I hate it when my mother brags about me and my sister. "Deenie's the beauty and Helen's the brain."
Thelma Fenner has very fixed ambitions for her daughters, Helen and Deenie. Helen is an intelligent sixteen-year-old while thirteen-year-old Deenie is considered very beautiful. Their mother wants Deenie to be a model but Deenie doesn't really seem enthused by the idea and would rather be a cheerleader except in both the modeling audition and cheerleading tryouts, something happens. Both the interviewer and her gym teacher point out that Deenie seems to look a little unbalanced so her teacher recommends getting a visit to her doctor. When Deenie is diagnosed with scoliosis, or curvature of the spine, she's almost relieved at the idea of no more traipsing around to interviews at modeling agencies or living up to her mother's expectations. However, she has to wear an ugly, uncomfortable back brace for the next four years. Not only that, but she's convinced that it will put an end to normal teenage life, including her blossoming relationship with her crush, Buddy Brader.
This book provides examples of:
- Abusive Parents: Thelma is controlling and goes into downright bullying and victim blaming toward her daughters if they dare to try and go outside of what she wants for them (for Deenie to be a model and Helen to focus only on her studies). When Deenie's scoliosis is revealed and Helen is revealed to be attracted to their father's employee, Thelma blames Deenie for her condition and gets Joe fired because she's angry that they're "ruining" what she has planned for them. And in the end, she hasn't changed her mind at all (which is par for the course in most Blume novels).
- Alpha Bitch: While not a total bully, Deenie exhibits fairly strong tendencies of this early on in the story. She looks down a lot at the "handicapped" kids and treats Barbara Curtis, a girl in her class, like her eczema or "creeping crud" is actually a form of leprosy. As she winds up getting diagnosed with scoliosis and fitted for a brace, Deenie grows out of this mindset fast and starts becoming more empathetic to the point where she even becomes friends with Barbara.
- Bittersweet Ending: Deenie still has to wear her brace, and her mother refuses to back down on pressuring her and Helen to do what she wants. Even so, Helen refuses to take their mother's nonsense, and Deenie knows that in a few years the brace will come off and she will have the freedom to pursue her choices in a career, and men if she wishes. She also not only still has her good friends Janet and Midge, she has a new friend in Barbara and Buddy Brader reciprocates her feelings.
- Book Dumb: Deenie comments that she rarely cracks the books and generally gets left alone if she doesn't bring home anything lower than a C, whereas Helen is given excessive amounts of homework because she's supposedly a genius. This starts to change as Deenie begins reading about her scoliosis and later says she might want to be an orthopaedist someday.
- Cool Big Sis: Helen winds up this in the end, being one of Deenie's biggest supporters after she gets her brace and tells her that she doesn't have to live to their mother's expectations.
- Daddy's Girl: Deenie's far closer to her father than with her mother, mostly because he doesn't police her diet and posture and gives her breathing room to be a kid. The only time he puts his foot down with her is when he insists that she wears the Milwaukee brace to Janet's party. Although Deenie is initially upset, she later comes to admit that he's right.
- A Date with Rosie Palms: Deenie mentions touching her "special place" and wondering if that's why she developed scoliosis. Masturbation is even referred to by name in a gym class health discussion in which the teacher tells the students that it's normal and healthy and not to believe the misinformation they've heard about it causing blindness or insanity. Blume said that a principal banned the book from his school library, saying he might've allowed it if the character were a boy.
- Dating What Ma Hates: Helen falls for Joe, a mechanic at her father's garage, but Thelma doesn't want Helen dating, let alone date someone who works at a garage with dirty fingernails and has Joe fired to keep him away from her, leading Helen to blow up at her mother and give her a long-overdue "The Reason You Suck" Speech.
- Entertainment Above Their Age: When Janet and Midge take Deenie into the city for a girls' trip, they say that one of their activities will be to go see an X-rated movie. Subverted when the clerk at the adult movie theater refuses to sell the girls tickets when they cannot prove that they are of age to enter.
- The Glorious War of Sisterly Rivalry: Averted. Though they fit into the roles as the "pretty" one (Deenie) and the "smart" one (Helen), they get along very well despite that, and it's more their mother's pressure for them to be in those roles that causes any friction, to the point where, at one point, Helen tells Deenie she doesn't have to fall into the role their mother has chosen for her. Also, Deenie is absolutely horrified when she learns Thelma had Joe sacked from his job and believes it's because they couldn't afford to pay him because of Deenie's medical expenses. It turns out that Thelma had him fired because she found out about Helen and Joe, and Helen rushes to reassure Deenie that it wasn't her fault.
- Good Parents: Frank Fenner is much more understanding and reasonable in regards to his daughters than Thelma is. While Thelma is emotionally manipulative and reacts to situations as if she were the victim or tries to even blame Deenie and Helen, Frank is very calm and doesn't hesitate to comfort his daughters when they need him and yet also firm in that Deenie needs to wear her brace which she eventually realizes is right of him to do.
