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Heavy Medal: A Mock Newbery Blog
Inside Heavy Medal

The Hired Girl

9780763678180_p0_v1_s118x184I have always admired the work of Laura Amy Schlitz, but I have never been in love with it.  Until now.  Not only am I pulling for Newbery recognition for this one, I’d love to see it join THE HOUSE OF THE SCORPION and LIZZIE BRIGHT AND THE BUCKMINSTER BOY as only the third book to also get Printz recognition.

The strengths of the book are so obvious and so overwhelming that I am not going to talk about the characters, the setting, the style, or the theme, but rest assured that these literary elements easily place this book among the ranks of most distinguished contributions to children’s literature.  I do want to dwell on the striking presence of religion, both Christianity and Judaism.  Patty Campbell used to call it the last frontier in young adult literature; that was about 20 years ago but I don’t think much has changed since then.  It’s hard to write about religion in a way that feels organic to the characters and the plot–and doesn’t affront our modern sensibilities.  But that’s just what Schlitz has done here.  It takes a deft and subtle hand to pull it off, making the book feel both excellent and individually distinct.

There are a couple of flaws so minor that they are hardly worth mentioning here, but I will point up the big one and I know people will disagree with me, but . . . the entire first section of the book is completely unnecessary and could have been edited out.  This story really only begins once Joan arrives in Baltimore; it’s a bit of a slog up to that point and the information we learn in that section could have easily been folded into the remaining narrative.  Yes, yes, you disagree with me.  You can see all kinds of important things that Schlitz is doing in that first section, but none of it makes that first section necessary.  I like Joan so much by the end of the book that I will probably relish that first section in a way that I did not on my first read, so while I do think this is a significant misstep, I don’t think many people will hold it against the book.

Moreover, I read some storytelling advice once that said it’s better to start with a flawed beginning than a flawed ending, and I think that is true.  We’ve already seen how unforgiving readers can be of a “flawed” ending with ECHO; here I think they will forget the slow beginning by the time they get to the satisfying conclusion of the book.

There is probably another thing we should bring up here, something Debbie Reese mentioned on American Indians in Children’s Literature.  The passage Debbie asks us to consider is Joan’s response to being asked if she’s Jewish.  Her line of thinking compares Jewish people to American Indians in terms of their “otherness.”

It seemed to me–I mean, it doesn’t now, but it did then–as though Jewish people were like Indians: people from long ago; people in books. I know there are Indians out West, but they’re civilized now, and wear ordinary clothes. In the same way, I guess I knew there were still Jews, but I never expected to meet any.

Debbie notes the use of the word “are” (as opposed to “were”) as a step in the right direction, but focuses on the word “civilized” which I do think has a loaded meaning that we are right to unpack.  Debbie’s question is what makes them civilized?  The fact that they wear ordinary clothes?  And, by extension, any assimilation into the dominant culture?  Joan really doesn’t give us anything beyond this.  While I think Debbie’s line of reasoning is a valid one, especially in the context of other books that have frequently made the same misstep, I’m not sure it’s the only conclusion one can draw.

Here’s my read on the situation: Joan has a narrow worldview based on limited experience.  Her experience with both Indians and Jews is based on things she’s read and heard rather than personal experience, and she knows that some of that information that she has read and heard is stereotypical.  I think “ordinary clothes” is used here to contrast with American Indian clothing.  I’m not sure that she’s really thought about the “why” of the clothing that Debbie examines in her line of questioning.

Clearly, Joan has a lot to learn, and she knows she has a lot to learn.  She’s a wonderful mix of naiveté, melodrama, industriousness, piety, humility, candor, and spunk.  If she holds an opinion of Indians that doesn’t sit well with us–and I’m not convinced that we can actually determine that she does–I think it’s probably exceeded by the erroneous thoughts and opinions that she holds about Jewish people.  More importantly, I think that over the course of the novel readers come to realize that Joan’s personal experience with “the other” begins to ameliorate her ignorance.

This one remains firmly ensconced in my top three.

 

 

 

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Jonathan Hunt About Jonathan Hunt

Jonathan Hunt is the Coordinator of Library Media Services at the San Diego County Office of Education. He served on the 2006 Newbery committee, and has also judged the Caldecott Medal, the Printz Award, the Boston Globe-Horn Book Awards, and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize. You can reach him at hunt_yellow@yahoo.com

Comments

  1. Of the several books on my Mock Newbery booklist, this was the one I was least likely to read. Jonathan, you may have persuaded me otherwise.

  2. Nina Lindsay Nina Lindsay says:

    Jonathan, I share your enthusiasm of Joan as a character, she is the most real to me this year, next to Delphine. Schlitz has amazing talent with the written word, and it shines here.

    I think the problem with the reference to Indians is not that Joan has a limited worldview…we know that, and that’s consistent with her character. The question I would ask is…why say that at all? Was it necessary to understand Joan’s limited worldview? No; Schlitz is a supremely-fine writer and communicates it perfectly without drawing that parallel. Will it make First Nations/Native readers feel terrible? Very possibly. First Nations/Native people are, I would posit, the most misrepresented in our media today. It makes it both very easy for writers and others to make a slip, like Schlitz’s, and very hard for young readers to see through the dominant stereotypes to understand the nuance of Joan’s wrong-headedness. It is a very unfortunate passage.

    It is a small piece but it does lead me to ask, and wonder, how Jewish readers take to Joan’s naivete about Jewishness. I’m simply curious.

  3. Jonathan Hunt Jonathan Hunt says:

    Nina, I agree that it was not necessary at all. I might have a “but” to add, but would first like to get your take on how this passage affects this book’s suitability for a Medal or Honor. When you weigh everything in balance, does the book overcome that to earn a sticker? Or is this a fatal flaw? I, too, would like to hear about the book from a distinctly Jewish viewpoint. Any takers?

    • I’ll bite…I was willing to believe in Joan’s naivete because she grew up so isolated–this is a character whose family has zero interest in letting her see the rest of the world, either IRL or through books. And I can see her being charmed by the existence of real live Jews in the same way that, say, Anne of Green Gables is charmed by a chance to sleep in a spare room bed–she has an overdeveloped story sense, and anything she hasn’t encountered before feels like the stuff of story to her.

      I’ll add that I was very impressed with both the degree of detail and the accuracy of those details about Jewish observance.

    • There have been comments from several who identify as Jewish and within those comments we have seen a wide range in Jewish identity and practice. I am a Jew known as a Jew-by-Choice. Many people are shocked to learn there are people who convert to Judaism after first identifying as Christian. The reverse is also true. Jews convert to Christianity. I am speaking about conversion simply because it feels right. Julius Lester’s book, Lovesong, did let me know I was not alone in my journey.

      I was 43 years old when my religious identity changed. That was 26 years ago. I have never questioned my decision. I carry no personal Jewish experiences prior to this time from childhood and have no Jewish relatives.

      I am positive my experience influences my reactions to The Hired Girl. From where I sit, every word of this novel (beyond the Indian reference) causes me to feel a joy and pride that I am almost unable to describe. I found the balance between Jewish points of view very well done. I believe the constant plot changes, how a choice of behavior led ultimately to a positive and unexpected outcome, was delightful and so interesting. What a journey from despair to “and they all lived happily ever after. The character of Joan burned into my soul. She was so incredibly real to me and I loved that she was willing to share her every thought with us. The focus on respect for an individual’s right to religious identity and expression is priceless.

      I’m aware that many commenters have concern about the Indian references. Enough strong feeling that I feel the issues mentioned need further study.

      You asked for the “Jewish” viewpoint. I would be very interested in hearing from Catholic readers.
      I want to know their reaction to the Catholic parts. Do they feel the information was accurate and fair?

  4. Someone asked me about this recently. Here is some of what I wrote back:

    I liked the book very much and thought Schmidt did a remarkable job showing a very real and possible response to learning about a new and different religion. I thought it was artfully and intelligently done.

    As for your question as to “how a Jewish child might feel reading the book” it kind of pushed some buttons for me and so I feel the need to provide you quite a bit of personal background to support my answer. (I’m assuming you asked me because I’m Jewish.) Sorry in advance.

    I would have loved book as a child. But I was not the sort of Jewish child, I believe you and your staff may be thinking about, who might practice the ways described in the book. So I would have loved the book because of Joan, because I was fascinated by those practices as they were unfamiliar to me, enjoyed the German touches that would have been familiar (I’m German), and the rest of the charming set scenes of the book.

    Unfamiliar because while I am ethnically Jewish and my family suffered and was killed in Germany because of that, I have no relationship with the religion. I did not grow up communities with other Jews until Middle School and my parents (intellectual atheists) raised us without any religious experiences whatsoever. We celebrated Easter and Christmas in the secular ways (egg hunts and trees and gifts). Christmas is still the most important of any family holiday for me.

    I wrote a whole bunch more about my background that isn’t really necessary to put here. I was also asked about the repeated references to big noses (as the person who wrote me remembered the stigma of large noses and the resultant nose jobs of her 1970s classmates) and I responded:

    As for the book, I felt that it was all from Joan’s incredibly naive and at times insensitive POV. I will have to go back and reread as I don’t recall the noses bothering me. Actually, I remember the whole thing about nose jobs when I was in high school, but haven’t heard about it in years. None of it felt like real anti-Semitism as much as lack of knowledge. And the way the family takes her in and finally decides to educate her reinforces that.

    I gave the book to one of our 8th graders who is a fairly observant Jew and she told me she liked it very much. I asked her to write about this and she hasn’t yet — I can remind her and then will get back to you all.

    I’m with Jonathan in considering this one of the best of the year.

    • I’ve been mulling over why I enjoyed this book so much, and why it felt a bit like a guilty pleasure. And I’ve realized that it’s largely because, beyond how much I love Joan as a hilariously flawed character, seeing my (Jewish) self represented is fun! Seeing Joan’s surprise at practices that are familiar to me is fun! Imagining other readers’ surprise at those practices is also fun! Reading this now, as an adult, that’s just a small, underlying part of the experience, but I can only imagine how much I would’ve loved this when I was younger. A book like this–a book written for a mainstream (or at least not entirely a Jewish) audience that shows the day-to-day Jewish experience–would’ve been a rare and exciting discovery.

      I’ll add that I was also glad to read Holocaust books and other books about very serious situations (“enjoyed” is the wrong word) starting around age 8 or 9. I think reading these books made me feel like the author trusted me to be mature enough to handle it. But that’s a very different thing from a book like THG, which in many ways reflects my own experiences.

  5. Leonard Kim says:

    Jonathan,
    Laura Amy Schlitz is unquestionably one of the best writers out there. THE HIRED GIRL is extremely well-written. But to me, it’s almost like the world’s best-written dime novel, but a dime novel nonetheless – something Mr. Rosenbach would counsel Joan to move beyond. Or to make another unhelpful analogy, the Penderwicks books have been compared to Jane Austen. Well, if the Penderwicks are like the Bennets of Pride and Prejudice, THE HIRED GIRL is like Catherine of Northanger Abbey, generally considered a slighter book. Jonathan, you’ve commented that both books might be considered old-fashioned. I agree – as in some of her other books, Schlitz brings a master’s technique to something that feels (though it isn’t) like it could be old-fashioned genre material. And somehow for me that didn’t really elevate the characters, plot, setting, themes, etc. out of old-fashioned genre confines. Joan seemed to me just as typically swoony romantic as countless lesser heroines of novels past (as Mimi pretty much out-and-out says of her) and most of her travails and revelations throughout the book seemed overly familiar as well. I would completely understand if it were selected for an award though.

