What is meant by distinguished? How readers with a myriad of different life experiences and realities define this was broken wide open this fall during a discussion that started on the Heavy Medal blog with a consideration of Laura Amy Schlitz’s The Hired Girl. Since then, the conversation has broadened beyond the one book, on various social media platforms, exploring different reading stances, the dominance of white privilege in the world of children’s books and among the adult gatekeepers, the noticing (or not) of micro-aggressions, the circumstances for child readers today, and much more. It has been a difficult one at times, emotionally intense, but one I think folks I know in this world would agree is hugely important. It has made me think hard, to reflect on how I perceive books, to revisit books I admire to see the problems that I missed, to reconsider some I use in my teaching, to rethink curriculum, and to simply keep reading and talking and learning. So I’m grateful and look forward to continuing to learn and do better. And with this all in mind, I’d like to return to The Hired Girl. Some have pointed out that it is sometimes necessary to hold opposing notions and I think that is the case for me with this book, one I continue to see as distinguished Newbery-wise while recognizing that it may be a problematic read for some readers.
To review, The Hired Girl is presented as the diary of one extremely unreliable narrator, 1911 farm girl Joan Skraggs. After a brutally isolated life on a Pennsylvania farm, toiling away for her brothers and father, the motherless Joan runs away to Baltimore where she ends up the hired girl of a wealthy German Jewish family. In classic Bildungsroman fashion, the fourteen year-old who successfully passes for eighteen, bangs up again and again with what she doesn’t know, gaining knowledge each time. The issue is that much of what she doesn’t know, what she blurts out, considers, repeats from others (say her father or books), mulls over, and does is often racist, stereotypic, and otherwise problematic. That this is true to her time and place seems not to be in question. That these individual moments might be offensive to certain readers today is.
And so there is the dilemma we’ve been grappling with — if there is something in a book that is offensive to certain members of the reading population does that mean it can no longer be distinguished? As a member of one of the minority groups represented in the book, I would say it still can be. In our case, that of Jews, the online response has been wide-ranging. All are bringing their own life-experiences to their reading of the book; in some cases this makes it a painful read, but in others it is an affirming, funny, and enjoyable read, one that some of us consider of high literary merit, say Marjorie Ingall who not only named it one of the best Jewish Children’s Books of 2015, but also her favorite novel among them.
While the story revolves around a Jewish family and Joan’s interactions with them, Jews aren’t the only group to receive a stereotypic 1911 presentation. African Americans, Irish Americans, and American Indians also are mentioned. Of these, it is the last that has provoked the greatest amount of discussion. The two references to American Indians in the book are absolutely unquestionably stereotypic; if you are not already familiar with them please visit this post by Debbie Reese for an overview.
For some, that these two moments are in the book is what keeps it from being award-worthy, that is, distinguished. Yet, even after rereading, listening, reading, and mulling it all over, I continue to think they do need to be there and that they are does not compromise the book in terms of its literary merit. I know that there will be disagreements here, but this is my current thinking. Joan is white and that means that for all her hardships she still is privileged, even in 1911 Baltimore. Not only isn’t she Jewish, but she also isn’t African American, Irish American, or American Indian — all groups that receive varying degrees of stereotypic mentions in the book. These are all folks she has never encountered before in her previous isolated life. What little she knows about them is through books and whatever her beloved teacher passed on to her. And so she, in her at times arrogant white privileged place, repeatedly speaks of these stereotypes, ones that she is unlearning as she encounters reality. Some of this reality is the result of firsthand experience as in the case of Jews, but some of it is through the broadening lens that all of it is affording her. If she has learned that Jews are real and civilized, she is also presumably beginning to think of others she had only thought of vaguely before, as real and nothing like the stereotypes her older self knew.
Books and reading offer so many different experiences. The learning can be as specific as Joan learning about the religious practices of these Baltimore German Jews or as general as Joan’s learning that the world is bigger and broader than the one she knew on her father’s farm. This is a book that is going to offer so many different experiences for those readers that chose to read it. And that idea of choice is important. For this is certainly not a book for all readers — again, there will be some who will indeed find aspects of it offensive and they should not read it. But there will be some young readers, indeed some among the minority groups of the book (I posted over at Heavy Medal a response by a Jewish 8th grader at my school) who will like it, tremendously. These will be the readers who will identify with Joan’s passion, her desire to learn, to love, to think, to contemplate, to embrace faith, to yearn to do art, to write. They will learn and grown themselves through this — perhaps and hopefully about prejudice, about the limited, stereotypic, and racist world views of 1911 whites, about the details of observant Jewish life — and then about themselves and the world today as well. It is all of this that continues to make this book for me distinguished and worthy of this year’s Newbery award.
I’m still reading, learning, rethinking, and trying. This is one moment on my journey doing so.