- Huge Schoolgirl: Midge, one of Deenie's best friends, is taller than almost every boy in her grade and incredibly self-conscious about the fact. When Buddy Brader and Steve Hildrick sit with Deenie and Janet, respectively, at the movies but nobody sits with Midge, Deenie comments in her internal monologue she wishes the boys had a tall friend who would also get a crush on Midge.
- It's All About Me: Thelma is incredibly callous towards Deenie's condition, sobbing all the way home from the doctor's and wailing about how the brace has ruined her plans. She tries to pin down someone to blame for the diagnosis; initially, she blames Deenie, accusing her of slouching deliberately, then Frank's cousin Belle, who'd had an operation for a slipped disc in her back (which Frank correctly points out is completely unrelated). The scoliosis is diagnosed as idiopathic, meaning that there's no definite cause. Deenie comments in her internal narration her mother is acting like she's the one with the crooked spine.
- Lovable Jock: Buddy Brader, a boy Deenie has a huge crush on, is mentioned as being athletic and popular and Deenie worries immensely if he'll still like her with the brace. Turns out he doesn't mind at all.
- My Beloved Smother: Thelma, hands down. She monitors everything that Deenie eats as well as criticizing her posture while making sure both Deenie and Helen are how she wants them to be ("Deenie's the beauty and Helen's the brain"). When Helen mentions trying out for the cheerleading squad, Thelma scolds her for the very notion, saying that Helen didn't need to be jumping around yelling cheers because of her brain. When Deenie is revealed to have tried out for cheerleading, Thelma scolds her for doing so as well, saying that if Deenie had made the team, she wouldn't have time for a modeling career.
- Never My Fault: Thelma thinks she knows what's best in regards to her daughters (i.e. what she wants them to be) and will point fingers at everyone else when things don't go her way, from her husband to her daughters themselves. When Deenie gets diagnosed with scoliosis and Helen has a crush on the young man working at her father's garage, she goes hysterical and wails that all she wanted was the best for her daughters.
- No Periods, Period: Averted when Deenie gets her period after she gets her brace on and can't bend at the hips to pick up a dropped sanitary napkin. She successfully retrieves her pad by bending her knees.
- Only Known by Their Nickname: Deenie is short for Wilmadeene (a misspelling of Wilma Dean "Deanie" Loomis from Splendor in the Grass) and her real name is barely mentioned save for an interviewer and her old-fashioned sewing teacher.
- Precocious Crush: Janet has one on Harvey Grabowski, a ninth-grade boy, to the point that she follows him around a store and thinks telling Deenie she touched his sleeve is incredibly exciting news. She gets over it when she and Steve Hildrick become more serious.
- Sadist Teacher: Deenie’s sewing teacher, Miss Wabash, who is “100 years old and very mean.” When Deenie had forgotten an assignment because she had gotten fitted into and was getting acclimated to her Milwaukee Brace over the weekend, Miss Wabash is unsympathetic. Not only does she consider Deenie’s excuse invalid, but she also says that she will only give half credit if Deenie does make up the assignment.
- Shout-Out: Deenie is name after a character Natalie Wood played in a movie Splendor in the Grass. Her crush, Buddy, could also be nicknamed Bud, the love interest in that story, and Deenie notes the possibility of a Deenie and Bud romance in Elizabeth, New Jersey.
- Stage Mom: Deenie is blessed with not one, but two examples of this trope — her actual mother and "Aunt" Rae, who isn't Deenie's blood relative, but rather a close friend of her mother's — whose attitudes toward Deenie's scoliosis and its implications for her modeling career make her situation that much harder to take (both of them implying that Deenie herself is to blame for developing scoliosis). Deenie is relieved towards the end of the book when she realizes she probably won't become a model because of the brace and adds she never really wanted to be one anyway; it was all her mother's idea.
- Took a Level in Kindness: Deenie is quite popular at the start of the book because she's pretty, however she exhibits minor Alpha Bitch tendencies and looks down on the "handicapped kids" quite a bit. After she gets the brace and people start treating her differently, she grows to empathize with them much more, even if her condition is temporary and theirs is not. She also befriends Barbara, a girl in her grade who is ostracized because she has eczema.
- Deenie used to be unnerved by Old Lady Murray, the older hunchbacked lady who ran the neighborhood newsstand and would interact with her as little as possible. After she starts wearing the brace and after she learns that Old Lady Murray's condition is related to her own, Deenie tries to have a conversation with Old Lady Murray, addressing her as Miss Murray out of respect. Though the effort is more or less fruitless, Deenie feels good at having tried.
- Traumatic Haircut: Deenie gives herself one out of intense self-loathing upon first getting her brace, leaving literally only a few uneven strands, and refuses to let anyone else touch or fix it. The girl in Deenie's class who idolizes Deenie and copies her at every turn gets her own hair cut in the exact same way, much to Deenie's chagrin.
- True Companions: Janet and Midge are honest and supportive of Deenie, no matter what. They bought her a nightgown and treat her to a movie when Deenie thought she could just get her scoliosis fixed with an operation and when Deenie gets her brace, they still remain friends with her. Barbara also becomes one, especially after Deenie develops a rash from not wearing a protective undershirt under her brace and she starts to empathize with her when she realizes that Barbara can't help her skin condition but is still a kind person.