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.
After devoting the last two Throwback Thursdays to the first two books in a series about a young girl growing up in the 1970’s, here is a review of the third book in the series. Like the other books, Happy New Year, 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.
And speaking of growing up in the 1970’s, recently one of my Facebook friends had forwarded a link to this web page that could be considered a supplement to the Julie books that I’ve been reviewing so far: 8 Reasons Children of the 1970s Should All Be Dead. That page is very accurate because there were less safety regulations back then and many parents back then (especially those who lived in the suburbs) seemed to be more laid back and more level-headed who didn’t have a major dramatic meltdown whenever a child suffered a minor scrape or cut. I was the kid in the neighborhood who had the most overprotective parents and even they were mild compared to today’s helicopter parents.
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.
Synopsis: Julie Albright is a 9-year-old white girl with long blonde hair and brown eyes growing up in 1970’s 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.
This latest story begins about a month or two after Julie Tells Her Story. The illustrations show Julie’s right hand as being fully recovered from the injury to one of her fingers that happened while Julie was playing the biggest basketball game of the year with her team (although the text itself makes no mention of that recent injury). It’s Christmas Eve and Julie and Tracy look longingly at a Christmas tree lot near their mother’s apartment. (Yes, the irony of posting my review of a story about the winter holidays of Christmas and Chinese New Year the day before the summer Fourth of July holiday hasn’t been lost on me. LOL!) Julie faces the prospect of her first Christmas since her parents’ divorce and she’s naturally ambivalent about it. Her sister Tracy still refuses to speak with her father because she blames him for the divorce. Her mother is busy working long hours in her Gladrags store because of the bustling holiday shopping season.
Due to the divorce, the recent move, and the time and money spent on keeping her store in business, Julie’s mother tells both Julie and Tracy that money is too tight to buy a Christmas tree for the apartment and, since they were spending Christmas Day with their father, there would be a tree at his place. So Julie and Tracy are gazing longingly at the pine trees that they won’t be buying in the Christmas tree lot. It turns out that the lot is run by Hank, their mother’s friend and a Vietnam War vet (whom we met for the first time in Meet Julie) so when they run into him they tell him about their plight. Feeling sorry for the girls, Hank pulls out a red wagon that holds a pine tree in a planter. He tells the girls that he intends to plant the tree outside the Veterans’ Center but he’s willing to temporarily lend the tree to the girls so they would have a Christmas tree in the apartment.
Julie and Tracy wheel the tree to their apartment and manage to get it up the steps. However Julie and Tracy weren’t able to find Christmas decorations and their mother later tells them that the decorations are still at the old family home where their father now lives with Nutmeg the pet rabbit. Tracy begins to mope about not having decorations for the tree and Julie comes up with the idea of making ornaments. While Mom pops popcorn to string up for the tree and Julie folds origami paper cranes while searching for some old God’s eye crafts that her sister made in Girl Scouts just a few years earlier and other items that could be hung on the tree, Tracy continues to whine about how Christmas is different this year and act like a such a total grump that I’m surprised that she never says “BAH, HUMBUG!” It was only after Mom and Julie gather items and make decorations that Tracy finally gets into the swing of the holiday as she helps with stringing the popcorn and origami paper cranes while Julie makes a construction paper chain and the three of them also exchange Christmas presents.
Julie’s parents planned that the girls would spend the entire Christmas week with their father while their mother would go to Santa Rosa to spend the holiday with her parents (Julie’s grandparents). Naturally Tracy doesn’t want to visit her father because she still blames him for the divorce and she prefers to just stay in Mom’s apartment by herself on Christmas Day. Julie really wants to spend Christmas with both her father and her sister and she can’t bear the thought of her sister being home alone on Christmas Day. After making a tearful plea, Julie manages to talk Tracy into changing her mind and spending Christmas with her and their father in his home.
Given what happens on Christmas Day after Dad picks them up, everyone would’ve been better off had Tracy stuck to her original plan of staying home alone in her mother’s apartment because Tracy was a total crab the whole time. Tracy’s mood was briefly lightened when Dad gives her a pink Princess phone but she soon reverts back to being a killjoy. Tracy really explodes during a family outing to a special Nutcracker Tea that is held on Christmas Day at San Francisco’s historic Fairmont Hotel, which cuts that outing short.
When they return home, Tracy runs into her bedroom and closes the door. The next day Tracy returns to her mother’s apartment so Julie spends the rest of the holiday week alone with her father while going across the street to visit her best friend Ivy Ling.
