Betty Cavanna Essay - Critical Essays

Cavanna, Betty


Betty Cavanna 1909–

(Has also written under the names Betsy Allen and Elizabeth Headley) American young adult novelist, journalist, and author of fiction and nonfiction for younger children. Cavanna has been writing for and about the adolescent girl since 1943. Her books are distinguished by their insight into teenage living and their accurate descriptions of background and setting, and show a keen awareness of the uniqueness of the teen years. Her earlier novels center mainly on all-American girls from small towns as they deal with anxiety, jealousy, and most importantly, love. These books have been criticized for being too simplistic and predictable, and for presenting weak heroines who often have to rely on men. However, several of her books are recognized as classics, especially Going on Sixteen. The changing lifestyle of the American teenager is reflected in Cavanna's novels of the late sixties and early seventies. These novels incorporate more controversial themes, such as mother/daughter rivalry and conflicts between races and cultures, and feature plots built around such contemporary events as kidnapping and drug smuggling. With the exception of Jenny Kimura, these novels were not well received by critics. Most recently Cavanna has been rewriting earlier books into contemporary times and writing original novels set in the past. Cavanna's books have been accused of attracting an undemanding, unsophisticated audience. She has, however, developed a large, loyal following who appreciate her unpretentiousness and can identify with her characters as they face the numerous upheavals involved in growing up. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 9-12, rev. ed., and Something about the Author, Vol. 1.)

May Lamberton Becker

["The Black Spaniel Mystery" is an] excellent mystery for young folks beginning to grow up:…

Both "long" and "involved" are words of praise: a good mystery for young folks should go on a good while and have plenty in it, and should not be so easily unraveled that you see the end of the thread before you reach it….

This is a mystery that can and will be read more than once. (p. 5)

May Lamberton Becker, in New York Herald Tribune Book Review (© I.H.T. Corporation; reprinted by permission), June 10, 1945.

May Lamberton Becker

[Seldom] one finds a story so well within [the world of the teenage girl as "Going on Sixteen."]…

The feature of "Going on Sixteen" is that it keeps level with the time [but in the mode of the moment deals with matters with which every girl has to deal]….

Miss Cavanna's "Black Spaniel Mystery" stood out in its class because it had real young people and real dogs; ["Going on Sixteen"] is another proof of such understanding. (p. 8)

May Lamberton Becker, in New York Herald Tribune Book Review (© I.H.T. Corporation; reprinted by permission), May 5, 1946.


[A Date for Diane] is written with skill, sympathy, and an abundant humor which laughs with, but never at, the fourteen-year-olds. And it's all there—the anxiety about the first date, the frenzies about clothes, the interminable telephone conversations, the picnics that go haywire, the inexplicable reaction of parents to lipstick and low-cut evening dresses, and the desperately important school activities, all presented from the serious point of view of fourteen. There is no caricaturing of the young in this book, no visible preaching, no patronage. These wholesome, normal kids feel as fourteen has always felt, and always will feel. (p. 166)

Jane Cobb and Helen Dore Boylston, in The Atlantic Monthly (copyright © 1946 by The Atlantic Monthly Company, Boston, Mass.; reprinted with permission), December, 1946.

Ellen Lewis Buell

Diane's sophomore year in high school [in "A Date for Diane"] begins as all small-towners will understand, just before school opens, with her first date. Into that one evening are crammed all the misgivings and embarrassments of 14-going on-15….

We cannot conscientiously recommend as a pattern of behavior her tactics with the visiting cousin, whose aggressive femininity almost disrupts the gang, though we thoroughly enjoyed her ingenuity. We can, however, recommend this story for the light-hearted perception with which it treats those first suspenseful days of dates and dances. (p. 18)

Ellen Lewis Buell, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1947 by The New York Times Company: reprinted by permission), January 5, 1947.

Ellen Lewis Buell

Betty Cavanna who has written several light-hearted but perceptive novels for the 'teen-aged, turns to the uncertain days of 1859 in this story of the Underground Railway ["Secret Passage"]….

Almost any bright youngster will guess the outcome of its very simple plot, but they will like warm-hearted, curious Sally, and Miss Cavanna has a nice sense of period and place which gives flavor to the thin narrative. (p. 35)

Ellen Lewis Buell, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1947 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), February 23, 1947.

