Thoughts on Newbery: The Nature of Distinguished

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.



Filed under Newbery

12 responses to “Thoughts on Newbery: The Nature of Distinguished

  1. ewein2412

    wonderfully thoughtful as always – thank you, Monica!

    Liked by 1 person

    • ewein2412

      You know, I haven’t read this myself, but sometime last spring in response to a blogger’s review I did a little research on the cover image. You may be interested in taking a look – It is from a painting called “The Housemaid” by William McGregor Paxton, 1910. It is beautifully, almost unbelievably appropriate to this book and I applaud the designers for making what sounds like a fabulous work of fiction into a physical thing of beauty.

      After reading through not quite all the 154 comments over on Heavy Medal, I REALLY WANT THIS TO WIN THE NEWBERY. Also, I want to get a new job, because this one is just TOO DAMN HARD.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Lisa Silverman

    very nicely written and thought out–thank you!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Thank you for sharing your thoughts.

    One thing I found fascinating in the book is that Joan totally catches the prejudices some Jews have about OTHER Jews. (Both Joan and Schlitz are obviously very observant.) ;) The snobbery that German-American Jews felt toward more recently arrived Polish-American Jews parallels, I think, the bias Ashkenazi Jews in Israel still sometimes show toward Mizrahi Jews.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Nina Lindsay

    Monica, I appreciate your revisiting this; it will help me as I finish my rereading of Hired Girl (almost done).

    To me, the question is not “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?”… instead, I want to ask, since we know most books *will* offend someone in one way or another… given what we know about reader responses, what does that tell us about how well Schlitz did what she set out to do? This is a very slight tweak, but I just want to make clear that readers offense is not a reason to call a book “not distinguished.” It’s an invitation to examine it.

    I think that this IS actually what you are asking yourself in your inquiry about this book here and at Heavy Medal. Many have assumed that the discussion is an attempt to censor or condemn the book, or to suggest that writers shouldn’t be risk-takers.

    Thanks for posting this.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Nina, thank you, for articulating this.


    • I’m struggling with this, because I’m not sure I agree with the original framing of the idea of offensive content (the framing in this post, I mean). I think this goes back to the discussion at Fuse 8 on “Are Historical Heroes Allowed to Have Prejudices in Children’s Literature?” (Speaking of Fuse 8, I’m wondering how a desire for a book to win the Newbery without having read it, based on criticism, fits into the “you have to read the book” discussion.) Again, the criticism isn’t of what’s being termed offensive period attitudes, but of their contextualization in a contemporary novel. I know that in the Heavy Medal discussion of The Hired Girl there was some disagreement about that contextualization, but I do think that the distinction is important.

      I think it’s particularly important because the notion that the criticism is of the presence of offensive attitudes, and not of their contextualization, obscures fundamental arguments: including ones about accuracy. I’ve seen many people say that the prejudices Joan expresses in The Hired Girl, for example, are historically accurate– so excluding them would make for a less accurate and authentic story. But if it’s understood that the criticism is of the novel’s contextualization of those attitudes, the question of accuracy (and maybe the larger question here about “distinguished”) changes. For example, what of the fact that the Hired Girl makes no mention of thematically relevant events occurring in Joan’s Baltimore neighborhood that year? (Namely, the passage of the nation’s first Jim Crow law, which came as a response to a black family moving into the very area where Joan works– an area which was predominantly Jewish because of housing covenants that restricted Jewish people to specific parts of Baltimore.) What of the similar lack of context surrounding Joan’s attitudes about Native people?

      Recently, I went to see the Mary Blair exhibit at the Carle, which included paintings Blair did for Song of the South, and for Disney’s Peter Pan. The exhibit notes offered no context at all for those works, including no mention of the 1947 protests that accompanied the release of Song of the South, or similar responses to Disney’s Peter Pan. One could ask whether judging the exhibit as distinguished should include the fact that it presents works many find offensive (which, as others have said, also gets into the significant question of *whose* judgment) but this does not address how the exhibit *contextualizes* those works.


      • Thanks for giving your perspective, Sarah. As I wrote above, there are strong differences of opinions that have been expressed throughout this conversation.


      • ewein2412

        And I stand reprimanded (whether or not it was meant as a reprimand!). Of course it is fatuous for me to suggest a thing may be of superior quality without examining it to form my own opinion first.


  5. Kathy Isaacs

    Thanks for your well thought-out and deliberative response, Monica.
    I especially appreciated your emphasis on the context of Joan’s prejudiced opinions that one or another group might find painful to read and your clear understanding of the story arc and the story’s theme. We can’t erase historical prejudices but perhaps we can present them in ways that will help today’s readers see them for what they are – wrong. I thought this novel did that, and I suspect it’s one thing Schlitz set out to do.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Pingback: Thoughts on Newbery: My Personal Druthers (for More Than the Newbery) | educating alice

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