Welcome to our second Classic MG/YA Discussion! While most readers know Beverly Cleary for her middle grade stories, she also wrote charmingly retro YA books, including the one we’re discussing this month: The Luckiest Girl. (Spoilers below, obviously.)
Let us know what you thought of the book in the comments–we really do chat back with you!–and stick around towards the end for info on the books we’re reading in April/May, too.
Wendy: I love this book! I first read this as a pretty impressionable tween, so I’m curious what both contemporary adult readers and teenagers will think of it. People read historical fiction, of course, but the 50s isn’t a period that gets featured too often. It’s unusual that Shelly gets shipped off to live with her mother’s college roommate for the school year. I spent several summers away from home when I was in high school, and they were a hugely formative part of growing up for me, as well as for my outlook on life. It changes you to live with other people outside your own comfort zone, and to be able to do it within a controlled, safe environment is a pretty cool experience.
Kim: Teen Kim would be super jealous of Shelley. All I ever wanted was to get away from my supremely insular environment and get out and explore the world. I did, once I grew up. But I spent much time as a teen daydreaming of the world beyond my small borders. I’m happy that Shelley got to have such an experience. Getting out into the world challenges you to be and think differently and to grow as a person, which, as we see, Shelley does indeed do.
K.: I never spent a significant amount of time away from home when I was growing up — the most were week-long school trips on elementary and high school — but even from those experiences I could almost feel myself maturing or growing up. Being on your own and handling yourself without the cushion of family really forms a sense of independence that I think is so important and useful.
Wendy: The Michies’ home feels so warm and comfortable and lived in. I would love to stay over in a house like that, where they do laundry by moonlight and have leftover Fridays. (Apparently, I’m not the only one.)
Kim: Oh my goodness I just love that family! It was so sweet and idyllic reading about them all doing chores together. Just warmed my heart. I was like, “Look at this sweet little functional family! How cute!”
K: I was definitely charmed by the Michies and their home. Part of me wished this was a picture book because I really wanted visuals of their place. Those orchards just make it seem so magical.
Wendy: I think most girls can relate to the mother-daughter conflicts in this book. The scene where Shelly gets so upset with her mother over buying her a pretty pink raincoat with velveteen collar (I would kill for such a raincoat right now) because she wants to wear an ordinary yellow slicker just like all the other girls strikes such a chord in me–both the memory of being in Shelly’s shoes, and as an adult watching her with exasperation. Isn’t it weird how when you’re young you just want to fit in/belong, but when you’re older you prize being unique?
Kim: Ha, well, I was a very unusual teenager. I was never concerned with fitting in for some reason. Basically, I was an extreme dork and I was fine with it. But I certainly can relate to the mother-daughter conflicts. My general opinions on the world and life philosophies are the opposite of my mom’s so we still butt heads all the time. It is what it is! I really did enjoy the way the conflicts were portrayed in this book, though. It was endearingly comforting to see such a familiar type of banter on the page. I can’t think of anything else I’ve read where I’ve seen a mother-daughter relationship so normally and realistically portrayed.
K: I really liked how Cleary let Shelley and Katie be as juvenile as most teenage girls can be in real life when they’re fighting with the rents. I myself never yelled at my parents like that. I was a generally obedient kid, plus there wasn’t anything too tragic I was denied. What I did get out of that was just the familiar feeling of frustration and indignation — which I buried inside, and which apparently Shelley and Katie let loose.
Wendy: I was a very obedient child, but I was a terrible teenager who yelled at my poor parents, I’m afraid. (Not over clothes, but other Important Things.) I can totally relate to her loving exasperation with her mother, and it’s so nice to read that other girls have gone through this as well.
The scene where Shelly first notices Philip is so dear. I love that she notices the sunburned nose and the way he stands, and the gracefulness about him. I know a lot of YA books get criticized for insta-attraction, and I often hate stuff that’s so blatantly obvious or shallow. But I can totally relate to being strangely drawn to someone’s demeanor, or the way someone says a certain thing, or as with Fifteen, the way a boy wears a clean white tee-shirt and has a dip in his hair. So cute!