May Lamberton Becker

["Secret Passage"] is the sort of story for which libraries are always looking, one that, while keeping the taboos of the "mystery for girls," is sound in substance, well written, and likely to be remembered for something other than the solution of a problem. The action is permeated with atmosphere of the time, the year of Harper's Ferry, and though the Brintons' stand against slavery is firm and the Padbury type of slave-owner is shown in action, the Carringtons are treated as sufferers rather than oppressors. (p. 11)

May Lamberton Becker, in New York Herald Tribune Book Review, (© I.H.T. Corporation; reprinted by permission), May 11, 1947.


(The entire section is 105 words.)

Ellen Lewis Buell

Balletomanes are going to find that they have a lot in common with Topsy….

More serious in theme than "A Date for Diane," ["Take a Call, Topsy"] lacks something of that book's quick spontaneity and finish, but like it, this one too portrays the 'teenager's world—the parties, the dates, the first pangs of hero-worship—with understanding of their importance, even to one who is dedicated to her art. (p. 25)

Ellen Lewis Buell, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1947 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), July 20, 1947.

(The entire section is 90 words.)

May Lamberton Becker

An aviation story for girls must have something besides aviation to hold their attention, or it will be read only by the comparatively few who really want to fly and are willing to work for it. Betty Cavanna, whose books for growing girls are exactly suiting a great many of them, has put much more than flying into this sound, reasonable flying story ["A Girl Can Dream"]; her heroine is a girl who doesn't quite fit into everyday social life in a small city, and while envying the ease with which other girls do, makes no effort to imitate them…. Miss Cavanna herself knows what it is to learn to fly, but so do several other writers: she has the added grace of understanding the average girl. (p. 10)


(The entire section is 146 words.)

Virginia H. Matthews

[Betty Cavanna] knows how to make her characters express the true, live intensity of being 17 and how to state in simple terms the experiences that bring maturity and wisdom. Kate's bright infatuation for a handsome young fisherman [in "Paintbox Summer"] is beautifully handled, as is the growth of her deeper and more lasting feeling for another boy at the summer's end. Finally when all the emotional and mental energies fuse into happy sense of direction and she decides to go to art school in the fall, each teen-age reader will be delighted, but sorry, that a wonderful story has come to an end. (p. 22)

Virginia H. Matthews, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1949 by The...

(The entire section is 124 words.)

Mary Gould Davis

It is rare to find a story for girls that tells so honestly and so sensitively the thoughts and emotions of first love [as "Paintbox Summer"]…. Against the background of Cape Cod in summer with the Peter Hunt school as its focal point, the story develops naturally and with unflagging interest. It has a touch of humor and it is completely honest in its human relationships. It is a good choice for any girl who is beginning to think of the years ahead. (p. 34)

Mary Gould Davis, in The Saturday Review of Literature (copyright, 1949, by The Saturday Review Co., Inc.; reprinted with permission), August 13, 1949.

(The entire section is 104 words.)


There is a "Cinderella" theme in Betty Cavanna's ["Spring Comes Riding"]….

Miss Cavanna is second only to Maureen Daly in her ability to see into the hearts of teen-age girls and present convincingly the problems and emotional unrest that plague them. Her characters are natural and even family relations do not always reflect sweetness and light….

Adolescent girls will associate themselves completely with this story and rightly so, for the whole narrative is quite convincing even to the adult reader. (p. 10)

Alice Brooks McGuire, in Chicago Sunday Tribune, Part 4, November 12, 1950.

(The entire section is 90 words.)

Gladys Crofoot Castor

[In "Spring Comes Riding"] Meg learns what kind of girl she herself is, and what she can mean to those who are important to her.

To a lively story of family fun, of horses, dates, parties and romance in the persons of two attractive young college men, Betty Cavanna has added her special ability to see into the heart of a teen-age girl.

Gladys Crofoot Castor, "Teenage Hurdle," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1950 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), November 12, 1950, p. 16.

(The entire section is 86 words.)

