NOTE: This is a review of a previous edition of this book that was published prior to American Girl’s release of the BeForever book editions in August, 2014.
Last week I dedicated Throwback Thursday to reviewing the first book in a series profiling a young girl growing up in the 1970’s named Julie. It’s part of a series of historical novels put out by American Girl (yes, that’s also 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 like the 1973 Roe vs. Wade Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion.
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.
Last week I wrote about the first book in the series, Meet Julie. This week is about the second book in the six-book series (known as the Central Series), Julie Tells Her Story, and it picks up from where the first book ends.
Synopsis: Julie Albright is a 9-year-old white girl with long blonde hair and brown eyes growing up in 1975 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 15-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.
Julie begins to slowly get used to her new living situation when she gets a multi-week school assignment from her teacher Ms. Hunter that she dreads. She has to write a report on her family that must include the following topics: her first memory, what her parents were like at her age, her sibling, the best thing that ever happened to her. There is one other required topic that Julie dreads the most: “The Worst Thing That Ever Happened to Me.” To Julie the worst thing that ever happened to her is her parents’ divorce but, understandably, she doesn’t want to go there because the memories are still too recent and upsetting to her. On top of it, the teacher requires the students to actually interview family members for their memories and each student must give an oral report on his/her family in front of the class.
After school ends Julie’s father picks her up for a weekend visit at his home. (Her sister Tracy still refuses to visit her father because she blames him for the divorce.) Julie tells her father about the assignment and he decides to give her something that he originally planned to give her for Christmas but he feel that Julie would benefit more if he gives it to her now: a portable cassette tape recorder. Thanks to her father’s gift, Julie’s work of interviewing family members becomes much easier. During this visit Julie goes over to Ivy’s house where the reader is briefly introduced to members of Ivy’s family, who will figure more prominently in the next book.
In the meantime Julie is busy with playing on her school’s basketball team while her friendship with her classmate and basketball teammate T.J. deepens. (I’m not going to say that T.J. is Julie’s potential love interest because we are dealing with elementary school fourth graders here.) While her otherwise all-boy teammates become impressed with Julie’s basketball skills to the point that they nicknamed her Cool Hand Albright, the boys on the opposing teams tend to call her mean names during games. Despite that hurdle, Julie manages to prove herself on the basketball team to the point that even Coach Manley (who made every effort to keep her off the team in the first book) treats her the same as the other players on his team. By the time of Julie Tells Her Story, the basketball team is preparing for the biggest game of the year against a team known as the Wildcats, who is one of the top teams in the elementary school basketball league. Julie spends as much time shooting hoops as possible. At one point her sister Tracy practices shooting hoops with Julie.
Julie suffers an injury during the big basketball game where she has to go to the hospital while Tracy tries to track down their parents. Her father and mother both arrive at the same time and when Julie is released from the hospital her father offers to take everyone (including their mother) out for pizza. Tracy, who still blames her father for the divorce, said that she would go along only if the family goes back to the pizza parlor located in their old neighborhood and her father agrees to do so.
Even though the family are briefly together again that reunion lasts long enough to eat pizza at that pizza parlor in their old neighborhood for that one night so Julie’s current reality stays the same the next day. She comes to an epiphany that having divorced parents doesn’t mean that the family doesn’t exist anymore and that her parents will always love and care for her even if they aren’t together anymore. That revelation helps Julie with admitting on her class project that, yes, her parents’ divorce was the worst thing that ever happened to her.
There is an amusing subplot involving Tracy’s high school biology class project where she received a spider plant that she named Charlotte and Tracy has to write a journal about her experience with caring for that plant. At one point Charlotte becomes the reason why Julie and Ivy go shopping at a five and dime store.
The final chapter in the book, Looking Back, is a brief history lesson that focuses on what school education was like in Julie’s time. The chapter mentions that schools had relatively primitive technology like ditto sheets and filmstrips because computers, calculators, photocopiers, and VCR’s were so expensive that most schools didn’t have them. The chapter mentions how the use of hands-on learning really became popular in the 1970’s and this type of education is still used in classrooms today. The chapter ends with how the schools made an effort to provide equal opportunities for girls, people with physical or mental handicaps, and non-white children and it briefly mentions topics like integration, desegregation, and school busing. The chapter ends with how music promoter Bill Graham created a special concert called SNACK (Students Need Athletics, Culture, and Kicks) whose proceeds benefitted the San Francisco public schools, which had to cut sports and after-school programs due to budget problems. That concert was not only a successful fundraiser but it provided the inspiration for later benefit concerts like The Concert for Bangladesh and Live Aid.