    • KT Horning says:

      Leonard, your description (“the world’s best-written dime novel”) is the most interesting thing I’ve read about this book. I enjoyed the book, for the most part, but it didn’t knock my socks off from a literary perspective. After a while, I found Joan a bit repetitive and tiresome, rather like a dime-novel protagonist. Especially with the way she, as a house maid, meddled in other people’s affairs. That part of it didn’t seem at all real to me — wishful thinking, more like.

      I actually thought the first part of the book — what Jonathan didn’t like — was the best and most realistic part. It showed so well how trapped she was by circumstance and how few options she had. After she left home, it all got to be a little too good to be true. She was Horatio Alger’s sister, Hortense,

      One question: what ever happened to the money sewn into the doll’s dress? She mentioned is so often, I was sure it would end up being significant. But nothing ever happened with it, did it? Unless I missed something…

      • Nina Lindsay Nina Lindsay says:

        I actually liked the “dime store” effect, it’s what charmed me. Joan was repetitive and tiresome, like a real person, and I was willing to go the whole way with her. I appreciated that we could have a book that was at it’s heart a bodice-ripper for kids, and not in a judgy way. Genre lit is as good as non-genre lit (whatever that is) if it’s well written, which I felt this was. (Except for the “Indian” part!)

      • Susan Kusel says:

        KT- Joan used $14 of the money sewn into the doll’s dress to buy her train ticket to Baltimore, and to buy her breakfast on the train.

      • KT, I found the Belinda money to be very important to this story. First, it was the vehicle chosen to allow Joan’s escape from her home situation. It was also used to strengthen Joan’s love and appreciation for her mother’s gift and farsight. Beginning with Joan’s choice to spend money on the train in order to experience a meal in the dining car, references to her continuing struggle to learn how she valued and used money and her struggle to grow beyond her mother’s values were scattered throughout the book. What money could buy was an ongoing issue regarding her self esteem. The final pages of the novel mention her plan to repay the Rosenback’s for her schooling expenses.

  6. You know, I’m reading another historical novel right now in which every prejudice of the era is brought up and then laboriously underlined for its wrongheadedness. It makes me feel like the author doesn’t trust me, I liked the fact that Schlitz kept very firmly to Joan’s point of view without piling on anachronistic or otherwise out-of-character commentary.

    • KT Horning says:

      But why bring Indians into it at all? As she states, they live nowhere near her. Her naivete and prejudices were well shown throughout regarding the Jewish family for whom she works. Later on, the children she cares for are “playing Indian.” Sure, kids did that back then and even in my childhood, but they play a lot of things. The author could have made other choices and could have still remained true to the character and time period.

      • Given the long hold that Indian imagery–however sentimentalized, stereotyped and inaccurate–has had on white American culture, it seemed natural to me that Joan would make that comparison. There’s an interestingly opposite example in Lynne Reid Bank’s new memoir-novel UPROOTED, about her WWII relocation to a Canada where the attitudes of whites toward First nations people are, according to our reviewer, “historically improbable,” meaning anachronistically progressive for their era.

      • I wonder why no one has suggested asking Laura Amy Schlitz to tell us her reasoning? Isn’t she the only one who could help us understand?

    • Nina Lindsay Nina Lindsay says:

      Roger, this may seem “natural” to you, but many readers won’t share that reaction. I’m not sure that “laboriously underlining” it was necessary either, I’m just questioning what it brings to the novel. There was a choice to be made in putting it there, but many of us (mostly white people) don’t always notice the choice when it presents itself as such.

      I’m not sure, Jonathan, whether this is a fatal flaw for me. I’m trying to square my appreciation for what she achieves here in balance with it…and it’s not balancing yet.

    • Some thoughts that I didn’t include in my post at AICL (and thanks, Jonathan, for pointing to it).

      “What did Joan know?” of course means “What did Schlitz give her to know?”

      How far was Joan’s farm from Carlisle Indian Industrial School, located in Carlisle, PA on the east end of PA?

      Open from 1879 to 1918, there were thousands of Native kids in the school—and the town–during those years. Some were placed in households through the outing program. They worked as domestic help. There were big campaigns to raise money for the school. Newspapers carried stories about the school.

      Joan speaks of “civilized” Indians as being out West but with Carlisle in PA, it seems that Joan could have known about the school and the “civilizing” mission of the school and written THAT into the story instead of what she did.

      • Eric Carpenter says:

        On a total tangent
        Carlisle Indian Industrial School Football team is the topic of Steve Sheinkin’s next book, so I’m sure Schlitz and everyone here will likely know a lot more about the school very soon.

      • Eric–Sheinkin’s next book is about Carlisle? There’s a lot of resources from Native scholars. I hope he’s using them. Phil Deloria’s INDIANS IN UNEXPECTED PLACES is terrific. There’s a chapter on Carlisle in it. Jim Thorpe was there, at Carlisle. I imagine Sheinkin is working closely with Barbara Landis.

  7. KT Horning says:

    I’m not saying it isn’t accurate in terms of historical attitudes, just saying it was an unnecessary insult that adds nothing to the the book. It’s one of the things that keeps this book from being distinguished.

  8. Nina Lindsay Nina Lindsay says:

    Okay, sometimes I just need a good night’s sleep for clarity of mind.

    Jonathan, you asked me if Schlitz’s-Joan’s references to Indians are fatal flaw for Newbery consideration for this book, in my book. Yes, they are. I think this is an easier conclusion to come to (for a white person at least) when the flawed parts are a major part of the book (as was with GHOST HAWK); or, when one doesn’t particular care for the book in general (as, for instance, KT doesn’t seem to in her comments her).

    I admire much of what Schlitz has done here, and want to be able to hold it up in discussion against those who find Joan “annoying” or call the book “dime-novelish” in a dismissive way, because I think that is a knee-jerk reaction we have against plump romantic overwrought characters. Joan is smart, surprising, and fascinating, and so is her story.

    However, the references to Indians here are completely unnecessary, and ignoring them is a microagression. Ignoring them in a Newbery discussion would be even worse. I woke up this morning thinking: if I were on this Newbery committee, could I nominate this book? No. Would I try to persuade other committee members against it? Yes. Finally, and brutally honestly: would I be ashamed, being on the committee or not, to see this book with a Newbery medal? Yes.

    It makes me so sad to say so, but there we are. I know, from Newbery experience, that there are always several possible “most distinguished” books in an given year. I don’t think this needs to be among them. If the references to Indians had not been written in, overlooked, and published, perhaps it could have been.

    Coming to this conclusion, I remember nearly 20 years ago a colleague trying to lead me to this same conclusion about a similar book. I couldn’t make the final step. She tried, she really did, and she finally said, more or less: “There is nothing else I can say to try to make you understand; I ask to you accept it.” Acceptance without understanding is hard…it feels wrong. I’ve been carrying that unease with me for a long time, and finally, can say that I understand.

    • Eric Carpenter says:

      Nina, can you explain to us who haven’t served on a newbery committee how, if you were at the table, you might make your objections to THE HIRED GIRL using the criteria? When I look at the criteria I’m not sure how the six literary qualities can be used to discuss these issues so I would assume one would argue that the book’s microaggressions are major strikes against the book in terms of “excellence of presentation for a child audience.” But I’d love to hear what your strategy for “pursuading other committee members against it” while still keeping the discussion within the bounds of the criteria
      Thanks!

      • Nina Lindsay Nina Lindsay says:

        Eric, KT points to a delineation of character argument. Mine would start by pointing to the definition that the book “displays respect for children’s understandings, abilities, and appreciations.” I think that Schlitz breaks trust with the reader in referring to “Indians” in the way she does. Joan has naive and time-bound views about Jews, which is part of the story, and through character and setting development the reader knows this…and it’s part of the story, part of the arc. Joan’s references to Indians, meanwhile, are presented as “background”–a turn of phrase, something that is just happening. For the many child readers who will experience these moments with pain…what are they supposed to take from that? There is nothing, it adds nothing but a blot for many readers who will be emotionally forced out of the story at that point. In just those two very small moments Schlitz does not display “respect for children’s understandings, abilities, and appreciations.”

        I am not out to vilify Schlitz here. This book is a very different example than GHOST HAWK or countless others where the whole books depends on dis-respect. In this case, I want to point out a collectively responsibility that we all have to call this out… agents, editors, critics, need to catch this when it happens. We need to say “Is this really what you wanted to say???” so that we can be more conscious, more thoughtful, about our writing, and our audience.

    • KT Horning says:

      I know it might not have sounded like it but I actually like the book. I didn’t find it particularly distinguished for the reasons I have cited, but if I were on the Newbery committee, this is the sort of book where I could be won over by people making arguments like Nina did in favor of genre fiction. But then there is that sticking point with the references to Indians. I want to like the book whole-heartedly, I want to be won over by arguments in its favor or maybe due to a second reading. But I have trouble getting past that.

      I felt the book’s real strength was its exploration of religion. This an area where the book shines in terms of the criteria “Interpretation of the theme or concept.” I thought it did okay in most of the other criteria, except for Delineation of Plot. In this case, I felt it dragged on too long and a lot of the action didn’t really move the plot forward or tell us much about the character.
      The author’s choice to write it as in a journal format may be to blame for this, as we get a blow-by-blow description of events as Joan reports on what is happening. For a hired girl, she seemed to have an awful to of free time for reading and writing, not to mention boundless energy.

      And in terms of plot — what about that money sewn into the doll’s clothes? What happened to that? That seemed like a plot hole, a part of the story that got lost.

      As to Eric’s question, I think a committee member could speak to it as Delineation of Character, and this gets to what Debbie said. “What did Joan know? What did the author give her to know?” We’ve been shown over and over her naivete and prejudices toward Jews based on her limited world experience and knowledge. This changes slowly and, I think, realistically, over time given her growing understanding of the Jewish family with whom she is living and for whom she works. But Native peoples don’t figure into the story at all, so mention of them serves no purpose really, other than to reaffirm stereotypes and misinformation many children and adults already have.

      • Nina Lindsay Nina Lindsay says:

        KT, sorry I misinterpreted your admiration for the book. (I’m trying to remember about the money, myself….)

    • I appreciate your directness and honesty. We understand clearly your position.

  9. Sara Taylor Woods says:

    To touch on the rest of the Jewish/Indian comparison: American Jews are most acceptable when we’re “civilized,” when we’re wearing “ordinary clothes.” Visible kippot or tallitot katan other us pretty hard. Most Jewish men I know observant enough to wear a kippah outside shul will also wear a hat, especially in questionably safe spaces. I grew up in SC and my dad ALWAYS had on a newsboy cap when we were out in public. So, yes, the use of “civilized” and “ordinary” is problematic, but that’s how we’re viewed: in terms of assimilation, of how much we can change ourselves to fit what everyone else expects to see. And the presence and popularity of [yet another] conversion plot reinforces this.

  10. KT Horning says:

    Sara, are you saying the mention of “civilized” Indians might be somehow parallel to the notion of “civilized” Jews?

    • KT Horning says:

      Oops, hit Reply too soon…

      To continue my question for Sara… If that is the purpose of bringing Indians into that part of the story, then, would you say that the Rosenbachs are viewed as okay because they are “civilized” or assimilated Jews?

      • I agree with what Sara is pointing out. As a Jewish reader, this would have been an “a ha!” moment for me as a child. Astonished that someone would think that Jews don’t exist except in stories and olden times, and then realizing that Schlitz is pointing out that of course Native Americans do too. It is a moment of connection and empathy for Jewish readers to Native Americans.