Julie and Ivy exchange Christmas presents. Julie gives Ivy a pillow she made where Ivy’s name is written in Chinese. Ivy gives Julie a Chinese doll that resembles Ivy’s Chinese doll except Ivy’s doll wears a traditional red dress while Julie’s wears a traditional blue dress. Ivy’s doll is named Li Ming while Julie’s is named Yue Yan. Both Li Ming and Yue Yan will become more prominent in a later book in the Julie Mystery series, The Puzzle of the Paper Daughter.
Members of Ivy’s Chinese-American family, who made cameo appearances in the last book, are given more prominent roles here. Ivy’s family includes her mother, her father, her 12-year-old brother Andrew, her 3-year-old sister Missy, her grandmother known as Po Po, and her grandfather who’s called Gung Gung. Her grandparents run a Chinese restaurant in San Francisco’s Chinatown district called the Happy Panda. Rounding out the household are the two cats, Wonton and Jasmine.
By New Year’s Day Julie is back in her mother’s apartment. Hank took back the potted pine tree he loaned the family while all the decorations were put away. It is now the year 1976 and there are some fun times ahead to celebrate that occasion. When Julie visits her father again in mid-January (this time without her sister, who refuses to go), she ends up helping Ivy’s family with preparing for the upcoming 15-day Chinese New Year celebration which will welcome The Year of the Dragon, which is more evidence that the story is now set in the year 1976. (The Wikipedia goes even further by assigning an element to each dragon year. It says that 1976 was The Year of the Fire Dragon.) When she visits her father again in late January, Julie helps the Ling family with shopping for flowers and food needed for the upcoming celebrations.
The Lings appreciate Julie’s help so much they decided to invite Julie, her mother, and Tracy to a party that Ivy’s grandparents are holding at their Happy Panda restaurant on the final night of Chinese New Year. For added measure, Ivy gives an invitation to Julie’s father, who lives across the street from the Lings. Having the entire family in one place makes Julie upset and nervous because she still has recent memories of that Christmas Day From Hell when her sister Tracy acted like a total killjoy who finally exploded in a rage at the Fairmont Hotel’s Nutcracker Tea.
Fortunately for Julie, Tracy was less of a moody bitch that night but, aside from showing her father how to eat with chopsticks, Tracy didn’t speak with Dad at all. Finally Julie speaks with Tracy about why she won’t talk to their Dad and Tracy confesses that she doesn’t know what to say to him. Julie urges Tracy to just be herself and talk with Dad about her school and her tennis matches. Tracy takes Julie’s advice and her Dad has taken Tracy up on her invitation to see her play at the next tennis match. The book ends with the Albright and Ling families going up on the top balcony of the restaurant watching the Chinese New Year parade marching through the street below.
The last chapter, Looking Back, deals with how families celebrated Christmas in the 1970’s with an emphasis on making their own ornaments from found natural objects and how children from divorced families started to celebrate the holidays twice because they would celebrate them in each household. The chapter also elaborated further on traditional Chinese New Year celebrations in the United States.
Music Mentioned in This Book
Deck the Halls
Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer
Movies, Books, Ballet Shows, and Television Shows Mentioned
Real-Life People Mentioned
News and Other Stuff From the Era Mentioned
Bird’s Nest Soup
Chinese Dragon Dance
Chinese Lion Dance
Chinese Paper Lantern
Clue Board Game
Lai See Red Envelope
Nien (also spelled “Nian”) Monster
Russian Nesting Dolls
The Year of the Dragon
My Own Impressions Based on My Own Experience With the 1970’s:
I get that Happy New Year, Julie is American Girl’s attempt to show how families celebrated Christmas and Chinese New Year’s in the 1970’s but, to be honest, the traditions of those two holidays haven’t changed much since then. Both holidays have been celebrated in one form or another for thousands of years so there really isn’t much difference between—let’s say—a Chinese New Year celebration in San Francisco in 1976 and the same celebration in the same place this year.
The Looking Back chapter was correct in that people loved to make their own decorations during the 1970’s. I can recall the times when I had people give me Christmas ornament making kits for my birthday since it is on December 15 (10 days before Christmas) so I loved the times when I made my own ornaments. But making one’s own ornaments is not a phenomenon that’s unique to the 1970’s because I can recall seeing ornament making kits being sold in arts and crafts stores in the 1980’s, 1990’s, 2000’s, and even last Christmas.
