Old-School YA: “My Darling, My Hamburger” by Paul Zindel

Judy Blume famously said about her wonderful novel Forever, “My daughter Randy asked for a story about two nice kids who have sex without either of them having to die. She had read several novels about teenagers in love. If they had sex the girl was always punished—an unplanned pregnancy, a hasty trip to a relative in another state, a grisly abortion (illegal in the U.S. until the 1970’s), sometimes even death. Lies. Secrets. At least one life ruined.”

Well, Randy, now I know why you asked for that story, because I just read My Darling, My Hamburger. Despite its title, this isn’t a delightfully zany comedy. It’s actually a pretty dark story about mistakes, bad decisions, horrible consequences, and regret. Don’t get me wrong—this is a great book. It’s full of emotion and has so much teenage disillusionment that Holden Caulfield would be like, “Whoa, whoa, whoa. These people are a little too cynical.” It’s just really, really depressing. After I finished it, all I could think was, “Why am I so sad now? Does anything really matter? And why do I sort of want a hamburger?”

But let’s back up and get to the plot. Fair warning: there are a few spoilers ahead, but this book was written in the 1960s so it’s not like we haven’t all had time to read it. Maggie and Liz are BFFs, even though they couldn’t be more different. Maggie wears dresses she made herself and she’s always insecure. Liz is confident, beautiful, and dating a superbabe named Sean. Sean and Liz set Maggie up with Sean’s best friend, Dennis, even though Maggie claims that Dennis has a face like “an undernourished zucchini.” Seriously, he doesn’t even look like a nourished vegetable. Poor Dennis. Let’s hope he grows up to look like a healthy squash or a vibrant eggplant or something.

While Liz and Sean are super in love, Maggie isn’t so sure about Dennis. Well, Maggie isn’t so sure about anything, but she definitely isn’t sure about Dennis and his baggy green shirt (“He must really love that sweater. Any time she passed him in the halls, there it was, baggy as ever.”).

Liz’s big dilemma is whether or not she should sleep with Sean. He is, to be fair, kind of a huge jerk about it. His entire reasoning is, “We love each other, don’t we?” Ooh-la-la, Sean. Way to be romantic. Sean is clearly not one of the most crushable dudes in YA. Dennis might make the list; he seems sweet, that one baggy sweater notwithstanding.

And here’s where things get really depressing, because guess what? Having sex with Sean ends badly; in fact, it has pretty much the worst possible conclusion it could have. Liz gets pregnant in pre-Roe v. Wade times, which means she doesn’t have access to a safe, legal abortion. Was it a huge bummer to read about teenagers facing terrible consequences for making mistakes? Yes. I might need to read Forever as a palate cleanser. Thank God for you, Judy Blume.

So, sure, My Darling, My Hamburger is a product of its time; it involves a girl getting punished for having sex. It is, essentially, the opposite of the sex-positive YA lit I usually try to highlight in this column. But does that mean it’s a bad book? Definitely not. Paul Zindel manages to write some of the most heartbreakingly accurate teenage thoughts I’ve ever read. Take Maggie’s inner-monologue at graduation, for example: “It was always there in one form or another, the past—always lurking, smiling, no matter how you painted over it. You could yell at it and insist it didn’t exist. You could fight it and say it was gone. But it was still inside of you all along, Maggie knew.”

Paul Zindel was honest enough to write about how much being a teenager just sucks sometimes, how it’s often just full of loss and pain and breakups and fear. Sometimes friendships don’t last, sometimes boys are jerks, and sometimes the Fresh Prince and DJ Jazzy Jeff are right: Parents just don’t understand. The issues that the characters face still feel totally current (even if their language doesn’t). Feelings never go away.

What about you guys? Have you read My Darling, My Hamburger? Are you Paul Zindel fans? And can we talk about Rod, the total creep who wouldn’t stop talking about autopsies? He’s totally going to haunt my dreams now.

As always, I love to hear your suggestions for books to feature in Young Adult Education. Leave a comment, send me an email at [email protected] or find me on Twitter @KerryAnn.

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