        (I don’t know if I have explained that correctly. I’ve been wanting to add it to this conversation but every way I write it feels awkward. I hope you understand what I am trying to say. )

        Then to have Joan finish the conversation being surprised by Mrs. Rosenbach thinking she was ignorant, when the reader can clearly tell that Joan IS ignorant about so many things, let’s children know that this belief , like so many of Joan’s beliefs, is wrong.

      • I agree with both Sara and Yapha – I’m a Jewish reader as well, and I had the same “Ah ha” moment, partly because what Yapha terms the moment of connection and empathy, and partly because I think I learn in a similar way to Joan: by making the same sort of connections, which invites me to think more and broaden my knowledge of the world.

        And I too am a little nervous about commenting, and hope I worded this appropriately.

        Joan’s ignorance and growing knowledge – her voice and perceptions contrasted with actual events – are what made this book for me. I think her voice is spectacular.

  11. Elissa Gershowitz says:

    KT, I’m not Sara :) but — I’ll agree with her and say yes to the parallels idea, and that it’s all in Joan’s wrong-headed mind. ANYONE who’s not HER is lesser-than. But she is so superficial, that all it takes is the right-looking clothes to appear “civilized” (which, incidentally, is part of her own inferiority complex due to her background). And then a civilized-dressed gentleman from the train tries to rape her, and her eyes start to open. But very slowly, with many false starts and much more wrongheaded-ness. It’s done very well and with great consideration of historical context, I thought. And the Rosenbachs, as civilized-looking as they may dress, are not immune to anti-Semitism — by extension, the “civilized”-looking (in Joan’s imagination) Native Americans suffer violence, prejudice, brutality at the hands of Joan’s “civilized” society. Schlitz’s word choice, to me, was deliberate and damning.

    • Thanks, Elissa, for this. It is my recollection of what I thought Schlitz was doing so subtly and profoundly. Under the structure of a genre that contributors above are terming “dime novel” she’s exploring via Joan some incredibly serious themes related to identity. I’m recollecting religion, class, race, ethnicity, rural/urban, and education for a start. I need to go back and reread the book in light of this eye-opening conversation, but that was my impression.

  12. I very much enjoyed this book, and have been following this conversation with interest. On a different note, I thought that the blank book Joan was ostensibly writing in must have been simply enormous! I have yet to see a journal that would hold the handwritten equivalent of nearly 400 printed pages. (That’s just nitpicking, but it did cross my mind at the end when she talks about filling up the last few pages.)

  13. Since it helped me gain a better sense of the line in question by seeing it in the context of what comes before and after it and since I’m guessing there are those following this conversation who may not have read the book and/or access to the line in question, I’m putting it below along what comes before and after. (Please scroll down to the end of my own comments to see it. For those who do have access to the book it is on page 93.)

    It happens toward the end of Joan’s initial meeting with Mrs. Rosenbach at the end of her first overwhelming day in Baltimore, after her train ride and series of urban experiences that are in profound contrast to the absolutely horrific earlier life on her brutal father’s farm (which, by the way, I think is a necessary section for the book — Schlitz has you, the reader, feeling you can’t take another minute of it — just like Joan).

    Rereading it I have to say I’m all the more with those who are pointing out Schlitz’s careful paralleling Joan’s lack of knowledge about both Jews and Native Americans. Mrs. Rosenbach could have been offended by Joan’s bumbling talk of Ivanhoe — the only reference Joan has for Jews other than the Bible — but she is simply amused having presumable recognized Joan’s limited experience and thus knowledge. Again, I need to reread the whole book, but I don’t see the line in question as unnecessary at all, but, as Elissa wrote, “deliberate and damning.”

    Above I wrote of my being an ethnic (non-religious) Jew and not being offended at any of Joan’s simplistic comments about Jews, noses etc. What I am now beginning to consider is a deeper consideration of my ethnicity — my father telling me I was so fortunate to not have experienced true anti-Semitism of the sort he dealt with as a graduate student at Columbia in the 1950s (not to mentioned that of his childhood in Nazi Germany). Perhaps closer to that of the Rosenbach’s 1911 Baltimore. And so, far from being offensive to a Jewish reader, I see this book as actually affirming.

    Here’s the section from the book:

    “Willing to work in a Jewish household?” she said, and when I didn’t answer right away, she added, “You, I think, are not Jewish.”

    “No, ma’am,” I said. I was as taken about as if she’d asked me if I was an Indian. It seemed to me–I mean, it doesn’t now, but it did then–as though Jewish people were like Indians: people from long ago; people in books. I know there are Indians out West, but they’re civilized now, and wear ordinary clothes. In the same way, I guess I knew there were still Jews, but I never expected to meet any.

    “It’s just as I said, Solly,” said Mrs. Rosenbach., “she has no idea.” She seemed both irritated and amused. “Have you ever met a Jew before, Miss. Lovelace?”

    “No — no, ma’am, ” stammered, “but I’ve read about them in the Bible. And in Ivanhoe. Rebecca was a Jewess, and she’s my favorite character in the whole book.”

    “It was her turn to look surprised. “You’ve read Ivanhoe?”

    “Yes, ma’am,” I said. I saw that she’d been thinking I was an ignorant girl. That piqued me, but I didn’t waste time worrying over it, because I was racking my brain, trying to remember everything I knew about Jews….

    • Jonathan Hunt Jonathan Hunt says:

      “(which, by the way, I think is a necessary section for the book — Schlitz has you, the reader, feeling you can’t take another minute of it — just like Joan).”

      While we are similarly enamored of the book, Monica, I’m not buying this at all. Do you really want your readers thinking they can’t take another minute of it for the first 80 pages of the book? How many of them will put it down before the real story arrives?

    • Nina Lindsay Nina Lindsay says:

      Monica, and Elissa, thank you for presenting and parsing this passage. I can’t say that I agree. I did reread it, and the more I do, the more it troubles me. Yes, the reader is supposed to question Joan’s point of view, but the parallel’s to “Indians” uses an “acceptable” hurtful misconception about Native American in order to demonstrate how poorly Joan thinks of Jews. I see this this used as a tool.

      • Again, I have to reread the whole book (and I’m writing this while also listening to a wonderful illustrator panel at the IBBY conference:), but I don’t recall her thinking poorly of Jews.

    • Joan tells Mrs. Rosenback that Rebecca was her favorite character in Ivanhoe. Later, we learn that Rebecca was also Mrs. Rosenback’s favorite character. Imagine what we might have learned about Joan had Mrs. Rosenback asked Joan to tell her why?

  14. Jonathan Hunt Jonathan Hunt says:

    Sorry I went AWOL during this conversation. I’ve been busy at work and I’ve had computer issues at home. Some thoughts and responses.

    1. I haven’t read many dime store novels (Leonard’s comparison) or LITTLE WOMEN and ANNE OF GREEN GABLES (Betsy’s comparison) so everything felt new and fresh to me. I imagine that if I had read these types of stories more frequently that I might be less enthusiastic about THE HIRED GIRL. I also thought the melodrama was rooted as much in the character’s age as the book’s genre.

    2. Novels written as journals always require a greater suspension of disbelief on the part of the reader. Not only would most characters never write that much, but since they are writing for an audience of one, they probably wouldn’t write any scene-setting exposition into the narrative either. On the other hand, I do think the journal format allows for a longer time frame and a more reflective quality that serve the religious themes, as so much of religious life, I think, is in the details, and is quiet and routine and often unremarkable.

    3. I, too, am interested to read–and reflect more–about the civilized-ordinary dichotomy as it relates to both American Indians and Jews. It’s a line of thinking I hadn’t previously considered. And thanks to those who have chimed in about the Jewishness of the book in general.

    4. I don’t hold the view that books which offend or insult children are necessarily unsuitable for them to read or unworthy of awards. I’ll cite a couple of award-winning books to illustrate my point, but I could name many.

    (1) ROLL OF THUNDER, HEAR MY CRY by Mildred Taylor. By now I think everybody’s read the essay in the 25th anniversary edition in which Taylor shares her disappointment and dismay that some parents have objected to her use of the n-word, how she knows it’s painful but that’s sort of the point. I think there are some people who would agree that children should not have to be subjected to that word despite the rationale. But I see a big difference between ROLL OF THUNDER and THE HIRED GIRL which is namely that the racism that Taylor depicts is front and center rather than being an extremely peripheral tangent. I think many of us would acknowledge the offensive nature of the n-word, but grant Taylor the artistic license to use that word in a deliberately painful way in order to serve the purposes of her book.

    (2) The n-word also makes an appearance in THE ABSOLUTELY TRUE DIARY OF A PART-TIME INDIAN by Sherman Alexie. It’s in a sentence that also includes the f-word and buffaloes. I’ll leave it to your imagination, but it is profane, vulgar, shocking–and completely unnecessary. Alexie deliberately uses it for shock value, and in a weird way I believe that it’s meant to communicate a solidarity among oppressed peoples. There’s no denying the insulting and offensive nature of the word, nor the completely unnecessary use of it. Do the overwhelming strengths of the book compensate for this one misstep? I believe that they do.

    5. And I believe that it does in the case of THE HIRED GIRL as well. I completely respect those who are insulted and offended by the book and I think that is a valid response, and you can certainly make a solid case within the criteria from this point of view. I just don’t think it’s the only valid response, and that’s what makes it a challenging discussion to have at the Newbery table with so many books, so many voices, and so little time.

    • Nina Lindsay Nina Lindsay says:

      Jonathan, your two examples use offensive language deliberately within the text, and worked their text around the effect this would have on readers. That is not what is going on here.

      • Jonathan Hunt Jonathan Hunt says:

        Nina, I agree with you up to a point. Yes, both books provide support to readers for the difficult subject matter including the language that THE HIRED GIRL does not. In ROLL OF THUNDER, Cassie has a wonderful, loving family who mentors her through the painful experiences of racism, while in ABSOLUTELY TRUE DIARY the narrative unpacks a lot of that stuff in an instructive way.

        But doesn’t Alexie commit a microagression against African Americans here? Why is it necessary to drag another minority group into this ugly joke? Why is it okay that African Americans have to read it? Are they object lessons for Alexie to teach his readers about racism? Could he have made the point without creating such an uncomfortable experience for African Americans? Here is the point where it is similar to Schlitz. Both authors had wide latitude in what they could include in their books, and whether intentionally or not, those choices may be viewed as insulting and offensive by various people.

  15. Leonard Kim says:

    I don’t have a position to express yet (though, c’mon, “knee-jerk”?), I did want to throw out a few things that came to mind while thinking about things.

    Aren’t there more, and more derogatory (both explicit and implicit), references to the Irish in this book? Are they problematic?

    Is Malka problematic? In discussions here, I’ve tended to be more critical of generational portrayals than cultural ones. Do such portrayals (q.v. Big Ma and Obachaan whose characters have been held up here as examples of literary excellence) get a pass? Don’t they also depend on a reader’s similarly assumed and unquestioned familiarity with a “type”: the ethnic grandmother figure?

    Is Mr. Rosenbach problematic? Is he not at heart a “magical Jew” portrayal? Simplistically wise and wholly good, mostly there to support the protagonist but who, in his own subplot, has his eyes opened to his children by Joan to become wholly understanding and supportive of his sons’ dreams, and yay America?

    How is THE HIRED GIRL then not like GHOST HAWK in its portrayal of Jews?

    As I said, I’m still mulling it over. My inclination is to not bestow fatal flaw status. If we are willing to champion books that appeal to a smaller audience, as we have been often willing to do in this blog, I’m inclined to not out-and-out reject a book for its not appealing to a readership, though that factor will be taken into consideration (for example last year, when trying to choose between THE CROSSOVER and WEST OF THE MOON, basically a toss-up for me, the tie-breaker for me was in fact that WEST OF THE MOON upset some readers.)