Music Mentioned in This Book
Eensy Weensy Spider
“I Wanna Hold Your Hand” by The Beatles
The Theme from “Jaws” by John Williams
Movies, Books, and Television Shows Mentioned
Real-Life People Mentioned
News and Other Stuff From the Era Mentioned
1970’s Answering Machine
Boston Busing Crisis
Five and Ten Stores
Mainstreaming in Education
Portable Cassette Tape Recorder
SNACK (Students Need Activities, Culture, and Kicks) Benefit Concert
My Own Impressions Based on My Own Experience With the 1970’s:
I like that the book had a message about the importance of being honest even if telling the truth could stir drama or potentially bring back old hurts (such as Julie’s parents’ divorce). The book also stresses the importance of facing difficult things head-on instead of running away or denying that it exists like Julie attempted to do with “The Worst Thing That Ever Happened to Me” section of her class project because she originally didn’t want to deal with her parents’ divorce.
I found this book to be more light-hearted at times than Meet Julie. I think it’s because the first book focused on introducing the characters and Julie’s immediate reaction to her parents’ divorce while also providing a lesson on the passing of the Title IX law (which requires schools that receive federal funding to provide equal facilities and opportunities for both boys and girls). With all the heavy stuff out of the way in the first book, the second book takes the luxury of showing Julie’s silly and mischievous side, which is a common trait in a lot of kids Julie’s age. I have to admit that I laughed at the scene where Julie secretly tapes her older sister’s phone conversation with a friend only to use the information later to tease her sister even though what Julie did was so totally wrong (yet it’s typical of the kinds of mischief that kids Julie’s age do).
As a child my parents gave me a tape recorder similar to Julie’s that had a separate microphone that one had to use when making a recording. (Built-in microphones weren’t a standard feature of tape recorders yet.) While I never had to use my tape recorder for a class assignment, I spent a lot of time playing with it by making strange recordings (some by myself while others with friends or visiting cousins). That’s why I identified with the scene where Julie and Ivy played with the tape recorder to record silly stuff like Ivy slurping on a popsicle and a flushing toilet because I did similar things like that.
I found it interesting that the basketball coach, who did everything possible to keep Julie off the team in the last book because she is female, seemed to take it in stride when he treats Julie as one of the team in this book even though he was forced to do so by the principal due to the new Title IX laws. It’s because in real life a guy as misogynist as that coach who is forced to open his team to girls would’ve given them a hard time in an effort to make them quit on their own. Hell, Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling has had African Americans play on his team for years but it still wasn’t enough for him to change his racist attitude towards people of color, as was demonstrated on that infamous tape a few months ago. In addition, he treated his African American players like they weren’t human, asking one prospective coach why he thinks he can coach those n*****s. The Clippers’ former general manager complained that the team lost great talent because Sterling was unwilling to fairly compensate African-American players. Worse, some African American players complained about Sterling bringing women into the locker room while they were taking a shower and he would tell the woman “Look at those beautiful black bodies.”
Getting back to the book, the scene where Tracy spoke to a friend on the phone brought back memories. In this age where many teens and their parents have their own cell phones, young people would have a hard time imagining a time when each household had only one phone line and the phone was a rotary dial phone where the phone was attached to the base with a long spiral cord (such as this phone and that phone). In addition, while some households may have more than one phone, they were all sharing the same single line. Very few households had more than one phone line because each additional line was more expensive. I remember when a man I knew from my UU congregation retired from his job back in the late 1980’s and he became one of the many retired folks I’ve met in my life who became a busy activist and he had two phone lines in his home—one with a Baltimore interchange and one with a Washington, DC interchange. He admitted that he had to pay a lot of money each month for that privilege but he had spent much of his career working as a civilian employee for the Naval Surface Warfare Center so he had a very generous government pension. (This man has since moved to a retirement community in Florida but that’s another story.)
Later on in the book, when Julie is in the hospital following a basketball injury, her sister Tracy tries to reach her parents using a pay phone. For young folks reading this, back in the days before cell phones became affordable enough for most people to own so it became very widespread, a pay phone was the only way one could make phone calls away from home.
During that same hospital scene it was revealed that Julie’s father had recently purchased an answering machine. I can remember that very few homes in my neighborhood had answering machines because they were expensive and there were still a lot of stay at home mothers at the time so someone was always home. (This was also back in the day when there were no such thing as robocalls so people didn’t need to get an answering machine to screen calls because they weren’t constantly subjected to numerous irritating calls that included dead air when you pick up the phone or a pre-recorded message or something like that.) Even at my house, despite the fact that my mother worked full time, my grandmother lived with us so we didn’t really need an answering machine. I recall that mainly businesses had answering machines that they used after business hours (in contrast to today, where many businesses use automated answering systems instead of employing a receptionist).