Kim: I don’t see a problem with insta-attraction as long as it feels organic to the story (insta-love is a whole different matter). People feel an instant tug toward other people all the time! I mean, I remember when I was 15, I had a ridiculously strong crush on some boy who I’d probably spoken to about a total of three times. In hindsight, there just wasn’t a reason I liked him other than adolescent delusion. I also tried to read this in the context of its publication time and setting. Shelly’s instant attraction to Philip didn’t faze me at all. Why she continued to stay attracted to him was a whole other matter…
K: There is nothing wrong with seeing an attractive person and being attracted to them. I mean, hello. But like Kim says, why did she stay? I get it, he’s cute and he’s nice, but she says they had nothing to talk about… But if you had the most sought-after boy in school chasing after you, wouldn’t you let him hang around, too?
Wendy: I love that tweet from one of our readalong peeps! I also find it striking that Beverly Cleary’s YA girls are so ordinary. I mean, I guess that’s part of the appeal of many realistic fiction books anyway, but I think Cleary does a particularly wonderful job of letting us get to know these girls who aren’t particularly outstanding in school or sports or whatever, but who are quietly dreaming and thinking and trying to do the right thing nonetheless. I also think the book is really funny, in a quiet-chuckle kind of way.
A girl on top of the refrigerator was such an improbable thing to explain.
Kim: Oh, I thought Katie was just the sweetest. I loved that she was mischievous but not ill meaning. And it was so endearing the way she looked up to Shelly. The spying on top of the refrigerator scene is too precious.
K: At first, I thought…is she actually on top of the fridge? And then I pictured it and then I laughed and then I thought Katie is the most adorable, most endearing thirteen year old I’ve read. I found she whined a little too much, but then she does something like that and I think ok, you’re forgiven. For now. Katie and her phases.
Wendy: I really enjoyed seeing California through Shelly’s eyes, too. And oh my gosh, guys–I’ve read this book so many times, but I’ve never looked up Giant Oranges, one of the iconic Californian food stands that Shelly notices when she first lands in California and the site of her last date. They still exist! THIS MAKES ME SO HAPPY.
Kim: I really loved getting the perspective of a character discovering a new place as well, though it doesn’t have as much meaning to me since I’m not as familiar with CA. And that is sweet that Giant Oranges still exist! Aw.
K.: That’s why I wished this was a picture book. The way Shelley described things made me want to see them myself — which is what’s so nice about her character. Hartley says it after their first date. He says how the way she sees the world makes him see things like its the first time. A very sweet thing to say.
Wendy: The food porn in this book is so great, too. I think my love of diners is rooted in Beverly Cleary’s YA dates–between chocolate malts and ice cream sodas and such, I always get such a rush when I sit in one. (I could skip the grilled peanut butter sandwich, though. Gross.) Oh, and the doughnut holes! I think I need to make them soon.
Kim: Ha, and here I was thinking how delicious a grilled peanut butter sandwich sounds. The food porn was really great. We have a local 50’s themed chain in Philly called Nifty Fifty’s and this book made me want to go there soooooo bad.
K.: I’m with Kim. Make grilled peanut butter sandwiches and I’ll eat (try) one.
Wendy: Did you notice that Frisbie points out that “nobody smokes at a school dance?” Implication being, to me, that there was smoking going on in other places, but it wasn’t mentioned outright. This was around the time that the cigarette industry was booming, of course, and getting a lot of airtime on television shows like “I Love Lucy” and the like. It made me curious to see it.
Kim: I did catch that, actually. I am forever fascinated by the cultural phenomenon of smoking and how much it has changed over the past 50 years. It’s amazing to me how something so culturally ingrained can become passe (for obvious and good reasons) in such a relatively short time.
Wendy: Another very 50s thing that happens later in the book is when Katie’s grandmother sends her that hand-knitted peach sweater and she is disgusted by it. It’s so interesting that things always used to be handmade or home-cooked, and then the boom of convenient foods and ready-made clothes became popular. Now we’re in an era where we still rely on packaged things, but there’s value placed on things made by hand again.
Also, I can totally relate to the clothing thing. I remember digging in my heels to a pair of red plaid pants my mother bought for me in the fourth grade, and then later on, changing my mind and thinking they were super cute! Yikes, girls.
Kim: Yes, things do tend to circle back around. I had this beautiful white sweater my great-aunt made me when I was little and it was my favorite thing ever. Only to be worn for super special occasions like Christmas and Easter. I always felt so fancy and elegant wearing it.
