After devoting the last five Throwback Thursdays to the last five books in a series about a young girl growing up in the 1970’s, here is a review of the last book in the series. Like the other books, Changes for Julie is part of a series of historical novels put out by American Girl (yes, that’s the doll company) that focuses on growing up as a girl in the 1970’s. Since I was a young girl back in the 1970’s, I thought it would be fun to compare the books to my own memories of growing up in the 1970’s. I also figured that it could provide an idea for some light summer reading.
The one thing to keep in mind about the Julie books is that they were written for a target audience of girls between the ages 8-12. As a result there won’t be an in-depth look at certain controversial issues of the day.
The books were published in 2007 and they were written by Megan McDonald, who has written a variety of children’s books including the Judy Moody series. The book Illustrations were done by Robert Hunt, who also designed the logo of a boy fishing from a crescent moon for Dreamworks Studios.
Changes for Julie is the sixth and final book in the Central Series following Meet Julie, Julie Tells Her Story, Happy New Year, Julie, Julie and the Eagles, and Julie’s Journey.
Julie gets political.
Synopsis: Julie Albright is a 10-year-old white girl with long blonde hair and brown eyes growing up in 1976 San Francisco. Her parents are divorced so she spends most of her time living with her mother, who operates her store full of handcrafted items called Gladrags, and her 16-year-old sister, Tracy, in a small apartment that’s located above her mother’s store. On most weekends she stays with her father, a commercial airline pilot, in the same home that the entire family lived in before the divorce. During her visits with her father, she gets a chance to spend some quality time with her pet brown rabbit, Nutmeg (who has to stay with her father because her mother’s apartment complex doesn’t allow pets), and play with her best friend who lives across the street, Ivy Ling.
It’s the fall of 1976 and Julie has been living in that apartment with her mother and sister above her mother’s Gladrags shop for a year. During the summertime Julie notices a new girl walking around in her neighborhood but she doesn’t get to know her until after the new school year starts and the girl is assigned to her class. Julie learns that the new girl is named Joy Jenner and she is a deaf girl who has learned to read lips so she is being mainstreamed into a public school instead of attending a special deaf school. Despite Joy’s hearing problems, Julie and Joy quickly become friends and Julie starts learning a few things in sign language. Julie really identifies with Joy being the new girl in school because Julie was in the same boat last year so she understands what Joy is going through as she adjusts to a new school.
Julie is now in the fifth grade and she has a new teacher, Mrs. Duncan, who is so strict that she makes Julie’s previous fourth grade teacher, Ms. Hunter, seem totally permissive by comparison. Mrs. Duncan is the kind of teacher who hands out demerits and detentions like they were candy for the slightest student infraction. Julie’s problems begin when Joy has a hard time understanding Mrs. Duncan’s lecture on the Lewis and Clark Expedition so she passes a note to Julie asking what the teacher really said, even though Mrs. Duncan had banned students from passing notes. When Julie secretly writes the answer to Joy’s note, she has the misfortune of passing it back to Joy at the moment when Mrs. Duncan catches her. Despite Julie’s protestations that Joy only wrote the note because she didn’t understand what Mrs. Duncan is saying, both Julie and Joy earn detention for an hour after school.
During detention Julie and Joy has to write “I will not pass notes in class” one hundred times while Julie is also sentenced to write “I will not talk back to the teacher” one hundred times in addition to that other writing assignment. Julie and Joy meet a sixth grade boy nicknamed Stinger who is a regular in detention because he is a notorious troublemaker. After detention Stinger brags to Julie about how in the previous year, when he had Mrs. Duncan as a teacher, she gave him 43 detentions which he claims is the school record.
Julie and Joy meet Stinger the troublemaker in detention.
The next day in class Mrs. Duncan talks about the upcoming presidential election and, in the meantime, announces that the elections for student body president is coming up soon. Julie starts to see campaign posters in the hallway from the popular sixth grade boy Mark Salisbury and she’s not impressed by them. She mentions that if she ran for student body president, the first thing she’d do is try to get rid of that detention system because she feels that writing the same sentence one-hundred times is not only a waste of time but, in Stinger’s case, is not very effective in making him behave in school. Joy urges Julie to run while her friend and fellow basketball teammate T.J. expressed reservation because the student body president is usually a sixth grader. After Julie checks with the principal to see if fifth graders can run for student body president, she decides to throw her hat into the ring with Joy running on the ticket as vice president, and T.J. volunteers to serve as campaign manager.
Julie, Ivy (who’s visiting Julie in her mother’s apartment), and Joy create posters for their campaign.