May Lamberton Becker

In Camden in 1917 there were just two possible careers for a "nice" girl—normal school or marriage—and Ellen [in "Catchpenny Street"] had no bent for teaching. There was one handsome, steady youth who had intentions and lived in a more distinguished neighborhood: an unpredictable medical student complicated her choice. To this the situation can be reduced.

But that gives little idea of how good the book is, or of how contemporary it is in spite of taking place as the first world war was coming to a boil. The problem of individual choice keeps coming up with each individual girl—provided she remains an individual and not a mass production—and a story in which it is successfully and...

(The entire section is 189 words.)

Dwight L. Burton

Books by Betty Cavanna have been among the most popular with young high school readers. Her principal characters are adolescent girls, her setting is the environs of Philadelphia, and her theme usually is the struggle of an adolescent girl to gain self-confidence. Of her five or six novels, one, Going on Sixteen, is noteworthy. The others are neither better nor worse than the dozens of innocuous girls' stories which have flowed from the press in recent years.

Going on Sixteen is compounded of the humdrum in adolescent life. It rests upon its genuineness and sincerity rather than upon melodrama. Julie, the heroine, is a somewhat shy, nondescript girl who lives on a farm with her father...

(The entire section is 480 words.)

Margaret A. Edwards

The nearest contemporary rival in popularity [to Maureen Daly is probably Betty Cavanna]. Going on Sixteen and A Date for Diane have much to say to shy girls who must learn that the road to self-assurance and popularity is paved with thoughts and deeds that center around other people rather than one's self. And in her stories this author says these things in a style that is entertaining and persuasive. (p. 70)

Margaret A. Edwards, in English Journal (copyright © 1952 by the National Council of Teachers of English), September, 1952 (and reprinted in Readings about Adolescent Literature, edited by Dennis Thomison, The Scarecrow Press, Inc., 1970)....

(The entire section is 102 words.)

Nora Kramer

[The] lightly romantic story [of Love, Laurie] will lift the heart of the quiet girl whose natural reserve seems an added hurdle in growing up. It will comfort those who inwardly despair as other girls with ready tongues make flip rejoinders to the easy banter of the boys they know….

To help her recover from the shock of her mother's recent death, [her father] leaves to Laurie decisions involved with the building [of a new house]. This seems a drastic "cure," but Laurie's understanding of her father's rationalizing is part of her growing up, as is her honest self-appraisal in her friendship with each of three young men.

The plot is thin, yet Laurie is real and will be...

(The entire section is 148 words.)

Richard S. Alm

[Betty Cavanna] is a writer of some importance. In Rette Larkin, the heroine of A Girl Can Dream, she creates a tomboy whose unconventional behavior and ambitions make her a conspicuous member of the senior class. Unfortunately, the characterization is not carefully sustained, and the story ends too neatly with all i's dotted and all t's crossed. In Going on Sixteen, an earlier story, the shy, withdrawn Julie Ferguson develops into a more self-confident, poised adolescent. This heroine is a convincing figure throughout the story. Changes in Julie are carefully prepared for and are neither abrupt nor exaggerated. The one opportunity for giving the story a fairy-tale twist—Julie's...

(The entire section is 196 words.)

Alberta Eiseman

Angela Dodge, the "Angel on Skis,"… is 14 when we first meet her. Angry and resentful at having to help run the guest house, she dreams only of the day when she'll be able to afford a pair of skis. When we leave her, two years later, she's on the threshold of becoming a top-notch skier. We follow her through her first sitzmarks, the thrill of discovering that she's truly talented, the disappointment of losing a race, the slow, painful learning to be a good sport. Miss Cavanna captures fully the excitement of skiing and the breathtaking beauty of the landscape. The characters are believable, the story line uncluttered. This one's a gem. (p. 18)

Alberta Eiseman, in The New...

(The entire section is 132 words.)

Alberta Eiseman

Betty Cavanna is a fine storyteller, and as such she can always carry you along from page to page, asking no questions as to consistency or motivation until after you have finished the book. Many of her very popular novels for young people are satisfactory on all counts. But after the last page of "Stars in Her Eyes" is turned, many questions remain unanswered….