    BTW, the term “dime novel” isn’t the most appropriate or historically accurate description of what I was trying to say (but I think y’all understood anyway.) I chose it because THE HIRED GIRL itself chose it, as you may remember, when Joan and Mr. Rosenbach refer to different kinds of books.

    • Nina Lindsay Nina Lindsay says:

      Leonard, I’m sorry that I appeared to attach “knee-jerk” to you; I should have seen that coming. I think “dime novel” is actually a perfect word to typify what I like about this book, and I have heard others give truly knee-jerk reactions against it for this reason. I don’t think you’ve ever posted anything here that isn’t fully in the spirit of close examination that we ask for.

      Jonathan asked me if I considered this a “fatal flaw.” I had to answer…it doesn’t mean I’ve cast the book aside, not in the least. I expect this will be a hotly contested book this year. I’ve just found clarity on how I feel about those particular passages, and how those balance the book’s Newbery-Worthiness to me.

  16. Elissa Gershowitz says:

    Nina, why acceptable in quotes? Acceptable to whom? What differences do you see between Jonathan’s examples and this one? To me, you enumerated exactly what Alexie and Taylor did in their books, and I think it’s done similarly well here — Schlitz is trying to elicit a reaction in readers *against* this notion of civilization, not for it. So much of this book is offensive language against various entire groups of people both to situate readers in time and place and to shock today’s readers into unpacking the idea of what being civilized means and/or entails, is the way I see it.

  17. Nina Lindsay says:

    Elissa, the “I know there are Indians…” Is meant to call attention to Joan’s wrongheaded was about Indians in the previous sentences, but then her tag on about “civilized”
    Just sits out there like a sucker punch. I don’t know or suggest this is what Schlitz intended to do, but it ends reading as gratuitous. I find this completely different from what Taylor does with the use of the n word, though I admit I am relying on memory for that one.

    “Acceptable” in quotes because I don’t find it such, but it is so to many people to make derogatory comments about Native Americans as an aside. This one reads like that to me. I hear the nuance you are looking for, but I don’t see it on the page.

  18. Nina, do you see a lot of use today of “civilized” in this way? A lot of people are currently finding it acceptable usage?

  19. Brenda Martin says:

    I am once again utterly astonished that the analysis of another book has been completely hijacked by one characteristic. We are all disgusted by the ways that Indians have been portrayed in children’s literature over the years. We are not all, however, disgusted by the way historical characters *in their times* refer to Indians. To claim that this is a terrible thing that we’ve all accepted as wrong and possibly even a “fatal flaw” is jaw-dropping. Who has been made the arbiter of what is and is not acceptable?

    I am so glad to read some comments from the Jewish community, who actually have a much greater stake in the correct representations of this book.

    • Brenda, I interpreted your remarks about Jewish readers having a much greater stake in the correct representations in the book than Native American readers to reference the amount of content of Indians vs. Jews. I’m also very interested in hearing from Catholic readers . Were the representations of the Catholic beliefs and practices fair and honest?

  20. Brenda– I’m in the middle of reading the book, and will share my own thoughts on the Jewish content when I’ve finished. But as a Jewish woman, I would not say that I have “a much greater stake in the correct representations of this book.” In all honesty, I find that phrasing quite off putting. It negates the importance of the representation of Native people, and the voice of a Native woman speaking about that representation, by positing a greater “stake” and importance for Jewish readers and commenters. This isn’t a competition. Representation matters– and given the magnitude of misrepresentations of Native people in children’s books, and the cumulative effect of “small” passages such as this, there is a very high stake here for Native readers. Please don’t use comments regarding Jewish content to undermine that.

    It’s also my understanding that everyone here has the opportunity to share their opinions and concerns about various aspects of the books under discussion. I’m not sure how raising questions about representation is “highjacking.”

    • Brenda Martin says:

      Sorry – poor word/phrase choice. I simply meant that there is a whole lot more Jewish content in this book than references to Native Americans.

  21. Leonard Kim says:

    OK here’s my position which followed a personal thought experiment: what if Schlitz had substituted the term “Chinamen” for “Indians”? Who knows, maybe Joan had heard something growing up about the events of Gennifer Choldenko’s CHASING SECRETS. As an adult reader I would have no problem with it for exactly the reasons some people here (and others like Betsy Bird who has weighed in on our discussion) wonder why it’s a problem: Schlitz is a fine and conscientious writer and I understand the point of a passage like that and I think most readers of the book would too.

    Now, if THE HIRED GIRL were an easy reader and I read such a passage as a younger elementary school reader, what do I think my reaction would have been? I do think I may have had a moment of hey she’s writing about people “like me” (because growing up as a young Korean boy I already knew all about being lumped together with the Chinese and Japanese.) But then I would, truly now, have thought it’s OK, she’s writing nice things, civilized and normal.
    (Switching back to adult mode – please don’t tell child-Leonard that there is hidden damage being done here. As a child, the argument that a positive portrayal is in fact not a positive portrayal but worse than nothing, that positive words are in fact unintentionally negative words, would have been way over my head. As an adult, I do understand the argument, and the question then becomes the extent to which we are willing to dictate things for our kids’ own good. I think that’s an individual decision, and that’s why there are 15 committee members.)

    The trickiest part of the thought experiment for me is how I would have reacted as a teenage reader in Schlitz’s demographic. I think of all ages, that may well be the one at which I would be most put out – because as a teenager, I was relatively more concerned with matters of identity and not feeling patronized. But that was a time of such change that I don’t know whether my reaction would have been, “people shouldn’t write stuff like this,” or “let’s have a discussion” or, “man what a girly book why am I reading this and not Douglas Adams.” I do think, as that same teenager, even if I felt, “people shouldn’t write stuff like this,” I would have felt equally, I don’t need grownups to protect me from this stuff. As a teenager, I would rather have had something to be outraged about.

    But I can’t emphasize this enough. That’s just me. All we can do is express, “that’s just me,” and if we listen to each other then we have a bigger picture. I don’t think we should be telling others what’s wrong with their perspectives. If someone is upset or not upset, neither are wrong.

    Briefly, about CHASING SECRETS. As a Korean adult, I feel I have neither stake nor voice to speak to Gennifer Choldenko’s portrayals. To be honest, I did have an annoyed flash of “was that necessary” on first encounter with the delivery chosen for Noah et al. (which was exacerbated by listening to it as an audiobook.) I think maybe that is a similar sentiment to what some people are writing here with regard to THE HIRED GIRL. Speaking just personally, it did not diminish my enjoyment of the book (though I’m not touting it for the award.) Similarly to above, I think as a younger child, I would have felt that Choldenko was writing about people “like me” and would have been perfectly fine as Jing and Noah are clearly “good guys.” (Maybe I’d have preferred a book where the girl wasn’t the main character, but…) And as a righteous teenager, as above, I might have gotten angry, but would have preferred having that feeling to being sheltered from it.

    • Gail Shepherd says:

      I love this so much, Leonard: ”I would have felt equally, I don’t need grownups to protect me from this stuff. As a teenager, I would rather have had something to be outraged about.” Me too. Had we known each other, I hope we would have been besties.

  22. In more than one place, Joan talks about being persecuted for her (Catholic) religion.

    In that particularly dramatic scene in her bedroom when Joan accidentally sets her hair on fire and Malka sees the crucifix and wants her to take it down, she says taking it down would be persecuting her for her religion. Mr. Rosenbach tells her (Kindle Locations 3399-3400):

    “You are quite correct: no one has a right to persecute you for worshipping God in your own way. This is America.”

    For me, Mr. Rosenbach’s two sentences cast doubt on the idea that the civilized Indian line is meant to be read as a judgement on America’s treatment of Indians. Indeed, his two sentences here and other remarks in the book about America’s goodness seem more like a glorification of America’s history rather than a thoughtful look at the history of religion in the U.S.

    That right of worship wasn’t extended to everyone.

    Here’s some info (setting it off from my remarks by using dashed lines; I have many sources about this but here’s one that is online: http://www.researchgate.net/profile/Lee_Irwin/publication/237254394_Freedom_Law_and_Prophecy_A_Brief_History_of_Native_American_Religious_Resistance/links/004635387763ce3ddc000000.pdf):

    ———-
    Religious offenses on the reservations were later codified by the Commissioner of
    Indian Affairs, Thomas J. Morgan, in 1892 in his “Rules for Indian Courts,” whereby he
    established a series of criminal offenses aimed at Native American religious practices.

    He wrote:
    Dances—Any Indian who shall engage in the sun dance, scalp dance, or war
    dance, or any similar feast, so called, shall be guilty of an offense, and upon
    conviction thereof shall be punished for the first offense by with holding of his
    rations for not exceeding ten days or by imprisonment for not exceeding ten
    days; for any subsequent offense under this clause he shall be punished by
    withholding his rations for not less than ten days nor more than thirty days, or
    by imprisonment for not less than ten days nor more than thirty days.

    Medicine men—Any Indian who shall engage in the practices of so-called
    medicine men, or who shall resort to any artifice or device to keep the Indians of
    the reservation from adopting and following civilized habits and pursuits, or
    shall use any arts of conjurer to prevent Indians from abandoning their barbarous
    rites and customs, shall be deemed guilty of an offense, and upon conviction
    thereof, for the first offense shall be imprisoned for not less than ten days and not
    more than thirty days: Provided that, for subsequent conviction for such offense
    the maximum term or imprisonment shall not exceed six months.

    These laws not only abrogate First Amendment rights in a conscious and well documented
    policy of religious oppression, they also reveal a systematic attempt on the
    part of highly placed government officials to stamp out Native American religious
    practices. They also represent a determined policy to reconstruct Native religions in
    conformity with dominant Protestant majority values in a myopic vision of what
    constitutes “civilized” religious behavior.

    ——————————

    People in this discussion are saying that the passage about civilized Indians is meant to be “deliberate and damning” of America’s treatment of Native peoples. I disagree. I still think it is superficial and ignorant, and I think the feel-good “This is America” speech of Mr. Rosenbach supports my point.

    I, too, want to see what Jewish readers think of the book. I see lot of things that sound to me very much like outsider depictions of Native peoples sound–and with Joan as the POV, we’re supposed to be ok with what she tells us about Jewish life–but given that Americans have very little knowledge about Jewish culture, I am full of questions about what she is giving us and what readers will take away from the book.

    • Debbie, you ask, “I, too, want to see what Jewish readers think of the book. ” So what am, I chopped liver?:) I’ve written two comments above expressing what I think as a Jewish reader. Several others have too.

      • No, Monica, you’re not. I’m sorry. My last paragraph sounded like it dismissed what you and several other Jewish readers wrote.

        Let me say more. I’m thinking about the POV that Sarah Taylor Woods brought to the discussion. It seems theres a lot more to say than what we’ve touched on so far. Her last sentence–about conversion–stands out to me because that’s what the boarding schools set out to do to Native peoples. I want to know more about how the conversion parts read to Jewish readers.

      • I can’t speak for Sara, and I’d love to hear what she has to say, but I found Joan’s sudden desire to convert specifically the child painfully familiar and unsurprising.