Even though there are a few times when Julie mentions in passing that she still plays for the school basketball team, the focus of this book is on the school election.
The dreaded Water Fountain Girls, a trio of girls whose first names begin with the letter “A” who hang around a water fountain while constantly gossip, snark, and make fun of other students (they are basically an elementary school version of the nasty popular girls in films like Heathers and Mean Girls), play a major role in this story for the first time since the first book, Meet Julie. (They played a more minor role in the second book, Julie Tells Her Story, as being among the students who spread untrue rumors about how Julie had injured her finger in that big basketball game so badly that it got gangrene and it had to be amputated. They appeared again briefly in the fourth book, Julie and the Eagles, but they were little more than bit players in that one.) The Water Fountain Girls start to snark about how Joy talks “funny” due in large part to her being deaf and they even make mock hand gestures as a way of making fun of Joy using sign language.
There are also frequent discussions (but not too heated or detailed because this is a book that’s written for elementary school children) about the upcoming 1976 Presidential Election where Republican President Gerald Ford is running for re-election against his Democratic opponent, former Georgia Governor Jimmy Carter. Tracy tells Julie that her high school civics teacher told her class about how he admires Jimmy Carter for taking a stand on issues that may cost him popularity. Julie’s mom and her friend Hank the Vietnam War vet tell Julie that they both intend to vote for Jimmy Carter this November. Julie’s father tells her that he intends to vote for Gerald Ford.
The last chapter, Looking Back, deals with the changes that took place in the 1970’s, many of which still resonates to this day. There was the 1976 Presidential Election, where Jimmy Carter defeated the incumbent President Gerald Ford. There was increased foreign competition in consumer items like cars and electronics. Thousands of Americans lost their jobs as their companies shipped them overseas where workers could do the same job for less money. The Energy Crisis, where oil was rationed, was the first time that Americans started thinking about alternative forms of energy like solar and wind. People found solace in these turbulent times by watching television, where the biggest hit shows were ones that were set in the 1950’s like Happy Days and Laverne & Shirley. The chapter mentions the feminist movement and how its long-term legacy led to successes (like the political careers of Shirley Chisholm and Nancy Pelosi) and failures (like the ill-fated Equal Rights Amendment). The chapter ends with a look at mainstreaming children with disabilities in the public schools while mentioning notable disabled persons like Judy Heumann, Marlee Matlin, and Heather Whitestone.
Music Mentioned in This Book
The theme song to the TV show Flipper
Television Shows Mentioned
Laverne & Shirley
Little House on the Prairie TV show
Real-Life People Mentioned
President Gerald Ford
President Jimmy Carter
Rep. Nancy Pelosi
Rep. Shirley Chisholm
News and Other Stuff From the Era Mentioned
1976 U.S. Presidential Election
The Energy Crisis
Equal Rights Amendment
“Hang in There, Baby!” Kitten Poster
Mainstreaming in education
My Own Impressions Based on My Own Experience With the 1970’s:
I have to admit that this book is the strongest book in the Central Series since the first one (Meet Julie). It focuses on Julie’s passionate activist side, which was shown in her previous efforts to push her school to let girls play on the school basketball team in Meet Julie and her help in releasing an eagle family back into the wild in Julie and the Eagles. And there’s also a lot of drama in both the school elections and the re-emergence of those nasty Water Fountain Girls.
But here’s the thing. I don’t remember ever being student government elections on the elementary school level when I was in school in the 1970’s. There weren’t Student Government Associations (SGA) in the public school system I attended (Anne Arundel County Public Schools in Maryland) until middle school at the earliest. Like the books’ idea of having a basketball team that played other schools on the elementary school level, I find it curious that Julie’s elementary school would even have an SGA (or its San Francisco public school equivalent) based on my own school experiences while I was growing up in the 1970’s.
I remember when kids had to write the same sentence over and over on either a piece of paper or on the blackboard as punishment for an infraction. I also remember when kids were also punished by being forced to serve detention after school. I was punished myself a few times during my 12 years in the Anne Arundel County (Maryland) public school system but I’ve made sure that I rarely got into trouble at school because it would’ve given my parents a major big reason not to trust me and maybe even punish me further when I got home from school. (I could write more about this but it would turn into one of those 50+ paragraphs-long posts.)
Stinger the troublemaking sixth grader reminded me of kids I knew who frequently got into trouble. One was a seventh grader named Bobby who frequently disrupted class by getting up and walking around while talking back to the teacher whenever the teacher told him to sit down. He frequently was disciplined and he had to serve after-school detention but it didn’t work with that boy. When I was in high school there was a classmate named Jim who was a grade behind me who was frequently sent to the principal’s office because he talked back to the teacher but he was typically returned to class the next day and he would do it again.