[Magda Page, pudgy 14-year-old daughter of a famous television personality,] takes her first steps toward independence by working as a waitress during her vacation, then persuades her parents to let her spend ten months in Paris, studying singing and ballet as well as attending a French school. When she returns home, slim and poised, she is...

(The entire section is 241 words.)

Alberta Eiseman

[Betty Cavanna] has nicely captured the thrill of learning to sail, and the conflict between native Cape Codders and summer residents is amusingly sketched [in The Scarlet Sail]. The minor characters are sharply drawn, especially Mike, Andrea's young sailing instructor, and his wise little sister Hannah. But it is the warm, sympathetic handling of the heroine herself which will make this book a favorite with young readers. (p. 58)

Alberta Eiseman, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1959 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), November 15, 1959.

(The entire section is 87 words.)

Virginia Haviland

There is sufficient reality in this summer romance [The Scarlet Sail] to make the reviewer wish it went a few steps beyond. The author has a believable heroine, who wrestles with normal enough problems in getting used to life with a new, and most understanding, stepfather; in adjusting to a new Cape Cod environment with a new set of teen-agers; and in learning to sail her new birthday boat—but the characterizations, tensions, and incidents fail to grip the reader with a strong enough pull. It's all too facile, although of course it is sure to be one of the author's most popular books. (p. 39)

Virginia Haviland, in The Horn Book Magazine (copyright, 1960, by The...

(The entire section is 120 words.)

Ruth Hill Viguers

The understanding and skillful interpretation of present-day teen-age girls that so characterizes this author's work marks also her entrance into the field of historical fiction…. [A Touch of Magic is a] moral tale certainly, and there is a tendency to allow details of setting to slow up the story, but there are interesting contrasts in the historical background and evidence that Miss Cavanna can write with depth and compassion. (p. 273)

Ruth Hill Viguers, in The Horn Book Magazine (copyright, 1961, by the Horn Book, Inc., Boston), June, 1961.

[Betty Cavanna] uses the pleasant background of Nantucket Sound, and holidaying...

(The entire section is 202 words.)

Margaret Sherwood Libby

Betty Cavanna has set the stage for [the visit of Japanese-raised Jenny to America in Jenny Kimura] and depicted the characters, both Japanese and American, extremely well. We found three-quarters of the book absorbing reading, with Jenny's problems very real and complex. Then the mechanics of a light teen-age romance took over, and the characters became unconvincing puppets acting out a contrived and sentimental happy ending. (p. 28)

Margaret Sherwood Libby, in Book Week (© I.H.T. Corporation; reprinted by permission), November 29, 1964.

(The entire section is 81 words.)

Becky Welz

I think "Mystery at Love's Creek" is too young for teenagers….

The thief was obvious to me in the second chapter. From then on the author tries to make a mystery by presenting other suspects.

Carlie is supposed to be sixteen, but by the way she talks it is hard to believe she is a teen-ager. For example, the word "dandy" would never come out of a teenager's mouth today. (p. 11)

Becky Welz, in The Christian Science Monitor (reprinted by permission from The Christian Science Monitor; © 1965 The Christian Science Publishing Society; all rights reserved), November 4, 1965.

[In Jenny Kimura]...

(The entire section is 836 words.)

Lillian N. Gerhardt

The roar of the 1920's is reduced to a squeak in this misfit-makes-good-in-high school novel [Joyride]…. It's all purest escape, never real: Susan's purity never falters as she faces up to school life, her conservative parents, her problems making friends, getting dates, fending off joyriding boys, and bathtub gin; the "fast girl" in her class gets pregnant, of course; the guzzling college boy who got her that way goes blind on wood alcohol. Nobody over the age of nine would doubt that Susan could come through unscathed and nobody over the age of ten with all her marbles is likely to read this. (p. 40)

Lillian N. Gerhardt, in School Library Journal (reprinted...

(The entire section is 252 words.)

Cyrisse Jaffee

Betty Cavanna has produced a wholly unremarkable novel [Ruffles and Drums] to add to the already glutted Bicentennial market. Set in Concord in 1775, this relates the story of Sarah Devotion Kent, her family and neighbors, beginning with the fight at the North Bridge. The descriptions of colonial Concord life and the historical details are well-drawn. But Cavanna sticks rigidly to her tired old formula. Sarah must choose between Thomas, literally the "boy-next-door," and James Butler, a handsome and charming enemy soldier wounded at the North Bridge and nursed back to health by Sarah and her mother. The stereotypical, predictable characterizations fail to make the important events come alive. (p. 96)


(The entire section is 334 words.)