    • Debbie, I think what might be confusing was something I was addressing in my first comment. That there is the Jewish ethnicity and then there is the Jewish religion. They are two separate things. Some people are both and some one or the other. I, for example, identify as an ethnic Jew, but do not consider it my religion. My sister is ethnically Jewish (of course) but a very active Unitarian. Others (say Julius Lester) are not ethnically Jewish, but religiously very devote Jews. Thus, for me, Joan’s uninformed thought equating American Indians with Jews didn’t seem to be related to religious practices at all, but just a random coupling of the very minimal information she does have. (I agree with Roxanne below that “Schlitz was attempting to create a three dimensional character whose thought process is much like a real human being’s where corresponding imagery and association would pop into one’s head when confronting with specific situations.”)

  23. One aspect of the novel I really appreciated: the different viewpoints on Judaism within the household. I thought it was very well done.

    Some of the strongest representation, to me, was Malka’s pain and fury over the crucifix, and Mr. Rosenbach explaining that it was in fact priests who led the slaughter of Jews in Europe. Obviously – as Joan herself represents – there is no single representative of Christianity, and similarly there is no single representative of Judaism, and I think this novel captures that very well. But to have Malka’s perspective noted and treated as important was almost a relief for me. (I’m someone whose family was from Eastern Europe. What was left of it, at least.)

    I’ve been turning this comment over in my mind for a while. I’ve had some painful conversations with Christians who were very hurt when the idea of the Church being complicit in – or in fact spearheading – pogroms and blood libels came up. And reading this book made me wonder if being exposed to these ideas as a child – seeing minorities with different perspectives on the majority religion – would have helped the conversation.

    I don’t know that literature is necessarily supposed to be validating. But speaking personally, and with the knowledge that this probably is irrelevant to the Newbery criteria – I’m glad this book did.

    I’d like to second Sarah in saying that I absolutely agree that discussion of all types of representation is important and I really hope I am not seen as speaking over anyone with regard to concern over the Native American representation.

  24. It is of interest to me that some seem to believe that the author didn’t put that thought into Joan’s head intentionally: I said that Schlitz did it with full intention and it was probably not an oversight in the editorial process that it remains in the book. I believe that Schlitz was attempting to create a three dimensional character whose thought process is much like a real human being’s where corresponding imagery and association would pop into one’s head when confronting with specific situations. And the progress of her coming to greater realization of her “wrongheadedness” would not carry any impact if there was no mention of problematic assumptions. I do not see this as disregarding a young child’s understanding of the background or setting unless all of us truly believe that no 12 or 13 year old readers in our country has a working understanding of the history of the Native Americans. I am almost inclined to question why Nina and KT mistrust a young reader’s ability to see this as part of Joan’s mindset at the historical time period. The affront of the young leaders’ intelligence is not committed by the author but by the arbitrators here in the comments.

  25. Leonard Kim says:

    I apologize for being repetitive. I think maybe we are discussing two different things about the passage’s effect/intent — one extra-literary and one literary.

    Extra-literary:
    Is the passage hurtful to some readers? Yes. Multiple people have said so.
    Do I think Laura Amy Schlitz meant to hurt these readers? No.

    I referred to this once already, but I think there are similarities to last year’s discussion of WEST OF THE MOON, starting here: http://blogs.slj.com/heavymedal/2015/01/05/west-of-the-moon/#comment-175669

    There, a commenter mentioned because of her personal experience, she could not finish the book because of being upset by a particular scene. She wrote, “I resolved to hope the book didn’t win the Newbery.” There the Heavy Medal community was admirably sympathetic, but also hopeful their reasons for finding the book excellent were also understandable. And I think any sensitive person will take such responses seriously and try to figure out how this affects their judgment of a book for the Newbery.

    I think this is a very different discussion from the literary question:

    Is the passage revealing of Joan’s character, historically plausible, trusting the reader is not to take the sentiment as the author’s or readers’ own, and all of this intentional? Yes, yes, yes, and yes. Are any of us really in disagreement about any of these things? Reading these comments, I would say no.

  26. I have just read this whole trail of comments and while I read the book some time ago, what has really stuck with me is that Schlitz manages to show two strong belief systems in one household and the results in an historical novel. The big point here, and what I consider the novel should be judged on is how well did we get to see Joan’s Catholic beliefs and how well did we see the Jewish religion portrayed through her eyes. I would agree with some who say that I think every word is deliberate. I would also posit that the point of the book is not the plot, but the ride along the way where we see the Rosenbach household respecting Joan’s beliefs and Joan respecting the Rosenbach’s Jewish beliefs. That was what made this novel seem extraordinary to me. I know it’s easy to find flaws, and I would also say there are NO PERFECT books. Maybe this book has major flaws and maybe it doesn’t, but it does tackle an extraordinary topic in as honest an exploration as I have seen. Joan begins with a vague sense she is Catholic, and then gradually grows into what is recognizable as a functioning belief system that will drive her morally in her life. That is remarkable, and slowly but surely achieved. It’s also what makes the first 80 pages necessary.

  27. Nina Lindsay says:

    Roxanne, I mistrust neither a child reader’s ability to read, nor Schlitz’s intentions. I question what she achieved, and why, through this passage.

    Thank you, and all, for continuing to comment.

    • However, you did cite the entry in the Newbery Criteria of ““excellence of presentation for a child audience” as your basis of at least some of your reservation for the book’s distinguished-ness. In that, there has to be a process of presumption of the said “child audience” — whether they CAN or CANNOT parse this conjecture of Joan’s. Are we saying that Joan should never have had any thoughts on Native Americans as if these people didn’t exist contemporaneously with Joan or that she should consider them from a different, more progressive light? (My not very informed brain tells me that perhaps there were more thoughts in people’s minds about Native Americans in 1911 than 2015 in my young patrons’ minds… but I could be very wrong and that Native Americans wouldn’t have been naturally part of her thoughts…)

      • Nina Lindsay Nina Lindsay says:

        Roxanne, if you read what I said about the criteria, I did not suggest that kids can’t understand this. Nor did I ever suggest that Joan “should never have had thoughts on Native Americans.” The way Schlitz expressed Joan’s thoughts, I think, was done poorly, expressly because kids do understand. I don’t know how many different ways to say this.

    • Nina, your question is extremely important. We all need to hear from Laura Amy Schlitz. I realize a Newbery conversation does not include cross-examination of the authors. However, it is my belief that all the “I think she meant to” remarks only give us information about the commenter’s beliefs.
      We have to give Schlitz a chance to tell us her viewpoint.

      Deliberate? A mistake? Something in-between? Something no one has speculated so far? We need to ask the author, herself.

  28. So much of this conversation is about trusting the reader, but it assumes we CAN trust the reader. I don’t think we can.

    Did anyone look at Jonathan’s link to “American Indian Clothing”? The first three images on the first line of his search are about dressing up like Indians for Halloween. There’s no respect in that. People mean well, but there is no respect in that act.

    On the 17th at 10:41, Leonard Kim suggested that Heavy Medal has often been willing to champion books that appeal to a smaller audience. I don’t know what books he’s referring to because I haven’t read everything on Heavy Medal since it got going a few years ago. What I do note, however, is audience. It seems that the audience for this book is not Native readers, or, Jewish ones, either. It is for readers who need to learn about Jewish people, learning about Jewish people from someone who–like them–is ignorant of Jewish culture.

    There’s anti-semitism (what people are calling ‘naivete’) all over the pages, but we’re asked to be ok with all of that because it’ll all be ok in the end. Several times, now, I’ve used a quote from an anonymous commenter at my site. It captures what this is about:

    Anonymous wrote: “I find the idea of a reader — particularly a child — having to wait to see herself humanized an inherently problematic one. Yes, it might accurately reflect the inner journey many white people take, but isn’t the point that our dehumanizing views were always wrong? And therefore, why go back and re-live them? Such ruminations could definitely be appropriate in an all-white anti-racist group, in which the point is for white people to educate each other, but any child can pick up a book, and be hurt–or validated–by what’s inside. Asking marginalized readers to “wait” to be validated is an example of white dominance as perpetuated by well-intentioned white folks.”

    • Jonathan Hunt Jonathan Hunt says:

      Wait! What? Now you’re an expert on anti-Semitism, too? Whew. Glad you told us. None of our Jewish readers caught it. 😉

    • Debbie. I have to challenge two of your points.

      Firstly you write, “What I do note, however, is audience. It seems that the audience for this book is not Native readers, or, Jewish ones, either. It is for readers who need to learn about Jewish people, learning about Jewish people from someone who–like them–is ignorant of Jewish culture.” I would ask you to go back and read what I and others who have said they were Jewish, wrote, how this book provided important things for us AS JEWS. Please don’t rule us out as members of this book’s audience.

      Secondly you write, “There’s anti-semitism (what people are calling ‘naivete’) all over the pages, but we’re asked to be ok with all of that because it’ll all be ok in the end. ” As I indicated above I am first generation German and everyone, everyone in my parents’ and grandparents’ had first-hand experience with Anti-semitism in German (and, as I wrote in a comment above, my father in 1950s Columbia University). Joan’s lack of knowledge is absolutely NOT Anti-Semitism.

      • This is a difficult discussion.

        First, an apology to Monica and other Jewish readers who have contributed to the discussion. I did not realize, as I wrote and posted it, that my comment was dismissive. It is, though, and I’m grateful to Monica for calling that out, and am also grateful to Genevieve for responding in depth about what I wrote. What troubles me, personally, is that my comment was insulting as well as dismissive. Clearly, I am stumbling as I try to participate in the discussion. For that, I apologize.

        Second, I should have said (earlier) what I meant when I used the phrase “anti-Semitism.” Based on what I’ve read, it is hatred of, prejudice towards, and stereotyping of Jews. I think those things are in the book. Some of them are based on Joan’s lack of knowledge. What she knows about Jews is based on Ivanhoe. Here’s a passage that I have highlighted (Kindle Locations 1438-1442):

        “I tried to work out whether I could tell Mrs. Rosenbach that I wanted a different day off, and how I could bring up the question of my salary. Thinking about it got me worried, because in Ivanhoe the Jews have a lot of money, but they’re very close with it, though Rebecca isn’t, of course. Sir Walter Scott says that the Jews have a great love of gain. I began to worry that Mrs. Rosenbach might not give me any money. It would be a sneaking, stingy thing to do, to make a poor girl work all week and then not give her any wages.”

        I think that “stingy Jew” stereotype is one that circulates widely. It is an idea that people hold about a people. Within Ivanhoe, Joan tells us, Rebecca isn’t like that. Within THE HIRED GIRL, the Rosenbach’s aren’t like that either. Does Schlitz push back on it effectively, with the Rosenbach’s as the mechanism to push against that stereotype? It is the weight of the stereotype as it circulates in society that makes me think it wasn’t addressed effectively in THE HIRED GIRL, and that readers will have that stereotypical idea affirmed rather than challenged.

    • As a Jewish reader, I would have loved this book at a child or teen. I see Joan’s views about Jews as completely ignorant from complete lack of exposure to any knowledge or attitudes about Jews other than what she’s read in Ivanhoe and the Bible. She doesn’t seem more suspicious of the Rosenbachs when she first meets them because they are Jewish – she is extremely taken aback because it has never occurred to her that she might meet Jewish people, but she is grateful to them for taking her in, and upset when she unwittingly violates the rules of kashrut (both because it upsets Malka, which could cost her her chance at the job, but also at the idea that she could so easily ruin something and perhaps cause one of their wedding presents to have to be destroyed, as Malka thinks necessary).

      It’s an interesting picture of different levels of observance in the home (Malka being more observant than her employers, Solomon being more interested in studying Talmud than his father expected), and Joan learning about it from the perspective of someone with no knowledge, and someone who does the work behind the scenes.