There were times in middle school and high school when the most troublesome kids were suspended from school, which meant that they weren’t allowed anywhere on school property for a certain period of time and they couldn’t make up whatever classwork they’ve missed during the suspension time. These kids basically stayed home from school. Looking back on it, I feel that suspension was an ineffective form of punishment because the kids who were frequently suspended were the ones who didn’t want to be in school in the first place. So they would get into trouble so severe that they get suspended and they viewed it as a reward because they preferred to stay home anyway. I think the school system should’ve taken a hard look at its educational curriculum and programs to see why there were kids who preferred suspension to being in school but it failed to do so. (In case you’re wondering what school system I’m referring to, it’s the Anne Arundel County Public Schools in Maryland.) I know that by junior year in high school many of the troublemaking kids I knew had dropped out once they turned 16.
That scene when Julie saw the “Hang in there, Baby!” kitten poster on the wall during detention brought back memories for me. I can remember when that poster was on sale everywhere during the 1970’s and there were even t-shirts, cards, and buttons based on that.
I also remember when Happy Days and Laverne & Shirley were the biggest hits on the air. I watched both shows off and on but I was never a big fan of either one. (I think I used to watch them if there was nothing better on TV.) I can remember all that wistful nostalgia people my parents’ age and older had for the 1950’s, which I could never fully understand. I even remember when my high school used to have 1950’s days once or twice a year where students were encouraged to dress like they were 1950’s teenagers. (I did it once or twice but after that I just couldn’t get into it so I came to school dressed in normal 1970’s fashion on those days.) I know that part of the reason was because I wasn’t alive back in the 1950’s but, as I read more about the history and times of that era, I find that the 1950’s was a bit overrated as a decade.
Sure the 1950’s may have been heavenly if you were a white heterosexual man who wanted to be the main breadwinner with a wife and kids living in the suburbs because society pretty much favored you. But if you were a woman (especially one who wanted to be more than just a housewife and full-time mother), a person of color, someone who had g/l/b/t leanings, a person who had a hard time finding a job after being falsely accused of being a Communist (after all, the 1950’s spawned the notorious Communist witch hunts of Sen. Joe McCarthy), or even a white man who didn’t want to live the suburban lifestyle (like preferring to live in the city or not wanting to get married or wanting to live a bohemian lifestyle like Jack Kerouac and the Beat generation), the 1950’s decade was not such a sweet utopia.
The references in the book of the kids putting their chairs upside down on top of their desks at the end of the school day also brought back memories for me because we kids were required to do the same thing before we left for the day. The main reason we did this was to make it easier for the night janitor to sweep or vacuum the floors.
I remember hearing about the efforts to mainstream disabled kids in the public school. The only disabled classmate I can recall was a guy in my high school who was in the same grade as me. He was in a motorized wheelchair. I remember that he was the only student who was allowed to use the staff elevators (which required a special key in order to operate) in order to go up and down the floors. (My high school was two stories tall.) I never shared a class with him (I attended a school with over 4,000 students) but he was a fixture in the hallways during the times when we changed classes. Despite his body not being able to move, he was of average intelligence and his mind still functioned well enough to be able to attend classes. I never had a deaf or blind student or any kid with severe mental disabilities in my school.
I was amazed that Julie was able to convince a very strict teacher to consider a different method of discipline. While I had some teachers who were very effective, emphatic, and willing to listen to students’ concerns, unfortunately I had some teachers who were just as rigid as Mrs. Duncan and I’m not sure if any of them would’ve been as willing to take a suggestion from an elementary school-age student (especially one that the teacher had previously punished with detention). There were some teachers who gave off this vibe like “I’m older and more experienced than you. You are here to learn from me. Do not question me because I’m here to teach you.”
It was great that Julie’s idea of an alternative discipline led to the Water Fountain Girls to stop making fun of Joy. I’m not sure if that method would work with all bullies. All throughout my growing up years I’ve met one or two bullies who were so obsessed with going after certain people that they seemed to be borderline psychotic or sociopathic. I think Julie’s method just would not work on a budding sociopath at all.