Kay Haugaard

Sarah Devotion Kent. What a wonderfully upright, colonial name. A farm girl of Concord during the Revolutionary War, Sarah has spunk and spirit so that you keep expecting her to have some goal in mind—something to worry about, feel about. No such luck. We learn more about James, the wounded British officer taken in by Sarah's family, than we do Sarah.

[Ruffles and Drums is a] loosely plotted tale about the Revolution in which everyone is amazingly reasonable, sweet and understanding, and nothing of significance hangs in the balance. (p. 80)

Kay Haugaard, in Journal of Reading (copyright 1976 by the International Reading Association, Inc.;...

(The entire section is 242 words.)

Zena Sutherland

[In You Can't Take Twenty Dogs on a Date, Jo Redmond] decides to use the kennels and runs back of her home, purchased from a dog breeder, for a summer boarding kennel. While the story has a slight plot thread (two strands: will the project succeed; will attractive Steve Chance remain interested in her) it is primarily an account of Jo's problems and plans. The writing style is adequate, but no more; the characterization is adequate but without depth. The positive aspects of the story are the believable and warm family relationships, Jo's dedication and her sense of responsibility, and the sensible way in which she copes with practical and emotional obstacles. For some readers, the affection for, and...

(The entire section is 147 words.)

Phyllis Ingram

Using as historical background the 1866 voyage of a troopship of young women from New York through the Straits of Magellan to Seattle, Cavanna has fashioned a routine romance [in Runaway Voyage]…. The story is thickly larded with descriptive passages of the travel-folder type. The dialogue is embarrassingly clichéd, and so are the characters—the hard-working, resourceful orphan, the spoiled rich girl, the wise sea captain, and the rascally promoter—not to forget the good-hearted prostitute. (p. 153)

Phyllis Ingram, in School Library Journal (reprinted from the October, 1978 issue of School Library Journal, published by R. R. Bowker Co. A Xerox...

(The entire section is 103 words.)

Jean F. Mercier

Of approximately 40 popular novels that Cavanna has created, few can compete in liveliness, romance and genuine appeal with her new story ["Runaway Voyage"]. She bases it on "Mercer's Belles," New York Times reporter Roger Conant's diary. He sailed on the Continental in 1866 from New York to Seattle with shifty Asa Mercer, who escorted a bevy of maidens eager to find new lives and husbands in the raw territory. Cavanna invented Eliza, an orphan, who steals money for a train trip to board the vessel and is a stowaway, hidden by a friendly sailor, Harry.

She is most endearing and her adventures—sad, scary, funny and victorious—keep the reader glued to the pages. (p. 61)


(The entire section is 147 words.)

Denise M. Wilms

Cavanna's practiced hand moves [Runaway Voyage] along nicely via the particulars of Eliza's lengthy sea voyage. Shipboard characters run to type … but create color as they shape action. In the end Eliza's circumstances are definitely bettered (as you knew they would be)…. [The] story constitutes an interesting sidelight on history and does well as untaxing, satisfying recreational reading. (pp. 476-77)

Denise M. Wilms, in Booklist (reprinted by permission of the American Library Association; copyright 1978 by the American Library Association), November 1, 1978.

(The entire section is 80 words.)

Helen Gregory

[Ballet Fever, the rewriting of Cavanna's 1947 Take a Call, Topsy] does no major revision to the plot—the story of a girl who must give up a posh finishing school and her football hero boyfriend for a career in dance, and overcome her schoolgirl crush on an instructor; with a subplot showing the growth of her little sister during a crisis following an auto accident in which her mother breaks her leg. The revision, renamed perhaps to cash in on "Saturday Night Fever," simply removes out-of-date references (Vera Zorina, snoods, "bids" to dances, etc.), streamlines the prose, cuts back on detailed descriptions of clothing, and changes the heroine's name from "Topsy" to an innocuous "Teddi." While the plot...

(The entire section is 216 words.)