      Joan’s attempt to convert the grandson, while completely wrong and one of the worst things she does, struck me as not out of character for a young teen, impetuous and rash and with very little upbringing, trying to reconcile the views of the first religious teaching she’s had, the priest who is telling her that as a good Catholic, she should leave the Rosenbachs’ home; her own feelings that the Rosenbachs have been nothing but good to her and that she didn’t want to leave them (both out of gratitude and out of self-interest, as she was getting a little bit of education there and might not have had that at the proposed placement); and the type of books she’s read (Ivanhoe, Oliver Twist) combined with the priest’s teachings that Jews are condemned to hell. She thinks through this dilemma and wrongheadedly comes to the conclusion that she may have been sent to the Rosenbachs in order to “save” them. That portion of the story is painful, but results eventually in Joan seeing that she was wrong not to respect their beliefs (not immediately, when she stops out of fear of losing her job without a reference, but afterwards, when she goes to church and thinks about what she did). As a child, I would not have read this section as dehumanizing me or as having to wait to be validated – to me it seemed clear that she was wrong from the moment she had the idea, and what I was waiting for was for her to be brought to that realization.

      • Off topic, i guess, but I’m remembering an aunt (Catholic, like me) in the 1970s performing a stealth emergency baptism on a half-Jewish grand-nephew she was babysitting!

      • To me, Joan’s attempt to convert Oskar was motivated by her Catholic beliefs and completely understandable given what we know at that point in the story. Joan hadn’t yet reached the place of “live and let live”. The reactions of Mrs. Rosenback, Anna, and later Mr. Rosenback to the conversion attempt of Oskar were varied and all appropriate. I thoroughly enjoyed Anna’s take on the situation.

        My mother-in-law’s reaction to the news of my conversion to Judaism was “how can a girl raised as a Methodist turn her back on Jesus”? Her reaction a year later when my husband also converted was “thank goodness. Now you two will be together in heaven”. These comments don’t tell you about me or my husband. They tell you about her.

    • Eric Carpenter says:

      Heavy Medal bloggers and commentators have often championed books that appeal to a smaller audience for example Far Far Away from a few years ago only appealed to the very upper limits (12-14 year olds) of the Newbery age band (birth to 14) so that would be a smaller audience than say The One and Only Ivan that appeals to age 6-12.

    • Rather than focusing on trusting the reader, I choose to trust Joan. Her questioning both the priest and Mr. Rosenback, her willingness to express disagreement, her love of reading, her courage to accept her missteps, and her desire to learn make me believe that she will ultimately find her way to truth, understanding, and respect for any issue she encounters.

  29. I haven’t quite finished the book, and have therefore been waiting to add my own thoughts, but I’d just like to raise my hand as a Jewish reader who would not have completed the book were I reading it solely for my own enjoyment. I was tempted to put it down anyway when I reached the introduction of the first Jewish character, Solomon, who magically appears after Joan prays to Jesus for help– hat in hand, unthreatening and solicitous, asking, “Can I be of any use to you.” It was similarly difficult for me to continue after the scene where Mrs. R. is angry at Malka because she– Malka– is upset at Joan’s having broken kashrut. Many, many thoughts about that scene. I also have many thoughts about the use of Ivanhoe throughout the book, which I think are relevant to the larger theme of this discussion. Again, am waiting until I finish, but felt the need to chime in here to say that this Jewish reader *did* feel alienated by the book.

    • Jonathan Hunt Jonathan Hunt says:

      I appreciated your comments on Betsy’s post, Sarah–note to self: check out PLAYING IN THE DARK–and I look forward to reading about your experience with the book.

  30. Nina Lindsay Nina Lindsay says:

    Very hard to respond to everything in the last 24 hrs in line. So I’m going to try to say again what I see in this passage, a little differently.

    Mildred Taylor portrayed stereotypical views about Black people and used offensive language in a book that was *about* the harm that was visited on Black people in that time period.

    Schlitz portrays a heroine naive and problematic viewpoint about Judaism in a book that is *about* that heroine expanding and changing that viewpoint. Same, I think, as Taylor.

    However, Schlitz also uses a stereotype about First Nations/Native people that is still considered, yes, “acceptable” today (see any football field with a racist mascot) in order to illustrate a point not about Joan’s limited perspective on Native Americans, but to the more central point of the story, her limited viewpoint about Judaism.

    Now, to how the smart readers we trust will read this. One ideal kid reader may see the multiple layers of historically-accurate prejudice in Joan’s view, and think “Whoa, so glad I know better! Joan still has a way to go.” Another ideal kid reader may see *exactly the same thing* and think “Whoa, way to trot out some stereotypes that some people throw at me daily in order to illustrate your point about about how Joan is a little anti-Semitic at this part of the story! Thanks a lot.”

    The difference in this readership has only to do with their race. While I’ve championed books for a limited readership in terms of reading tastes or age before, I don’t believe I’ve ever suggested that an audience be limited by race.

    I am not calling for us to distrust readers. I don’t question that Schlitz intended the reading that a generally white reader will give this text. I don’t question her use of potentially problematic views of Jews in order to show her heroine growing in this perspective. I DO continue to question using the phrasing she did about Indians in service of telling that story.

    And I’m not suggesting that no one should ever risk offending someone in writing books for children. It’s specifically by writing the difficult story that we get the great stories, and Schlitz does admirably in this regard in nearly all of her writing. In this case, I feel, she missed her mark, and to me it makes the book not distinguished.

  31. Nina, you are stating that the book is about a heroine who has a narrow viewpoint about Judaism and that the book is about her expanding viewpoint. I think that is a rather narrow view of the book. It’s about Joan’s Catholicism growing into a real belief, not some that is just a label and how she learned about people who happened to be Jewish and yet were kind to her and she learned to love them. Even Malka. About her expanding viewpoint on MANY things, including opera, friendship and romance.
    I wish we could focus on what book did Schlitz want to write and how well did she succeed in writing that book. There are flaws. Yes, every book has them. But in the 400 pages, you can point to only one sentence where bias and prejudice do not sit well with you and with possible readers. It is absolutely a micro-aggression in a world full of them. It had a purpose, and for you that doesn’t work and it falls flat. Can we not look at the other 400 pages? What is their worth? What does the book have to offer that is done well? What doesn’t work for Jonathan is the first 80 pages and those really felt necessary to me to understand her blind foray into the world so unprepared. I think there might be other successes and flaws.
    My point is that I think almost any book can be examined minutely and we’ll find things that could have been better. I know of no book that did not elicit some qualms. I remember a discussion of “A Single Shard” prior to it’s winning the Newbery and a person there who dismissed it completely because the title gave it way. She said, “After you read the title you know what will happen. No reason to read it at all.”

    • Genevieve says:

      The first 80 pages, for me, felt essential for the reason Carol states here. The reader sees how deprived Joan’s life is and how little information she’s had any exposure to (even the newspaper that something comes wrapped in is new to her – her teacher has occasionally read stories from the newspaper to the class, but otherwise she hasn’t had a chance to see one, and the idea that she could earn money as a hired girl doing similar work to that she does unpaid for her father and mother is a revelation).

      You see the three books she owns and has read over and over, and how she compares her feelings to those of the book characters since she has no other examples outside of her former school and her farm – when she’s kicked in the face by the cow, she feels badly because Rebecca in Ivanhoe and Jane Eyre would not have carried on like that, though Florence Dombey would have because she cries all throughout her book, but Joan does not say that approvingly. You see that these books are her friends and companions and her only models for human behavior.

      And the reader sees small bits of hope that Joan has — she has to leave school, but perhaps she can meet with her teacher occasionally and keep writing, or perhaps some other outlet will exist — being taken away. The reader sees how truly awful her home situation is when her father’s only response to her being kicked by the cow right by her eye is (1) to be annoyed that her brother called the doctor, because he had to pay and it might have healed well enough without stitches; (2) to exult that now at least she won’t let her reading cut into her chore time (and unlike Anne of Green Gables, there’s no indication that Joan has done that – she seems to only get her reading done late at night); (3) to allow Joan to prepare sandwiches for dinner instead of a hot meal, the same evening she’s been injured and lost a lot of blood.

      When Joan goes on a partial strike, it’s interesting to see how she thinks through what she can do and can’t do without hurting the farm (since she doesn’t want any unpicked food to spoil etc.), and to settle on striking on things like making hot food and tidying her brothers’ and father’s rooms. There’s a moment of hope for the reader where it seems as though Joan’s strike might achieve somewhat better conditions, and then her hopes are utterly dashed when her father burns her books.

      All that seems necessary to me, also, to show why Joan is justified in planning to never return to her family or notify them where she is, despite her young age. I don’t believe it would be nearly as powerful to simply describe her prior circumstances and start with her arrival in Baltimore.

    • Genevieve, thank you for organizing my thoughts with your comment here — I was also trying to see how come this one sentence was picked up and used to destroy the whole worth of the book — that it single-handedly renders the book not distinguished — distinguished from what in comparison? Still baffled…

      • KT Horning says:

        Roxane, I don’t think it’s just the one sentence, but that IS what Jonathan asked us to comment on when he highlighted it in green in his original post. (It’s actually three short sentences in one paragraph.) So I think that’s why people are talking about it. We were invited and encouraged to do so.

        I highlighted other things that kept the book from being distinguished for me in one of my posts above. To review: I felt the plot was not distinguished. It dragged on and on, and I cited the use of the journal format requiring a blow-by-blow description of daily events as being the culprit here. Jonathan mentioned he felt the whole first section was unnecessary. If that’s true, I think that speaks to a big problem for plotting. I don’t think that’s minor, as Jonathan does. (Although, unlike him, I really liked that whole first part, actually, even better than the part set in Baltimore. The story moved quickly here, and Schlitz did an excellent job of showing how trapped the character was by her circumstances. She also developed the character of Joan very nicely here, showing her as both loyal and rebellious. I would have liked more of that in the next 3/4 of the book.) I don’t see how Jonathan could say the first 80 pages of the book wasn’t necessary and STILL find the book distinguished.

        But after that … The whole part set in Baltimore stretches credulity. That she happens to just be found on her first day there by a nice young man who takes her home? (And after her earlier experiences on the farm and on the train, why would she trust any man?) That the family just happens to hire her? That she has so much free time to read AND write in her journal? That the father in the family decides to pay for her education? Seriously? It helped me when Leonard described it as a “well-written dime novel.” That kind of argument could help win me over, but I haven’t seen much else in this discussion that talks about what makes it distinguished in terms of character, plot, setting, or style, except for those who are writing about the first 80 pages.

        I have been in a real Newbery committee discussion about whether an apple pie would have been likely — Would apples grow in that particular locale at that particular time of year? (For the record, I did not care one way of the other, but we did discuss it and research it thoroughly because, if we were going to give the book an award, we wanted it to be right.) So, yes, a discussion can get focused on one sentence when it comes down to deciding which book is the most distinguished. And you know a book can still be very worthy and a wonderful book, even if it’s not judged to be the most distinguished book of the year.

  32. I just read through all the comments again (as I’ve done so several times as the discussion went on) and started rereading the book itself on Saturday and just want to say that I appreciate what has gone on here. It has definitely pushed me to think hard. (I especially appreciated Leonard’s “thought experiment” and related comment in considering the micro-aggression concern.) I’m about half way through my reread so am just reaching where she decides to convert the Rosenbachs. Along the way Joan contemplates Anti-Semitism more than once and is pretty clear that the minister exhibits it. She mulls over all of this, trying to make sense of it, trying to add it to what she already knows and rework her world view. Every experience, every conversation, she contemplates them all and rethinks what and who she is in response.

