In Ellen Conford’s 1976 young adult novel, Dear Lovey Hart, I Am Desperate, freshman Carrie Wasserman finds herself writing an anonymous advice column for her high school newspaper.
The column becomes wildly popular to the dismay of Carrie’s father, the school’s head guidance counselor. But Carrie finds her position difficult: she is falling for her intense and driven co-conspirator, the paper’s editor, Chip. Her advice to her friends ends up going against her alter-ego’s words. She’s trying to juggle homework and writing. Most of all, she is out of her depth fielding all-too-serious questions that come up. Her answers become more flippant—sometimes a little mean—and the tide of opinion turns against Lovey Hart.
And, oh, how worn out I was from trying to find new gimmicks for the Eternal Number One question: “How do I get him to notice me?” I began turning from sensible, cute suggestions, to downright sarcastic answers. “Drop an anvil on his foot.” “Put Jell-O down his shirt.” “Fall off his roof.”
Lovey Hart was probably one of my favorite books from junior high and high school. The book was made into an Afterschool Special and spawned a sequel, We Interrupt This Semester for An Important Bulletin, in which Carrie contends with a Southern belle and imagines herself in scenes from a romance novel in which her sleeves keep getting ripped off, leaving her creamy shoulders exposed.
Conford, who died a year ago, was one of those authors whose books were always on the paperback carousel at both the school library and the city branch library. A few of her novels were recently reissued with Lizzie Skurnick’s imprint at Ig Publishing.
Re-reading, I realized that Conford’s wisecracking but empathetic voice was one I tried—and keep trying—to channel with varying degrees of success.
Lovey Hart was funny—Carrie was funny. That was important to me as a young woman, and it is maybe why I read the book over and over.
I needed to hear the wry voice of a girl who herself is allowed and encouraged to be funny, who explores how wit can sometimes be mean, or wise, or kind. For example, here are Carrie’s thoughts as she contemplates her crush, Chip:
But while a brooding, intense boy makes the heart beat faster, he also puts a simultaneous strain on the brain, because you are frantically trying to think of something to say to make him stop brooding, which is an outright contradiction, but true, nevertheless.
Carrie is self-aware enough to know she’s falling for Chip’s act, but she can see her own absurdity in trying to console him. There is a buoyancy to Carrie’s voice—to this book’s realism. It was such a relief to encounter it at an age when life often felt confusing and intense and hard to bear.
I suspect that my teachers mistrusted humor. Trying to corral a roomful of teens making boner jokes can maybe do that to a person.
There was a preponderance of Earnest Literature About Issues in our curriculum. Moreover, among the “realistic” contemporary young adult selections pushed by my teachers and librarians were cautionary tales about young women who got pregnant, who got lost in drugs, who fought the system and lost. The Chocolate War. The Language of the Goldfish. The Pigman. Go Ask Alice.
I am oversimplifying the novels I was recommended. But in my memory, so many of the characters in those books seemed so tragic and so—well—white. And if they were non-white, well, that alone was often written as a calamity. In the world of true-life, contemporary young adult books of the 80s and 90s, my mere non-white existence was an Issue.
My reality is not grim. I don’t think others should get to frame it that way either.
Don’t get me wrong, I gladly read—and still read—Issues books: I spend many an evening sitting in the dark, sobbing into my duvet, my tearstained face illuminated by the impassive light of my Kindle. It is one of the most luxurious things one can do.
But often so much of the narrative of these books is about giving an audience—giving other people, the culture—the opportunity for catharsis and absolution.
How nice for other people.
As an aside, maybe that’s why I consumed teen series featuring non-white protagonists who, you know, lived their lives.
Teen series were not considered good reading by my teachers. But, as I noted in a previous column, the novels sometimes featured characters who led rich and varied existences—characters such as Faith from The Girls of Canby Hall, or Claudia Kishi from The Babysitter’s Club. And avoiding that narrative of a life crystallized by tragedy is why I’ve given my young child funny middle-grade series like Lenore Look’s Alvin Ho books, or Andrea Cheng’s Anna Wang books.
“Sometimes—no, most of the time—popular and worthwhile are not synonymous at all,” Carrie’s guidance counselor father—an educator—tells her in a rant against Lovey Hart’s column.
Carrie answers, “But everything doesn’t have to be worthwhile . . . Some things can be just for fun.”
In a way, Lovey Hart is in conversation with those Issues books. Lovey Hart may be “for fun,” but it is also worthwhile.
Conford depicts people with problems—girls with problems—who are not tragic even though their lives could easily turn that way. Maybe that’s why I identified with Carrie, although her universe seemed pretty white. It’s maybe why I wanted, however imperfectly, to identify with her.
There are seeds of tragedy in Lovey Hart. Carrie receives letters from girls wanting the attention of boys, sure, but she also gets them from students who’ve lost all their friends after quitting drugs, kids whose parents are getting divorced—many of the scenarios of the Issues books are alluded to in Dear Lovey Hart, I Am Desperate. And then there is also Carrie’s buddy, Terry, who is in love with her French teacher:
“Lovey Hart says,” Terry began abruptly, her voice distant and dreamy, “that you should let someone know if you like them, because they might be liking you all the time, and if you’re too shy to ever tell each other, you’ll never know what Might Have Been.”
“Terry,” I said nervously, “I think she was talking about a sophomore and a junior, not a student and a teacher.”
Terry believes herself emotionally ripe enough to handle a love affair. One night, Terry impulsively shows up at Mr. Stokes’s apartment to declare her feelings.
This is an Issue.
In a different book, it could have easily taken a terrible turn. Even as I write this, I am reading a discussion which shows how very easily student-teacher relations take terrible turns.
Conford goes with what I think is the best-case scenario, which is also somehow a reasonable ending to Terry’s drama. Terry ends up spurned and alive—unharmed despite sustaining some embarrassment. And . . . well, that is probably the most optimistic-while-plausible scenario in life, isn’t it? Being alive and unharmed except for minor embarrassment is the best for which we can realistically hope.