As for that same chapter saying that people made ornaments from found materials like milkweed pods, that may be true for some families but it wasn’t true with mine nor was it true for the other families in my neighborhood. (I grew up in Glen Burnie, Maryland, which is located just south of Baltimore, and it wasn’t exactly a hotbed of radical left-wing, granola-eating, nature-loving hippies.) My parents were traditional when it came to ornaments and they basically decorated it with angels, balls, lights, tinsel, etc. We never made ornaments from found materials in nature.
The Looking Back chapter’s idea that children celebrated the holidays more than once isn’t unique to divorced families. My immediate nuclear family (which included my grandmother who lived with us) would celebrate Christmas in the morning, go to Catholic Mass afterwards, then go to the home of my aunt, uncle, and cousins where we celebrated further. A day or two later my parents would drop my grandmother off to visit her cousin who lived in Baltimore for a visit while we would go on to Ellicott City to visit my other set of grandparents where we would celebrate Christmas again. This idea of multiple celebrations happens when the entire family doesn’t live under one roof in a large extended family household.
Julie’s realization that her mother was the one who handled the Christmas decorations in the old family home isn’t that unusual. My mother and the mothers of my friends and other relatives generally handled the Christmas decorating tasks and other related preparations. Having read the book Unplug the Christmas Machine by Jo Robinson and Jean Coppock Staeheli, I learned that wives and mothers have long taken on the task of being, what they termed, “Christmas Magicians,” where they handled the decorating and baking and they also scheduled family Christmas outings (like seeing live performances of The Nutcracker ballet) and many of them did it to the point of being frazzled and stressed out by Christmas Day.
Despite the fact that both parents chose to celebrate the holidays in a simpler way than before the divorce, Julie quickly adapted to the situation and tried to enjoy herself despite her memories of past Christmases. Tracy’s reaction is something else entirely.
I have to confess that, out of all the characters in the Julie books, her sister Tracy is my least favorite. She’s basically a very dour mopey person who has a single-minded interest in tennis, which makes her a one-dimensional character. I know that she’s supposed to be 15 and at an age when hormones run rampant. I also realize that she’s very upset over her parents’ divorce. But many people go through divorce (including me) and, yes, getting divorced is not fun but, in this book, Tracy acts so emo that I’m surprised she isn’t illustrated as being dressed from head to toe in black all the time. She acts so dour and moody most of the time that I’m amazed that she has any friends. If I had encountered someone like Tracy when I was in high school, I would’ve done everything possible to avoid her.
She also struck me as a type of person who is so rigid in how things ought to be that the slightest misstep can totally darken her mood. It becomes apparent at Christmas when she became totally dour and mopey because neither parent celebrated the holiday to her exact specifications on how she thinks it ought to be celebrated. I’ve met people like her who had rigid ideas on how Christmas should be celebrated or how a vacation trip should be scheduled exactly or how exactly something should be done in general and I can tell you that they are not fun to be around. With these people, having something gone wrong totally makes them either angry or depressed even if the thing that went wrong is relatively minor and insignificant.
With the way Tracy is so unpredictably moody I can understand why, in the last book (Julie Tells Her Story), Julie tried to cover up the fact that she accidentally broke the pot that held her sister’s spider plant rather than confess her mistake to Tracy—she was probably afraid of Tracy exploding in anger at her. The fact that Julie felt comfortable enough to tell her sister the truth about the planter only after learning that her sister got an “A” in her science class for her plant project speaks volumes about Tracy’s difficult personality.
At least with the first two books Tracy is basically a minor character so the reader isn’t exposed to her moody personality too much. But I found this book to be a challenge to go through at times because Tracy has a larger role in it and, boy, is she so bitter about spending the first Christmas since the parents’ divorce.
What was even worse was that in the last book, Julie Tells Her Story, Julie’s father offers to take the sisters and their mother out for pizza after dealing with Julie’s brief hospitalization for a broken finger she got while playing in the biggest basketball game of the year at her school. Tracy said she would go only if her father would go to this pizzeria in the old neighborhood and he agrees. But in this book Tracy has totally forgotten or ignored the fact that her father did what she wanted regarding where to eat pizza in the previous book and acted totally foul towards her father. Even Julie’s pleas to Tracy that her father is trying to have a relationship with both girls fall on deaf ears. Tracy never considers the fact that had her father not given a shit about her, he could have been a real asshole that night of the pizza dinner and told her, “Screw that pizzeria in the old neighborhood. I’d rather go to the Pizza Hut that’s down the street. Take it or leave it!”
