Beverly Cleary has turned one hundred. And while there’s no shortage of well-deserved and lovely tributes out there, I wanted to take a moment to talk about one of my favorite of her books: Fifteen, a YA novel published in 1956. Like all of Cleary’s work, it combines gentle observational humor with a genuine understanding of young people. And like the rest of her oeuvre, it holds up, even decades down the line.
Jane Purdy is a teenage girl living in the suburbs of San Francisco. While babysitting an indulged and neglected brat, Jane meets the dog-food delivery boy, a new kid in town named Stan Crandall. What follows is the gradual and realistic evolution of their relationship. Jane, an inexperienced dater, is thrilled by Stan’s attention, and she likes him a lot, but there are problems: a “smooth” girl from his past; a sophisticated, cashmere-clad nemesis who makes Jane feel frumpy and Miss Muffet-ish; a trip to Chinatown that makes Jane feel gauche. When Stan picks her up, he steps on a cat toy, which embarrasses him. Jane’s dad makes a lame joke. It takes Jane three tries to get her arm into her coat.
In short, Cleary brings us all the small challenges and triumphs that made even a 1950s adolescence such a roller coaster. Jane tries to impress Stan by drinking coffee and pretending to be blasé; of course, in the end, she learns that he likes her as she really is.
Cleary sees the humor in all this without ever minimizing her young characters’—or readers’—feelings. These incidents might be small in the grand scheme of a life, but in the moment, they’re grave and real. When Jane acts flirtatious to seem more sophisticated and alienates Stan, for instance, Cleary writes, “The humiliation that Jane had felt turned to something else—grief perhaps, or regret. Regret that she had not known how to act with a boy, regret that she had not been wiser.” And when a short, purse-carrying nerd asks Jane for a date, the awkwardness and heartache of the moment are real.
I love all of Cleary’s fiction, from the iconic Ramona series to the poignant Dear Mr. Henshaw to her other midcentury YAs, The Luckiest Girl and the almost painfully real Jean and Johnny. (I’ve never warmed up to the memoirs, which seem to me to lack some of the humor and generosity of her fictional work.) But Fifteen holds a special place in my heart; it is the sweetest of her books. And even reading it now, I can’t help but feel a catch of excitement when the phone rings and a strange voice asks, “I know this is probably sort of sudden … but I was wondering if you would care to go to the movies with me tomorrow night.”
Sadie Stein is contributing editor of The Paris Review, and the Daily’s correspondent.