I’m from St. Louis, so I grew up hearing Sally Benson’s name every so often. I’ve never met anyone who’d read her short stories, and I never read anything by her in school. That’s a shame, because she writes better short stories than most I read in high school.
In the past year I’ve read Benson’s Junior Miss and Meet Me in St. Louis. It could be that I’ve seen the film adaptation of Meet Me in St. Louis too many times, or that I found stories that followed one character stronger than those that covered an entire family, but I feel that the Junior Miss collection is superior.
By Sally Benson
Published 1941 by Random House
Book-of-the-Month Club selection in May 1941
One-Sentence Summary: Judy Graves experiences the ups and downs of being caught between her girlhood and her teenage years in New York City in 12 funny short stories.
How I Found It: About two years ago, I was at a used bookstore that has a fantastic selection of old hardbacks. I have a list of books and authors I check whenever I’m in a used bookstore. When I got to Sally Benson, I found Junior Miss. I had been hoping to find Meet Me in St. Louis, but that book isn’t always easy to find in the city of St. Louis, and there is something so romantic about finding a long-sought book in a store rather than by ordering it online. I bought Junior Miss and finally gave it a try this past summer. I read it in one day. I considered slowing down to make it last longer, but I was having too good a time seeing Judy get herself into all sorts of situations.
The Setting: New York City, c. 1940, in and around the apartment of a middle class family.
The Characters: Judy Graves is a mature child or an immature young adult. She has a good nature and struggles between holding on to her childhood and embracing adolescence. Lois is Judy’s older sister and considers herself very grown up. Their parents are kind but often baffled by raising daughters. Fuffy Adams is Judy’s best friend and makes appearances in many of the stories.
The Best Thing: What moves me about Junior Miss is its sensitivity. Being a young teen in late 1930s New York was not so different from my 1990s experience in a Midwestern suburb. In “The Best Things Come in Small Packages,” the Christmas story, Judy goes from excitedly viewing the tree, to tearing up when remembering her pet who passed away in the past year, to contentedly getting presents she expected because she asked for them, to stealing a few minutes from family time to visit with her best friend—and compare their near-identical gifts. It could be a description one of my Christmases.
In another story (“Les Temps Perdus”), Judy discovers that she had a pirate ancestor and writes an essay for school entitled “I Am Partially Pirate.” Few of the stories really stand out- they’re all good.
The Worst Thing: It’s the bookworm’s cliché, but I’m sorry Junior Miss wasn’t longer, or that Benson didn’t write a sequel book about Judy’s college years. It would have been funny to see Judy and Fuffy going off to live in a dormitory and getting into all sorts of sticky situations.
Of Note: The title refers to the first of the stories in which the Graves family goes shopping. Much to Judy’s dismay, she is too big to fit in a beautiful coat from the children’s department. She resists shopping in the Junior Miss section because she wants the coat so much.
The name of the candy Junior Mints is a play on Junior Miss, and is noted on the back of each box.
Availability: Junior Miss is out of print, but used copies are available for 1 cent.
The Author: Sally Benson was born in St. Louis, Missouri, in 1897. Her family moved to New York City when she was a child. Benson published 99 short stories in The New Yorker. Only the two compilations mentioned above were published in book form; one must subscribe to the New Yorker to have access to the others.
Junior Miss was a Broadway play from 1941-1943, a radio show starring Shirley Temple in 1942, and was adapted for film in 1945, the year after Meet Me in St. Louis was released. There was another Junior Miss radio series in the late 1940s that starred Barbara Whiting, who played Fuffy, Judy’s best friend, in the film.
After these successes, Benson had a career as a screenwriter, adapting Shadow of a Doubt, Viva Las Vegas, The Singing Nun, and others. She was nominated for an Oscar for her 1946 screenplay Anna and the King of Siam (starring Irene Dunne and Rex Harrison). She died in 1972 in California.
A book on Benson’s life and work by Dr. Maryellen Keefe will be released this year by SUNY Press. I’m looking forward to the release of Quiet Little Affairs: The Life and Fiction of Sally Benson and will review it on this blog as soon as I get a copy.
Black and white
Directed by George Seaton
Produced by 20th Century Fox
Differences: While not drastically different, this movie isn’t overly faithful to the book. Like Meet Me in St. Louis, Junior Miss required some restructuring in order to have a linear plot rather than 12 separate episodes. A storyline of Judy playing matchmaker, and getting in all sorts of trouble as a result, is added. The big theme of the book—Judy is an awkward tween divided between things of childhood and the allure of young womanhood—is intact.
Cast: Peggy Ann Garner, Stephen Dunne, Allyn Joslyn, Faye Marlowe, Mona Freeman, Sylvia Field, Barbara Whiting, and Scotty Beckett. Of the cast, Peggy Ann Garner and Barbara Whiting stand out.
Clips: You can watch the first minutes of the movie on Youtube.
Availability: Many classics have been released in the last couple of years, and not just the big names and award-winners. A DVD of Junior Miss was released last year. No special features, but good sound and picture quality.
The Book: The highest recommendation. This is the perfect book to read before bed because each of the twelve stories is fairly short. I bought copies as gifts for friends and family.
The Movie: Recommended.
Next month: The Thin Man by Dashiell Hammett