Another super 50s thing that had me cringing for these characters was how the boys had to come into the house and introduce themselves for every date. They seemed to be good sports, though! I don’t know if this is still a done thing outside of the very conservative, Catholic circles I grew up in, but even when I was in college, a legal adult, and would go out on a date my parents expected me to have my date come in and meet them first. Just a date! It was the worst. Ugh.
K.: Aww, I actually found that rather charming, how boys came in and introduced themselves. Maybe I feel this way because of the utter lack of respect in society in this day and age. I think in a way, it eases some of that tension between parents and the date. You come in and you say you’re taking their daughter out. You’ll have her home by so and so… It’s just nice and casual, no big deal.
Wendy: I loved that too, actually. It’s all so very well-mannered, and those who have read Beverly Cleary’s Fifteen or Jean and Johnny will note that this comes up in an even bigger way in those books. The Luckiest Girl is a very romance-centered book, but I like that it’s also about Shelly finding out how she feels about an education, about a career, about her mother, about adults in general, and about herself. I also liked the friendship with Jeannie, although I wish we saw a little more of her. This is a spoiler, but that was the friendliest handover of a boy I’ve ever read about or seen, I think!
Kim: This book actually seemed way less romance-centered to me than I was expecting it to be. I guess the addition of all you’ve just mentioned above, Wendy, made it seem like just one part of the whole that is Shelly. It really seemed to me to be the story of a girl, and all the glorious and inglorious aspects that belong to such, as opposed to “the story of a girl who falls in love.”
K.: I appreciated that about Shelly, too. I smiled a little at how shocked she was when Philip told her he had no intention of going to college. I think that was the point Shelley started to close that relationship. And Jeannie. I don’t know how Philip and Jeannie happened and I still think it was a little too good to be true; Jeannie and Philip came out of nowhere, I feel. And I would’ve thought Shelley accepting Jeannie and Philip together so gracefully would’ve been too good to be true also but I remind myself its because she’s so happy with Hartley.
Wendy: I thought the way the author wrote about the gradual transfer of Shelly’s feelings from Philip to Hartley was well done. She planted seeds early on, and it is very realistic to suddenly realize that the person you like isn’t necessarily that person you thought he was at all. Sometimes without him being a bad person, too.
Kim: Oh man, I spent such a large portion of my reading experience in confusion over where this story was going. I was officially rooting for Hartley from the moment I read the line:
…the kind of face that in the movies belonged to the man who didn’t get the girl but you sort of wished he had.
I don’t know why but it totally endeared him to me. And also he was obviously precious with his chores assistance and easy going manner. So I was so confused why Shelley liked Philip so much and kept dating him even though things were so painfully awkward between them. I felt pretty silly that I couldn’t see that this was going to be a story of Shelley making the proper realizations about both boys.
K.: I was pro-Hartley the entire time. He is too cute! As I mentioned earlier, after their first date and what he says to Shelley…I mean I think the girl should’ve taken the hint. Fate is obviously telling you this boy is the one. My confusion was more for Hartley backing out almost completely as soon Shelley started dating Philip. He didn’t even question it really. He just disappeared and then reappeared admitting he still liked her. And I love that quote, too, Kim. This is making me really sad because of what happens in the end.
Wendy: Did you guys like Shelly, by the way? I’m always curious when I come across reviews where readers say they don’t like her. I appreciated how much she grew to understand her own behavior and feelings, as well as her honesty about how little she and Philip had in common–and why she might’ve been enjoying being with him to begin with.
Kim: I did like Shelly. Sure, she was a bit bratty and impulsive in the beginning, what with the roses, but she’s a teenager and this is a story of self discovery and growth. She was so realistically and endearingly flawed to me. And her maturation throughout the story is truly impressive. She made realizations about boys and dating that I didn’t come to until I was older than she is.
K.: I didn’t love her but I liked her well enough. As you both say, she matures a lot and I see that. Especially in the final pages, in her conversation with Katie. You see how much she’s really learned about life. I can’t pinpoint exactly why I couldn’t love her but at one point, after her break up with Philip, she seeks Hartley because she misses the companion of a boy. Um…wow. I thought it was a low blow and she was going to use Hartley. Eventually they fall in love, but that comment rubbed me the wrong way. I also thought she was either a little too naive or too sheltered (both of which wouldn’t have been her fault). I got a little tired after she kept exclaiming in excitement about something new she found in California…maybe it’s just me.