    Something that I’m really appreciating on this reread are the moments of humor. The sentence-level writing of these for me are delightful. Say the paragraph on page 101 with Malka muttering and sniffing. Funny and a fabulous showing of that little black fly who is Malka. Joan’s bumbling suggestion that she fry pork shops at one point (can’t find the page just now). I love that one because it is such a train wreck. She says it, you gasp knowing it is not going to go down well, and then you watch and laugh as it does exactly that. Or on page 149 when she comments about Mr. Rosenbach’s sympathetic noises, “They were like the noises Mr. Solomon made in the park. At the time, I thought they were foreign noises, but now I know they’re Jewish noises.” I’m a Jew and I find these all hilarious and cleverly and wittily written. These all are used by Schlitz to develop her characters — in these three examples, Malka, Mr. Rosenbach, and — of course — Joan herself.

    • Monica, I agree with you about the humor. The pork chop remark is wonderful(Page 164). Early on, when Joan is first learning how to pronounce the word “antisemitism” and says she is willing to learn how to be antisemitic if it will help. So many wonderful examples sprinkled throughout this book.

  33. That’s interesting, Monica, because all of the moments you point to are ones that felt profoundly wrong to me. Especially the description of Malka as a “little black fly” and her “pitiful” muttering. On the next page, Malka’s eyes are described as having “a witchlike gleam.” I had particularly strong felings about these descriptions given the context of the scene: Malka is observant, and cares that Joan has broken kashrut (accidentally– though the idea that no one would have immediately explained kosher laws to her strained credulity.) Mrs. Rosenbach sweeps in and expresses irritation with Malka’s distress. A distress that I found to be completely warranted. My mother keeps a kosher kitchen. I know what a big deal it would be to her if someone, even accidentally, did what Joan did. On top of everything else, it would entail an incredible amount of work to fix. The characterization of Malka in this scene– which to my reading depended heavily on crone stereotypes– as being ridiculous and funny in her protests and in her happy unhappiness, felt incredibly disrespectful to me. Especially in contrast with Mrs. Rosenbach, who uses this opportunity to tell the reader that *she* is Reform, and who Joan describes as being contrastingly beautiful and regal. This dichotomy in characterization related, to me, to religious observance, and particularly to the ways that observance intersects with Joan’s Christian background– and is one of the most troubling aspects of the book to me. There is a similar description when Malka is upset about Joan’s crucifix and she “kept carrying on until she ran out of pitiful things to say.” To me there’s a lot of subtext here about both Jewish observance, and assimilation, and how different Jewish characters are used to position Joan and her own views and behaviors.

    The line about “Jewish noises” was also one that really bothered me. As did a lot of the humor you point to, which to me often felt like it used Joan’s naïveté as a cover to make jokes where the humor is really about the strangeness of Jewish observance. For example, the moment where Malka comes and sees the aftermath of the fire and “she was talking frantically in Yiddish and saying barook-ha-shem, which I think is maybe a phrase to ward off the devil, because she seems to say it whenever a disaster has been averted.” To me, again, what’s supposed to be funny in this doesn’t just come from Joan’s lack of knowledge, but from a perspective I see as othering who Malka is. More later.

    • I realized after publishing my comment that what I found humorous might indeed read differently to someone else. I think that is what some have been pointing out throughout — that everyone enters a story differently based on experience, temperament, etc. Humor is particularly problematic I think.

    • Jonathan Hunt Jonathan Hunt says:

      Sarah, do you think Solly’s storyline balances out of the portrait of Orthodox Judaism? If Malka was the only representation then this would be a greater concern, but Solly, despite coming from a Reform household, is embracing Orthodoxy so I feel like the representation of Judaism is fairly balanced in the novel on the whole. But I’d be curious to hear your take on it.

  34. KT, thanks for the further clarification. And, the other day I was thinking, this is why the Newbery committee has 15 members, with different viewpoints and levels of appreciation of different kinds of books.

    • KT horning says:

      Agreed, Roxane. And this discussion comes the closest to approximating a real Newbery discussion, although the real committee wouldn’t be able to talk for so long about one book.

      I’ve really appreciated reading everyone’s perspectives on this book. It sure inspires a lot of passion. I have come to a deeper understanding and appreciation of it as a result, and that, too, is part of the process on the real Newbery committee.

      • How wonderful that Heavy Medal allows more time for discussion. Since October 15th I have been deeply involved in rereading The Hired Girl with a highlighter and another oral reread while traveling from Maine to Arizona in our RV. I have read and reread comments here and other locations because I wanted my comments to be thoughtful and because I love this book so much.
        Thank you for not closing this discussion before I felt ready to respond.

  35. Lisa Silverman says:

    This has been a fascinating discussion. I wanted to weigh in on this, and if it helps, I am Jewish and have worked for 25 years as a librarian in Jewish Day Schools. I heard this book on audio and it was fabulous. The reader put the exact amount of naivete, spunk, curiosity and immaturity into Joan’s narrator voice and she hit it out of the park. I heard the whole 400 page book in 3 days.

    My reactions were mostly felt in different forms of astonishment. I can enumerate some of them here:

    1. I was astonished that Schlitz had actual plot points centering around 19th century novels I was made to read in my undergrad British Jewish Literature class that I have not seen mentioned in years, and never in a book for kids. Ivanhoe and Daniel Deronda? Will kids pick those up again now? I have them in my library! Daniel Deronda was a ground breaker in actually depicting (some) Jews without being Anti-Semitic! Hey kids, Ivanhoe was supposedly based on Rebecca Gratz of Philadelphia –a “reformed” German Jew who pretty much invented the idea of Hebrew School!
    And, yes,Fagin as a unfortunate stereotype of the slimy Jew is talked about even today. But I was kept on edge just waiting to hear Joan’s opinion of Shylock, however it looks like Miss Chandler never got around to teaching that. Likely if she did, Joan would just have more to overcome when she actually met some nice Jewish people.

    2. I was mostly astonished that a YA author would deem that now is the time to take on a mature discussion of faith in a book for teens. Bravo.

    3. Loved the “sympathetic noises”–which I actually tried to imagine. Probably a bit of “Oy Va Voy maidele” with a few other phrases I could come up with if my grandma was still alive and I could ask her. What else would Joan have thought to call what she was hearing? It was Yiddish, but also so foreign and she was so haughty in her imagined superiority that it was just funny to me.

    4. I didn’t mind the “little black fly” a bit. Malka rang true. If you ever had old and very annoying European relatives then..well, it fits the storyline and it wasn’t far off.

    5. Loved Thomashevky the cat! We have an entire documentary about the great Yiddish actor family the Thomashevky’s–just having a child hear the name in any context was very cool.

    6. I was surprised to hear that Jews of 1911 had the same double kitchen equipment as my relatives do now–two of everything for meat and milk. And all the dishes would have been impressive, too. I’m glad Joan was not working there over Passover or her head would explode–plus they probably had yet to invent aluminum foil so she wouldn’t have had to cover all the countertops with it. But I did like this line: “Mrs. Rosenbach has two beautiful sets that she uses only on Passover, which is what the Jews celebrate a week before they celebrate Easter.”

    7. I loved the Sabbath scenes and that Schlitz chooses to call it Shabbos. Authenticty! I particularly delighted in Mr. Rosenbach’s singing of “Eshet Chayil” the song to the virtuous beloved wife who has worked so hard all week to make Shabbos for her family. Traditionally, it’s great, and still done today–in a wealthy family like that it is just funny and it takes Joan to see that. But I also love Downtown Abbey.

    8. I was drawn to yell at my car stereo a few times–“No, Joan…! Don’t convert the baby!” “No, Joan, don’t bring home the kitty!” And of course…”please Joan–don’t go there–forbidden marriages rarely work out!”

    9. I’m not mentioning Indians at this juncture, but I will quote Joan from right after she says she is not a “gentile” because she doesn’t know what that is. “I had the idea that Gentiles were like the Philistines or the Ishmaelites: people who lived a long time ago. “I’m Catholic’, I explained, ‘but I’m not Irish’. I thought it would be best to get that straight. Father says the Irish are worthless, and it seems that Malka agrees with him.”

    Joan gets SO MUCH wrong in her 14 year old farm girl brain that pretty much everything she says can come out hurtful. Kid books don’t often have an unreliable narrator as adult books do. This is an example that can be used to illustrate that type of characterization and I really do think children will get it.

    I hope this book wins some literary award. If the Newbery passes it up, I’m rooting for meeting Ms. Schlitz at the Sydney Taylor Award banquet in June.

    • Lisa’s comment regarding the little black fly depiction of Malka, “If you ever had old and very annoying European relatives then..well, it fits the storyline and it wasn’t far off” made me think of what Maurice Sendak had to say about the inspiration for his wild things.

      This is taken from a 2004 Bill Moyers interview: http://www.pbs.org/now/arts/sendak.html

      I remember our relatives used to come from the old country, those few who got in before the gate closed, all on my mother’s side. And how we detested them. The cruelty that children… you know, kids are hard.

      And these people didn’t speak English. And they were unkempt. Their teeth were horrifying. Nose… unraveling out of their hair, unraveling out of their noses. And they’d pick you up and hug you and kiss you, “Aggghh. Oh, we could eat you up.”

      And we know they would eat anything, anything. And so, they’re the wild things.

    • Elissa Gershowitz says:

      Love :)
      Our new catchphrase at home will be: “No, Joan! Don’t convert the baby!” (Formerly: “Can I get back to you on that?”, channeling Gantos)

      • Because the history of trying to “civilize” and “Christianize” (convert) Native people involved death and brutal violence, I find joking or humor about conversion to be insensitive.

      • Elissa Gershowitz says:

        Debbie, same for Jews, of course, which is the context for this conversion joke between myself (Jewish) and Lisa Silverman (Jewish). You don’t have to find a joke about not converting Jewish babies funny, but we surely can.

      • I’ve already warned Elissa not to bring the babies into the office lest I get em with the Holy Water.

      • Yeah, having grown up as one of the few Jewish people in a small town where people tried to convert me *all of the time*, I can’t find this funny, either.

      • Ellissa, it was at this point in the book where I really thought Joan might have committed a fatal mistake with her explanation of the crucifix. How delighted I was with the way Schlitz chose for the characters to react in a variety of ways.

  36. michael grant says:

    I have a book coming out that has a scene set at the dining room table of a Jewish family.

    Some of the people at my publisher thought it might offend Jews. I am a Jew, well, Jewish enough for the average Nazi not to like me. The scene was a very toned-down version of what I was part of at my grandparent’s table, where growing up I wasn’t entirely sure that my grandfather’s name wasn’t “Sam-you-son-of-a-bitch.” At least according to “Goddammit-Ethel.”* It’s the one scene in the whole book which is taken from my own, personal experience. Cliché? Yep. Real? Yep.

    When it becomes offensive to portray reality honestly we are no longer on the side of the angels.

    *Side note: they had a great love affair. Teller (of Penn and) wrote about Ethel in his autobiography.

  37. Molly Sloan says:

    Well, I turn my back on Heavy Medal for a few busy days and I miss out on one of the most spirited conversations I can remember about a book that is front and center of consciousness this fall! Thank you for your insightful Jewish perspective, Lisa. My response to the portrayals of Jewish culture were very similar to yours. I am not Jewish myself but I serve as the librarian at a Jewish Day School. I am grateful that Schlitz has turned her considerable talents to portraying a Jewish family and Jewish culture and that it is garnering such critical acclaim (as well as critical ire!). Always on the lookout for well-written, artful books with Jewish characters and themes to add to my collection, I am often frustrated and disappointed by the shallow, didactic or shoddy materials I find. At 400 pages, The Hired Girl is certainly not shallow; the first person diary style prevents it from being didactic and if it is a dime store novel, it’s not a shoddy one.