The one thing I really like about Julie’s character is that she’s willing to not only become friends with a deaf girl but she’s also willing to stick up for her whenever she’s the target of other students’ ridicule. Unfortunately for me I had a friend who lived next door to me while we were growing up. The first few years of school I attended public school while she attended Catholic school so things were fine. As she grew older her parents started to allow the older kids (she was one of six children) to switch to public school in order to save money on tuition. It all came crashing down in middle school when we ended up in the same class together. There were some classmates who thought I was somehow “retarded” so they started to make fun of me. Rather than sticking up for me, she started to join in on the ridicule. She was the opposite of Julie Albright. (Yeah, I’m looking at YOU, Susan K.! If you’re reading this, I have one thing to say: Go fuck yourself with a broom handle covered with 300-grit sandpaper. Ironically I ran into her by chance at Artscape last Saturday and it definitely was NOT fun and I was glad that this unexpected reunion was very brief.)
I also remember the 1970’s Energy Crisis really well. Things got so bad that there was a time when the state government instituted this odd/even days where if the first number of your car license plate started with an odd number, you were only allowed to get gas on odd numbered days while license plates starting with an even number could only get gas on even numbered days. Things were so bad that by the time I got my driver’s license, I was in no hurry to get my own car because I would’ve had to contend with gas shortages. Instead I was content with driving my parents’ car sometimes while leaving them to deal with the fallout from the Energy Crisis. I didn’t even get my first car until a few months before I got married at the age of 23.
Now that I’ve reviewed all the books in the Central Series, here’s my personal ranking of the books.
The Best: Meet Julie. The first part of the book does such an excellent job at explaining divorce to young children in a very sensitive way that I would recommend this book to any child whose parents are divorcing because it would give a child an idea of what it could be like after the divorce. The second half is also strong, upbeat, and dramatic as Julie invokes the new Title IX law while she fights her school for the right to play on the basketball team. The last book, Changes for Julie, also ranks up there with its storyline about how Julie tries to change the system (by running in the school elections in the hopes of reforming the school’s detention policy) while introducing a deaf character in a very realistic way that doesn’t stereotype the deaf nor show any kind of excessive pity as “the poor little deaf girl”. (I’ve met deaf people in real life so I think American Girl did very well in having a deaf character that’s totally believable.)
The Middle: Julie Tells Her Story and Julie and the Eagles are pretty solid books. While they are slightly less compelling than the best books, I found that they are still an enjoyable read nonetheless.
The Bottom of The Barrel: Two books fall under this category. Happy New Year, Julie was so full of big sister Tracy’s frequent complaining about the first Christmas since the divorce that the first half of the book was incredibly annoying. There were times I found myself wishing that someone would slap her in the face just to shut her up. Only the second half of the book, focusing on how Ivy Ling’s family celebrate Chinese New Year, kept this book from being the worst in the series.
Instead that honor falls to Julie’s Journey. That book focused on the American Bicentennial, an event that I remember as being a major once-in-a-lifetime celebration that was so big that some of the observances began in mid-1975. It was an event that even small towns and less populated rural areas took part in. It could’ve been a really interesting and well-done book. Julie could’ve taken a riverboat cruise down the Mississippi River while viewing Fourth of July fireworks over St. Louis’ famed Gateway Arch. Or she could’ve visited Washington, DC since it’s the nation’s capital. Or she could’ve spent a week in a small town anywhere in the U.S. where she could’ve observed how that town did its own Bicentennial celebration with a bit of quirkiness mixed in. Or she could’ve visited a historic town or city in the original 13 colonies like Williamsburg, Yorktown, Annapolis, Boston, Lexington, Concord, or Philadelphia. Instead the reader is treated to a totally dull pioneer wagon train (complete with numerous sentences of Julie fretting over learning how to ride Hurricane the horse) with a tacked-on mystery at the end of the book that seemed totally contrived. Heck, even the Bicentennial scrapbook that I had to keep as part of a year-long middle school social studies class (and I still have in my possession) has more interest and drama than Julie’s Journey.
Even though Changes for Julie marks the end of the Central Series, it won’t be the last time we hear from Julie Albright. Come back next Throwback Thursday to learn how American Girl managed to extend Julie’s story past the Central Series.
Where to Buy Changes for Julie
Barnes & Noble
The American Girl Julie Albright Books List
The Original Central Series:
Julie Tells Her Story
Happy New Year, Julie
Julie and the Eagles
Changes for Julie
The Best Friend Book
Good Luck, Ivy
The Julie Mysteries
The Tangled Web
The Puzzle of the Paper Daughter
The Silver Guitar
Lost in the City
The BeForever Books:
The Big Break: A Julie Classic Volume 1—A compilation of the first three Julie Albright Central Series books (Meet Julie, Julie Tells Her Story, and Happy New Year, Julie).
Soaring High: A Julie Classic Volume 2—A compilation of the last three Julie Albright Central Series books (Julie and the Eagles, Julie’s Journey, and Changes for Julie).
A Brighter Tomorrow: My Journey with Julie