I rolled my eyes when Julie asked her mother what is Watergate (which came after her sister called her “Little Miss Watergate” during an argument). That’s because the Watergate scandal was huge news back in the day. I still have numerous memories of when my school was on summer break and I would be at home turning on the TV in the hopes of catching a game show only to see live broadcasts of the many Congressional hearings on that scandal where witnesses were grilled and that same hearing would be on all the major networks. This was in the days before cable television became so widespread so most households were limited to just the big three major networks (ABC, NBC, and CBS), public television, and a few independent channels that showed mostly old movies and re-runs of older TV sitcoms and dramas. That’s the big reason why, as a child, I had known what the Watergate scandal was and, while I wasn’t old enough to understand all the nitty gritty details of that scandal, I knew that it was a bad thing that was against the law and it was made worse when it was revealed that President Richard Nixon was involved in it. I’m not saying that Julie should have known who all the major participants in the scandal were or the exact details of the Watergate break-in but Julie should have had at least enough superficial knowledge to know that her older sister was insulting her when she was called “Little Miss Watergate” without having to ask her mother what is Watergate.
I found it strange when Tracy mentioned that she and were friends were trying Volkswagen stuffing because I had never heard of that trend back in the 1970’s. This site says that the trend started in 1959 as an off-shoot of telephone booth stuffing and it peaked in the mid-1960’s. While I’m not saying that no one engaged in Volkswagen stuffing when I was growing up in the 1970’s, I never had anyone my age or older even mention this as something to try.
I still found it strange that Julie’s elementary school had a basketball team that played against teams from other elementary schools because the school system I attended had no such teams on the elementary school level. It was the high schools that had such teams.
The scene where Julie and Ivy shop at a local five and ten store brought back memories for me. I remember when the local mall in my town had both a Kresge’s and a G.C. Murphy. (The former later morphed into the big box retailer Kmart while the latter is now-defunct.) When the book made a passing reference to the girls going pass the aisle that sold Charlie perfume, I began to remember the numerous TV ads in the 1970’s that seemed to equate wearing Charlie with being a swinging independent liberated woman, such as this one.
The scene where Julie plays the game KerPlunk with her mother also brought back memories for me because I used to play that game as a child. A quick Internet search reveals that KerPlunk is still around.
The part where Tracy spoke on the phone with a friend about seeing the movie Jaws also brought back memories for me. I read the original book, watched the movie when it was first released in theaters, and I even had a Jaws t-shirt. That movie was a major blockbuster and there were all kinds of Jaws-related merchandise that one could buy (including clothing, beach towels, and toy sharks). Jaws occupied a section of major culture that would be overthrown just a few years later when the first of the Star Wars movies was released for the first time.
I’m also very familiar with hands-on education. I have to say that generally I responded better to hands-on education than learning facts in a textbook (although I was also good at learning new things through reading books). The one hands-on project I remember the most was the time during the school year from September, 1975-June, 1976, which happened to coincide with the American Bicentennial. Our Social Studies teacher had us do a year-long scrapbooking project where we had to gather various Bicentennial-related newspaper articles and other related things. We turned in our scrapbooks to be graded about three or four times then the teacher would hand them back to us so we could continue adding to them. I still have my Bicentennial scrapbook after all these years but I’m now thinking about scanning the pages into a digital format because the pages have become increasingly yellowed and I’m afraid that the scrapbook will become more and more fragile as time goes on.
The one hands-on lesson I could’ve done without were the times when I had to dissect dead animals, which was supposed to be a way of learning about organs and stuff like that. I still remember the three animals that I had to dissect in three different science classes (an earthworm, a frog, and a kitten) like it was yesterday and I hated it. It really didn’t add to my educational experience other than learning that formaldehyde is the most foul-smelling substance around. In addition I saw kids doing mischievous things with dissected animals like secretly throw organs at another kids (especially the ones who were bully targets) and there was an incident where the student swiped one dead earthworm from a science class and secretly planted it in the desk of a math teacher. There’s nothing I learned through dissection that I could’ve learned in some other way (such as looking at an illustrated chart of an animal’s organs). I’m glad that in recent years there are organizations dedicated to stop dissections in schools because that skill is pretty useless to anyone who has no intention of ever becoming a surgeon when they grow up. I personally think dissection should be limited to medical school only since it could provide useful practice to future surgeons.
As for school desegregation, I never had to experience going to a segregated school because lawmakers and the court system had mostly dismantled the old Jim Crow laws by the time I started school. I had a few African-American classmates when I first started school but it was still a majority-white district. By the mid-1970’s the area I grew up in (Glen Burnie, Maryland) had a large influx of people from South Korea so I started having Korean classmates in school, many of whom had just barely mastered English. Some South Koreans were fleeing the repressive dictatorship of Park Chung-hee (who ruled that nation with an iron fist until his assassination in 1979) while others were simply looking for better education opportunities for their children.
Where to Buy Julie Tells Her Story:
The American Girl Julie Albright Books List
The Original Central Series
The Best Friend Book
The Julie Mysteries
The BeForever Books
Other Media Featuring Julie
And the Tiara Goes to…—A film short based on the Julie books.