People who make it their business to classify such things call them “malt shop books”—the numerous young-adult series written in the 1950s and 1960s. I inherited a few of my mother’s Betty Cavannas in elementary school, and by age twelve I was hooked, scanning library sales and thrift stores for the tiny patch of tartan that denoted a vintage Scholastic paperback or the telltale words that suggested a title targeted at the teenage reader.
I learned how varied the genre was: the serious and introspective Betty Cavanna books; Janet Lambert’s series, which take place in military families; the more frivolous Rosamond du Jardins; the slightly odd Lenora Mattingly Webers, which center around the independent-minded Malone family.
Many of these books deal with “issues”—teen drinking, peer pressure, fast crowds. But the overall picture of teen life is wholesome and comforting. Parents tend to be supportive and families functional; the occasional sibling rivalry generally gives way to mutual understanding.
I was an awkward teenager. And my New York City school—full of sophisticated teenagers whom I found terrifying—was a far cry from the suburban utopia of the malt shop books. A late bloomer, painfully shy and painfully aware of not looking right in the clothes my mom bought me, I dreamed of a world in which virtue was rewarded; boys fell for the smart, quiet girls and were happy with wholesome dates; and everyone knew exactly how to dress for every occasion. I recognized that the books were idealized, but my interest was more than ironic or curious: I found the fictional universe of my collection a true refuge. (More contemporary YA titles took on drugs and sex; frankly, these weren’t my concerns.)
I enjoyed all the series, from Candy Kane (a precocious singer on an Army base) to Marty Smith (a gutsy journalism undergrad), but one became my favorite: Anne Emery’s Dinny Gordon books. Emery (not to be confused with the mystery writer of the same name) is perhaps better known for other series—the Sally and Jean Burnaby books, the 4-H centric Jane Ellisons, the Pat Marlowe stories, the Sue Morgan series. But Dinny Gordon was, and remains, my favorite.
Born in Fargo, North Dakota, Emery moved as a child to the area that would feature as the setting of most of her books: Evanston, Illinois, where her father was a professor. After attending Northwestern herself, Emery traveled extensively with her parents before becoming an elementary-school teacher in the Evanston system. She and husband John Emery would go on to have five daughters, and after retiring from teaching Emery launched a long and successful writing career.
Emery brought an unusual sensitivity to her writing for teens, which is never condescending and pays more than passing attention to real issues and problems. Yes, the universe is basically safe and comforting, but the characters feel real, and their problems aren’t solved overnight after one talk with an omniscient parent.
In Dinny Gordon, Emery created a heroine who, strange name aside, rang particularly true. When we meet Dinny, she’s starting her freshman year at Rosemont High in a bucolic college town. Unlike her pretty and popular older sister, Roxy, Dinny is small, plain, shy, and resolutely uninterested in boys. She hangs out with other misfits: the awkwardly tall Blythe, the overweight Melinda, and Sue, who suffers from acne. None of these things is a tragedy, of course, but enough to damage a young teen’s fragile self-confidence.
Dinny is also brainy. Her passion is archeology, and she’s a diligent student. When her school hosts a science competition, Dinny wins accolades for her model of Pompeii—even as her friends begin to abandon her for the lure of dating.
In a 2006 essay entitled Dinny Gordon: Feminist, Joyce Litton proposes that in Emery’s work the reader finds “a bridge between the 1950s presentation of family life … and the mid-to-late 1960s career-oriented lifestyle advocated by Betty Friedan, Gloria Steinem, and other members of the newly developing women’s movement.” As documents, they’re certainly engaging, and the Dinny series marks a departure from the author’s less socially-engaged earlier work. And yet, the books are never polemical; rather, Emery was herself a working mother and, not incidentally, a mother to daughters, and she addresses concerns and changing attitudes in an organic fashion that’s always designed to entertain young readers. Certainly, these are not what burgeoning radicals were reading; by the time the later books in the series were written, they would have been a refuge, and in some ways a retro one. But if not actively progressive, they are always deeply wholesome in the true and nourishing sense.
Reading the books as a middle-schooler, I related to Dinny’s defensive disinterest in romance and her unwillingness to grow up. I also related all too well to the book’s other plot point: Dinny’s inability to discourage the attentions of an awkward nerd, Clyve, who’s new in town and whom her parents urge her to befriend. Kindhearted and awkward herself, Dinny doesn’t want to hurt the older boy’s feelings, and she even goes so far as to invite him to a turnabout dance. That she gets the flu at the last minute and has to pawn him off on Melinda is a happy resolution for everyone.
Sophomore year finds Dinny at odds with her friend Sue, who’s dating a charming southern boy with an interest in classics. He and Dinny develop a strong connection. Sue’s complexion problems behind her, she has emerged as a popular butterfly, and the girls have increasingly little in common. After Dinny too begins dating (Curt, the southern charmer), things remain tenuous between the former friends—the book does not see a neat resolution to what are real problems.
Dinny Gordon: Junior is in many ways the most serious of the series, dealing with a subject I’d never seen broached in a young-adult book: antisemitism. After a Jewish family moves to town, Dinny becomes friends with her classmate Debbie Goldman, while Melinda starts dating Debbie’s brother, Mike. Debbie is a talented artist with an interest in ancient history, and Mike is a popular scholar and athlete. However, they quickly run into prejudice, including from Dinny’s boyfriend. Ultimately, Dinny and Curt break up over the issue.
And that, for years, was all I knew: Dinny was left, as far as I was concerned, alone and principled after her junior year. I could not find the fourth book in the series. Fifteen years ago, it was not simply a question of going to AbeBooks or Amazon, and all my foraging in bookstores and at library sales was for naught. I wanted—no, needed—to know that Dinny ended up okay, pursuing a satisfying career, and with a boy who appreciated her.
It wasn’t until my own senior year of college, at the University of Chicago, that I found a copy—or, rather, my mother did, at a lucky tag sale. I couldn’t wait to dig in and see what had become of my favorite fictional friend, and I devoured the book in a single sitting in the stacks of the library. Dinny, I found, had gone to study for the summer with a prominent Israeli archeologist, who encouraged her interests. Back home in Rosemont for her senior year, she falls in with an older boyfriend: a college boy whose only interests are contemporary politics and who makes Dinny feel guilty about her passion for the ancient world. It takes almost the whole of the book to dispense with the somewhat tiresome Steve, but the ending is all one could have wished for. Not only do things look good for Dinny’s future with grad student Brad Kenyon, but, following a trip to the Mediterranean that’s been her goal throughout the series, she plans to start college, studying archeology at the University of Chicago.
I wrote up a version of this account, originally, for my college alumni magazine. Some weeks after the piece appeared, I received, at my work, a letter from Anne Emery’s daughter. She told me she had enjoyed the article and that she was glad her mother was still being read. I, in turn, was glad to know more about the author: an adventurous woman who loved life and cared deeply about her audience. Naturally, I was deeply touched that she had taken the time to write—and pleased to think that, in however small a way, I had been able to express my appreciation.
Adapted from Cover to Cover in the University of Chicago Magazine.