Tracy was such a total pill that I didn’t blame her father for letting her return to her mother’s apartment the day after Christmas. Even though the father tried to put a positive spin on the situation to Julie, I can also understand the frustration he went through trying to re-establish a relationship with his older daughter after the divorce. It reminded me of the frustration I went through when my own husband abruptly walked out on me three days after Christmas in 2011 without telling me that he was the slightest bit unhappy. I sent numerous e-mails, texts, and voice mail messages and they all went unanswered in the early weeks after the walkout. There were times when I tried to do something nice to him, like sending him a birthday card or sending messages asking how he was doing, and I would get a reply like “Thank you for your concern but I still intend to seek a divorce.” In short, it’s so hard to reach out with love to someone who expresses total contempt for you, refuses to treat you with respect, and doesn’t want to have anything to do with you.
If Tracy was a real kid that I knew, I would definitely have a serious talk with her on how she needs to gain some perspective here. I’d tell her about how lucky she is to have a father who still wants to be in her life after the divorce because I’ve met way too many single parents and their children whose non-custodial parent wouldn’t visit their children (or who may visit once in a blue moon before disappearing again for a while).
I was amused by the scene where Nutmeg the pet rabbit burrows under the piles of discarded wrapping paper. I remember as a teenager when my parents had a dog named Napoleon and he used to be totally excited on Christmas. He loved to sniff new clothes and other new items that people received as presents. He was thrilled when my mother gave him a toy or treat from a pre-packaged Christmas stocking for dogs that she used to purchase from the local pet store each year. He also used to swipe the discarded wrapping paper and rip it further into even smaller pieces, which made cleaning up wrapping paper to be even harder after we got the dog. Sometimes we would find a tiny piece of wrapping paper under some furniture weeks after Christmas was over.
The second half of the book, which focuses on how Ivy’s family celebrates Chinese New Year’s, was very interesting and it was the only thing that totally redeems this book. It was really neat learning in detail about the traditions and rituals surrounding Chinese New Year’s. While I had heard of Chinese New Year’s growing up, I became more aware of it only after I became an adult when I moved closer to Washington, DC and I saw that each year there is a Chinese New Year’s celebration in the city’s Chinatown area. I also recall the times when my then-husband and I would go out to local Chinese restaurants around that time and there would be red decorations hung up along with decorations resembling Chinese dragons and some of the employees would wear red. There would also be decorations depicting a certain animal depending on what year it is in the Chinese zodiac. (Since I’m writing this entry in 2014, this year is the Year of the Horse and, according to Google, it will remain this way until February 18, 2015.)
Ivy’s Asian background reminds me of this memory when I was growing up in the 1970’s. When my family first moved from Baltimore to nearby Glen Burnie, that town was mostly white. By the third grade there was a Japanese family named Nakanishi from Okinawa who moved to my neighborhood. Sometimes I used to play with one of their daughters and that girl was in a couple of my classes until the seventh grade (when her family moved elsewhere).
By the mid-1970’s there was suddenly an influx of South Koreans who moved to Glen Burnie and I suddenly had Korean classmates who were struggling to learn English and adjusting to an entirely new country and culture. Some South Korean families moved to the United States because they 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 than what they could get in the South Korean school system at that time.
Unlike Julie, while I was friendly with some of my Korean classmates, I was never close enough friends with them where I was invited to their homes so, growing up, I never got a first-hand look at how a different ethnic group celebrates a holiday in the way that Julie did.
I did have one Chinese-American classmate in high school but we weren’t close friends like Julie and Ivy are in the books. I wasn’t exposed to much Asian food when I was growing up until I was in high school and a Chinese restaurant called the Fortune Cookie opened. (A few months ago, when I was on my way to visiting my mother in the hospital as she was battling both the flu and a urinary tract infection, I happened to stop by Giant to pick up something for my mom in the same shopping center where the Fortune Cookie is located and I found that the restaurant is still in business after all these years.) One year, when I was in the fourth grade and my Social Studies did a unit on Japan, we tried Japanese food that was prepared by the school cafeteria staff and it was enough to turn me off Japanese food until after I was married and my then-husband convinced me that I shouldn’t judge Japanese food based on how the staff of my elementary school cafeteria made it. I remember that he basically said that if my school really wanted us kids to have an appreciation of Japanese cuisine, it should have arranged to have my class go on a field trip to a real Japanese restaurant instead of using the school cafeteria staff to do a piss-poor job of making something that barely passed as edible. He was right because, let’s face it, school cafeteria food wasn’t that memorable to begin with and if you think they did a piss-poor job at making American food like hamburgers, you should see how they screwed up cuisine from other nations.
Where to Buy Happy New Year, Julie:
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.