Sex Education and Beverly Cleary

I am always delighted to see critics take children’s and young adult literature seriously, and even more so when it happens in the pages of my home away from home, The Atlantic. Benjamin Schwarz’s assessment of Beverly Cleary is largely persuasive, I think — he argues that the specificity of the early Henry and Ramona books made them immortal in their emotional precision, while the latter books were more general, and thus less good:

The later books explore, although less deeply, much wider stretches of more-serious emotional ground — the kinds of realistic and meaningful situations and themes that experts and educators deem enriching in children’s and young-adult fiction, an attitude no less didactic and deadening than that which informed the treacly, uplifting children’s books that Cleary in her early work was rebelling against. In Ramona Forever (1984), Ramona suffers the death of her cat and worries about being supplanted by a new baby, her father being out of work, and her beloved aunt marrying and moving to Alaska, all in about the same number of pages it took Henry and his pals to build a clubhouse, and for him to have a falling-out and (sadly but realistically) only partial reconciliation with his neighbor Beezus. Many characters in the late novels are flat; most are observed with intelligence, but they’re not inhabited. Cleary gets through the vast territory of her plots by relying on longer, more complex sentences, but while these scoop up the gist, they let the particularity escape.

The one thing I think this neglects is Cleary’s young adult fiction. That’s not unusual — everyone seems to forget that Cleary wrote YA as well as children’s novels. But it’s a shame. Fifteen in particular is perhaps the best novel ever written about that rapidly diminishing period of adolescent life, the moment when love first becomes a possibility, but sex is not under discussion or even consideration. It’s a tremendously vulnerable and tender book, full of the kinds of details that Schwarz praises about Cleary’s early novels. The main character’s rival for the heart of the boy she’s begun dating wears a narrow skirt to a dance rather than a full one; Jane (that is our heroine’s name) orders coffee instead of vanilla ice cream at a diner in an attempt to seem sophisticated; on a date gone miserably wrong, said boy buys the main character a backscratcher in San Francisco’s Chinatown as a way to make her feel better; there is a very funny extended Birnam Wood joke that probably would never go over with contemporary young readers.

It is innocent, but I don’t think that makes it irrelevant. Just because teenagers are more sexually active than they were when Cleary wrote Fifteen, but if anything, that makes books about how to navigate relationships with care, consideration, and honesty much more urgently necessary. A prerequisite to helping teenagers make good, safe decisions for themselves is to help them figure out how to talk to each other.