh Hefner and his revolving door of “Girls Next Door” (in the 21st century this phrase means live-in Bunnies), where teen Kendra is taken in as concubine, claiming,”Hef saved me.” Anna Nicole Smith lolling on the floor squealing for Howard K. Stern to fish her lipstick out of the toilet. The Kardashians. Never mind cholera in Haiti, dictators spewing hate; and TV news and talk radio spewing polarized discourse if not violent, racist vitriol. The world is vast, complex, tasteless, and dangerous–and right at her cable-surfing fingertips.

In Fifteen, white and suburban Jane Purdy listens to radio. Her family doesn’t own a TV. She spends her Saturdays baby sitting and knitting argyle socks for her love interest. She is a Plain Jane like no nerd today. I would pit the worldly wisdom of any quiet, unassuming nerd today against the savvy Jane Purdy has.

Quoth Jane, “I would adore a plain old American hamburger.” This is after Jane is repelled and flummoxed by her first taste of Chinese food (and she lives just outside of San Francisco!). Her date saves her with a hamburger. Many American kids today have run across sushi at the supermarket, have had Mexican food somewhere besides Taco Bell, and are conversant with curry as much as Coke. If they can’t get to these foods themselves, many of them get access to TV and Internet showcasing the miraculous dishes of the Food Network.

Jane on her future: “She did not want to be a brilliant student. She didn’t want to be intellectually curious. She wanted to be Stan’s girl, dancing with him in the gymnasium of Woodmont High.”

It’s hard to imagine goals of today’s girls this simple. Even girls without resources get their heads filled with dreams and drama via TV, movies, and the Web. Some good, like Mia Hamm scoring a goal or Tiffany Hayes of UConn sinking a three–or Coach Tara VanDerveer who led her Stanford girls to the first UConn upset in a looooong while (GO CARDINAL!). American Idol dreams, Apprentice dreams, Discovery Channel dreams. These our girls juggle alongside dreams of home and family. In fact, apparently they can also go shopping for them if you believe the creepy Beyaz commercial.

It’s hard not to learn of all these dreams and options with the amount of print and e-information available. Jane knew what her teachers and librarians handed her or her parents told her.

Some dreams, though, remain not so good. All you have to do is watch the bachelorette-fashion-bridal reality TV and wonder if in our age of Bridalplasty and Bad Girls Club, whether the corsets of beauty have truly been loosened.

Quoth Jane’s friend, Julie, describing a girl, Bitsy, from the enemy camp: “She had to wear real high heels, because she is so little…She made me feel…a yard wide as if I should be running around with a hockey stick instead of dancing.”

Girls are allowed to be more sizes than ever today, at least lengthwise. While there’s still enormous pressure to be skeletal, a 6’2″ girl isn’t considered an Amazon, and an athletic girl isn’t considered freakish or unattractive.

Cleary does a nice job of wrapping us in cotton wool and soothing us into a dreamworld of contentment (that is, if you can believe this world exists for some. It did. It still does for some privileged and sheltered children. I know because I was one.) However, she’s no Alice Munro, who can make a Pallid Polly teen leap off the page with era-appropriate yet timeless angst. I say YA novels need to address lust and yearning in honest yet palatable ways and face the varying shades of darkness out there. Redemptively.

There’s a reason YA is so hot among adults today. Our youth bear carry more than their share of cynicism and jadedness–and not just for those over 30. When I pitch my YA novel to agents, I mention its crossover potential to the adult market, describing the protagonist this way:

Wendy is a YA character who can speak to modern teens as well as Gen X, Gen Y, and Boomers, whether she’s quoting “Billie Jean,” questioning social barriers, or overcoming the ironic loneliness of a hyper-connected age.

Jane Purdy of 1956 could not imagine a black man wowing the white world with miraculous dancing to a song about a seductress and her love child. Jane did not question her future role as homemaker or feel lonely in a small bedroom community where everyone knew her business.

Right now I’m reading two modern YA novels — Lush by Natasha Friend (2007) and Hate List by Jennifer Brown (2009). In the first, an eighth-grade girl confronts her father’s alcoholism. In the second, a high-school girl faces her community after her boyfriend kills several students Columbine-style, all of whom are on a hate list she helped him create. I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised that YA stories have changed so much in fifty years. You would think that in this half-century in which we’ve seen advancements such as Title IX and workplace equity through the Civil Rights Act and the Equal Opportunity Employment Commission, that the concerns of the girls today would be brighter and bolder. But these teen girls slog through trauma and darkness in the same way girls have for centuries before–yet perhaps with more honesty, openness, and truth-telling than our society has ever known before.

How are we helping our youth process all this stimuli and information? What is our responsibility in navigating these stories? Fifteen needs no adult discussion. These other books do. As much as teens want to raise themselves, they can’t go it alone.

Writing Prompts for Students:

— Describe a story you’ve read that deals with a real-world issue, one you can relate to. What was realistic about this story? What did you gain from reading this story?
— Make a list of the topics you think today’s YA novels should address. Star your top three. Then write further about at least one of the subjects, mentioning information, feelings, or any other details you think these stories shouldn’t forget.
— Describe what you know of “old-school” teen life. Name an era that your parents, grandparents, or other adults you know grew up in, and describe what you know of their lives back then. What intrigues you, amuses you, or disgusts you about the prior era?
— Do you ever wish you had grown up in a different time? Why or why not?

Writing Prompts for Teachers:

— Imagine that you can design a literature course of only YA novels. Which YA novels address important stories for today’s teens to encounter? These could be novels from a range of eras. Create your “top ten” list and name the topics each addresses.
— What topics should teen novels today address? Not address? Why?
— Compare your teen years and aspects of the era you lived in to the experiences of today’s teens. What is similar and what is different? Are you nostalgic or wistful for your bygone era? Why or why not?
— Do you ever wish you had grown up in a different time? Why or why not?
— If a YA story is going to deal with difficult subjects, what should happen in your classroom or home when this novel is read? What points would you raise to the teen? What questions would you ask? What activities would you lead?


  1. A great comparison of ye olde fifties to today’s twenty-teens. I suppose such books have to be read, like Twain’s, in the context of the times – – and leave it there.

  2. Yes, but we writers can’t “leave it there” so easily. We have to dissect it to the nth degree! 🙂