I clearly remember seeing JEAN AND JOHNNY at a junior high book fair. I had no idea it was written in 1959. Back then, I was wearing a plaid Catholic school uniform skirt and black and white saddle shoes as I perused the shelves, the girl’s hairdo was known in my circle as “The Tootie”, and the annoyingly smug-looking guy on the cover rocks a Charles in Charge shag cut and tight jeans, so it seemed rather contemporary.
Jean Jarret is a shy, fifteen-year-old girl who wears thick glasses and makes her own clothes. She envies her beautiful and kind seventeen-year-old sister, Sue, who patiently endures her kid sister’s TV-star crushes and wistful dreams of a boyfriend. Jean’s father is a stern, hard-working mailman who refuses to let his daughters babysit to earn extra money even though their family is tap-dancing on the poverty line because the potential for them to get into “trouble” is too great. Her mother fantasizes about winning product slogan contests while clerking part-time at Fabrics, which gives Jean and Sue plenty of discarded remnants to outfit themselves with. Jean has an equally unobtrusive best friend in Elaine, whom she treats horribly once she discovers love.
Speaking of Love
Jean and Elaine tag along with Elaine’s mother as she delivers decorations to The Lodge for her bridge luncheon which is happening the following day. Lo and behold, there’s a dance going on and the girls sneak a peek. Christmas lights! Corsages! Fancy dancing shoes! Taffeta! And boys–lovely, lovely boys. Out of the blue, one (Here’s Johnny!) politely asks Jean to dance. It’s a horribly awkward and humiliating experience since she doesn’t even know how, but since a real-life boy has actually acknowledged her presence, she’s never been happier. From that point on, Jean acts completely contrary to her nature as she desperately vies for his attention. How far is Jean willing to go to win his love?
The first thing Jean discovered after the dance was that once a boy singles a girl out of the crowd for the first time, her life is never quite the same again.
JEAN AND JOHNNY was a quick and nostalgic read, an interesting offering from an author I knew primarily from classics like RAMONA THE PEST and RALPH S. MOUSE. Although a brush-up on 1950s slang and pop culture references before reading might be helpful, Jean’s insecurities and doubts are timeless. Occasionally, I even felt sorry for her. I mean, who hasn’t felt like an outcast and tried to reinvent themselves in order to fit in? But she definitely loses girl power points in the way she treats the women in her life who had her back when she was a mousey wallflower. Johnny is completely insufferable, obviously one of those boys who skates by on his good looks but once he actually speaks, his desirability quotient plummets and you kick yourself for wanting him anyway.