Wendy: Well, I’ve lived in California for 9 years and I’m still marveling over year-round avocados and endless sun and a million other things, so I probably annoy people, too. For me, she’s an extremely relatable character, and I actually appreciated how honest that remark about missing a boy’s company was. I think most of us have had those not-so-pretty thoughts in our heads from time to time that we’d be embarrassed for other people to know about (and she does check herself about that), and I’ve totally had those moments when I feel unreasonably frustrated with my mother.
And by nature, teenagers are pretty selfish and self-centered. Not Hartley, though–Hartley is obviously awesome! The way he is with Katie especially warmed my heart. And that yearbook inscription was pretty sweet.
Kim: Ugh, Hartley is the best. The yearbook inscription gave me actual feels. *sigh* I was super sad that it came at the very end. I wanted moar Hartley.
K.: I liked him a lot too. I would’ve wanted to see more of him. Instead, we spend more time getting to know the wrong guy.
Wendy: Same. But I love the ending scene. I think it was one of the first bittersweet endings I’d ever read, and it so perfectly captures those achingly sad-but-happy moments when you know a chapter of your life is over, and you have no idea what is to come next.
K.: There are some bittersweet endings that I can appreciate but this one wasn’t one of them. I understand it was about growing up and how sometimes you say goodbye to things in order to move on but Cleary gave Jeannie and Shelly some chance of a future meeting but didn’t do the same with Hartley. There was no “we’ll keep in touch.” Just good bye. Its not entirely implausible for them to meet again and the cold, blunt goodbye just hurt me. I did appreciate Shelly’s attitude. It was very mature and encapsulates the purpose of her trip and also, the book.
Wendy: I wish there had been more time for them to spend together as well, but I’ve got to think that the author wrote it that way on purpose. And you know, I probably remember the story more precisely because it is such a lesson in growing up and having to let go of things that are dear.
Kim: The ending of this book made my heart ache. In the beginning when Shelly was all “I’m going to go to California and fall in love!” I was like, “Oh, you sweet summer child. You don’t want to do that! You’re just going to go home again and you’ll be heartbroken!” I was in a long, long distance relationship for many years and the way Shelley feels in her final days was so perfectly evocative of my own experiences. I’ve had so many “final days” like that, and have had to say goodbye time and time again for a long, sometimes indefinite, time. It’s so hard because those times and experiences are so wonderful and worth it, but saying goodbye is just heartrending.
Wendy: Heartrending indeed. All right, lovely friends. What did you think of The Luckiest Girl? Did it break your heart, too?
April & May Book Discussion
But first: the book we’ll be reading together in April is Anne of Green Gables! After an extremely close race, Anne and A Wrinkle in Time ended up tying for first place, so we thought it was only fair to read one, then follow it with the other. (Poor Harriet wasn’t even close, although hopefully she’ll surface as a favorite down the road.) We’ll vote on the June book next month!
Matthew and Marilla Cuthbert had decided to adopt an orphan. They wanted a nice sturdy boy to help Matthew with the farm chores. The orphanage sent a girl instead–a mischievous, talkative redhead who the Cuthberts thought would be no use at all. But as soon as Anne arrived at the snug, white farmhouse called Green Gables, she knew she wanted to stay forever. And the longer Anne stayed, the harder it was for anyone to imagine Green Gables without her.
The ebook edition linked above is the ridiculously low price of $1.99 right now, and the paperbacks are around $5 each. Obviously, it should be readily available at the library or in secondhand bookstores as well.
ETA: Our friend Jessica from Rabid Reads informs us there’s also a crazy All the Anne You Could Want dealio which includes all the Anne books plus 100+ short stories for 99 cents! I don’t know how that’s possible, but you might want to grab it now if you’re interested.
So what did you think of The Luckiest Girl? Are you going to read Anne of Green Gables with us next month?
And how are you doing on your classic MG/YA challenge otherwise? Have you read books other than the ones we’ve read together? TELL US ALL THE THINGS.