    Though I am especially glad to have The Hired Girl to add to our Jewish Day School library, I’m not yet convinced that it is most distinguished book of the year. Like Jonathan, I found the first 80 pages a slog. Intellectually I agree with the comments many of you have made that argue we need the difficulties portrayed in Joan’s farm life to understand her sheltered POV and to sympathize with her complete rejection of her former life. But I still found the first quarter of the book difficult to get through. If I felt that way, I am sure many young readers won’t persevere to meet the Rosenbachs or Malka or to witness Joan’s development.

    Another question I have is the intended audience. For most of the book I found it to be squarely within the Newbery age range. But it took a sudden YA turn for me when Joan threw herself at David that rainy night. Lisa S., I think, mentioned it in her post as the possibility of forbidden marriage, but Joan was actually offering herself as a mistress to him. She was ready to throw her reputation to the wind and follow him across the Atlantic, in the fashion of the best dime store heroines! The Rosenbachs and Malka even mistakenly assume that scandal had occurred when they find Joan in David’s room robed in his bed-spread. As an adult reader I cringed (again) at this part, witnessing more of Joan’s folly, and impulsivity. However I think that it will be confusing and a bit lost on a lot of my kids. I think I would have to re-read this section assuming the point of view of one of my 7th graders to say for sure, but was anyone else concerned about the age range of this book in terms of Newbery? There was also the attempted rape scene when she arrives in Baltimore to consider as a matter relevant to the age range discussion.

    I have a Newbery Club of thoughtful 5th-8th graders who are madly reading the “contenders” this fall. I will let you know what their response is to this book later.

    Thank you all for your spirited discussion of this book. You’ve raised thought provoking points in your comments that cause me to view the book again from different points of view. It has been most illuminating.

    • Brenda Martin says:

      Thanks for mentioning the age range question, Molly, which was another facet of this book that hasn’t really been mentioned. We have it cataloged as Teen here, and the sweet spot is most likely 12-16. Possibly even higher for those who like historicals. None of which makes it ineligible for Newbery consideration, but as opposed to her previous titles, this would be on the upper end of the range.

  38. Jonathan–

    For some reason I’m not able to respond in thread, so I’ll answer here. To me, it doesn’t offer that balance. I agree that Solomon’s observance is presented more sympathetically, but for me that doesn’t work against what’s happening in the scene in the kitchen.

    There are other elements in the text I do think offer some counterweight. Joan’s view of Mrs R becomes more nuanced, and Mrs. R. also later expresses anger at the conversion attempt– the only time anyone other than Malka is angry at Joan for something connected to religion. It’s also clear that part of Joan’s initial sense of Mrs. R. is tied up with her wish for a mother figure, and of course Joan develops affection for Malka, too. But for me this doesn’t undo what’s happening in that particular scene. Obviously others read it differently.

    I am a little surprised to see people wholeheartedly agreeing with the novel’s presentation of books like Ivanhoe and Daniel Deronda. There’s an influential book by Harold Fisch called The Dual Image, which looks at classic representations of Jewish people in British and American literature. In it, Fisch discusses how depictions of Jewish people were often bifurcated, sometimes within the same text or author’s body of work, into villainous and noble. Fisch cites both Ivanhoe and Deronda as examples (and also the dual figures in Dickens’ works.) For myself, I see a lot of the “noble” image in Hired Girl (the word is used often). And I also see Joan, who eventually reads against the villainous characterizations of Jews in her books, continuing to view the noble stereotype as positive.

    This reading is also shared by Mr. R. in his discussion of Dickens. Here, I saw this as being connected to Mr. R’s greater stance regarding the possibility of assimilation and ultimate acceptance. Mr R locates the true effects of antisemitism in the Old Country, in contrast to the U.S.– where he sees protection and a value placed on religious liberty. He speaks of America, and its value of tolerance, in reverential tones. I wonder how others read this. David does briefly contradict his father’s thoughts on America. And David is also the only character in the entire book who ever actually experiences any *effects* of antisemitism– which, notably, is also only discussed as being a prejudice against a religion. The book takes place two years before the lynching of Leo Frank, and at a time when antisemitism was on the rise in the US. (Not to mention other racial prejudice and violence.) Do people think we are supposed to take Mr. R’s thoughts at face value, or read against them?

    Going back to the passage initially under discussion– as others have mentioned, here and in the scenes where Joan plays Indian with Oskar, and in the passage about conquistadors, there is no contextualization or counterpoint offered in the story at all. (The line about the Irish does get a counterpoint, in the character of Kitty.) Similarly, there was another passage that seemed to come out of the blue and which was never taken up again. In this case, the thoughts come from David, not Joan. Discussing the rejection of his art because of his religion, he says: “When I’m painting, my religion is painting! I could paint Mahomet flying into the sky on a peacock, or a jackass, or whatever the hell it was.”
    I obviously have problems with the treatment of Judaism in the book, but for those who don’t: would you feel differently if Joan’s attitudes didn’t evolve over the course of the story, and there was never any indication that there was anything wrong, say, in her attempt to convert Oskar?

    • Sarah, I appreciated reading your comment very much, and I’m certainly not disagreeing with you on any of it, though I read the book differently.

      On Mr. R and the reverential way he spoke about America – something about that really spoke to me. I related to a lot of the characters by connecting them to people I know (with Malka especially), but for Mr. R, I found that attitude reminiscent of first or second-generation American Jews who were either personally familiar or who had heard from parents about European antisemitism. I read that line not as America being perfect, though it certainly comes across that way, but as there now being a place, for the first time in 2,000 years of Jewish history, where it is actually illegal to attack someone for being a Jew.

      If Joan’s attitude didn’t evolve over the course of the book, I would probably be horrified by everything. I found the book so poignant and humorous because the text highlights how wrong Joan is, and it does so through her own telling.

  39. Bina Williams says:

    Thank you, Molly, for mentioning the “Joan/Janet” throwing herself at David…I had issues with the idea that at 23 (was that his age?) year old man kissing a 14 year old…even though he thought she was 18, it still raised my eyebrows… On another note, I also felt that Mr. Rosenbach was too all forgiving all the time and Mrs. Rosenbach was too rigid all the time… I wanted to like this book more than I did although I love Laura Amy Schlitz’s writing.

    • Bina, I found Mrs. Freyda Rosenback one of the most complex characters and often could not anticipate her responses. Grilling Joan about references and running away from home and then laughing and speaking about Rebecca being her favorite character in Ivanhoe; taking Joan’s side in the kashrut incident; wanting Malka to serve oyster patties to the bridge club; threatening to throw Joan out of the house if she ever spoke of her religion to Oskar again: and taking Joan’s side in the incident in David’s bedroom are some examples.

  40. Lisa Silverman says:

    I am guessing that Schlitz set out to write a novel for youth in the 19th century melodramatic vein of all the many novels she name-drops with fabulous abandon–Deronda, Oliver Twist, Ivanhoe, Jane Eyre, Dombey & Son, etc. The publisher missed an opportunity–this could have been serialized as her diary blog posts. (Although I would have advised them to disable the comments section!)

    Because I noticed that this thread is lacking commentary from 12 year olds, I guess we old folk (oops–sorry if that was offensive) are doing our best to unravel the author’s intentions and depiction of various ethnicities and we all have strong opinions about those things because we know or have experienced actual historical events. I don’t think kids think like we do when reading what is, in essence, melodrama, and a darn good story.

    The first 80 pages were not a slog to me in the least. I was outraged! I was incensed! was drawn in to the horror of it all and shouted at her to remember the darn money in the doll already. But she had to wait for the book burning incident to go that far. I know a 5th grade girl who reads so much (and won’t go to bed on time) that her Dad threatened to take away all her books. I’m handing her this book the minute she walks through the library next time.

    On another note, the lynching of Leo Frank in Atlanta (1913) was definitely on my mind while reading this and I know Schlitz knew about it, but I thought Mr. Rosenbach’s whole-hearty embrace of what he saw as the great inclusiveness of America rang true. Even today Jews have a sixth sense for the anti-Semitic, but they feel grateful to this country as compared to the history of most every other place they have lived. I take his thoughts at face value. I do not have any expectation that he should be prescient about the rise of anti-Semitism in America or what will soon occur in Atlanta. Jews were shocked at what happened there. Complacent Jews in Germany, after their patriotic support of their country in World War I, were shocked at Kristallnacht and the rise of the Nazis. Unfortunately, it happens.

    But in response to Sarah’s thoughtful comments about 19th century literature and its depiction of the “noble Jew”–she is certainly right. Most of the Jews in these books were depicted as far from noble and the one or two characters that got good treatment were a bit over the top, indeed. But I believe that the authors were making statements by introducing these “noble” characters into literature of the time. Since The Hired Girl is written mimicking this genre, the narration falls into these ennobling characterizations. But I think Jewish readers, or especially Orthodox Jewish readers, would be delighted in reading positive portrayals of Jewish families from a Newbery winning author of such stature as Laura Amy Schlitz. The last portrayal of an over-the-top noble Jew in Newbery history was of Abraham Zacuto, the Portuguese astronomer, in Agnes Danforth Hewes novel, “Spice and the Devil’s Cave”. But that was 1930. I’m certain that Schlitz will never be seen as “the Philip Roth of Children’s Literature”, so I am fine with another noble portrayal every 85 years.

  41. As people know, this conversation was also taken up by Betsy Bird at Fuse8 and by Roger Sutton at Read Roger. I responded at Roger’s blog and am pasting my comment here, too, for those who aren’t reading that blog. There, Elissa (who has also commented here) wrote about what Schlitz does in the book:

    Elissa said “Schlitz is asking readers to question society’s harmful beliefs at every, single turn.”

    Being able to question assumes that readers have the knowledge they need to pose those questions. When Jonathan raised THE HIRED GIRL discussion at Heavy Medal, he pointed to what Joan says about Indians being “civilized.”

    I do not think most kids in US classrooms have the background knowledge to question society’s harmful beliefs about Indians. There’s a lot of evidence people are clueless–today–about society’s beliefs about Indians.

    Indeed, Schlitz has her characters play Indian later in the book. There is nothing in that part of the book that pushes back on the harm of that particular act. Based on past discussions, I know there are a great many people who think there is no harm in depicting that act. It is well-trod ground here on Read Roger.

    Schlitz’s intent aside, the words in THE HIRED GIRL are what we have to work with. The October 2015 White House report on American Indian and Alaska Native Education was released a few days ago. The testimony of Native children, talking about how their peers and teachers treat them, is difficult to read. For those who want to read the report, here is the link:
    http://sites.ed.gov/whianiane/files/2015/10/school-environment-listening-sessions-final-report.pdf

    My guess is some people will find a way to discredit their voices. I can’t turn away from it, and I hope that my contributions to the discussion are useful to readers who want to see all children uplifted by the words they read in a book–especially those that are singled out for distinction. Those are the ones that kids will be assigned to read.

    • Debbie, I thank you for sharing the link to that report and agree that it is difficult reading, sickening and sad. And given the experiences people of color have throughout our country, depressingly unsurprising. I am fortunate in being in a school where there is a strong commitment to addressing equity and it is challenging — just as this conversation has been.

      A few days ago I started a reread of The Hired Girl to better understand the comments here and elsewhere. And while I do recognize that it is a book that contains racist, stereotypic, anti-Semitic, and similar hurtful attitudes, situations,and statements which makes it not for all readers, my second reading —especially because it was done alongside this conversation — makes me feel that it is a work of bravery. Schlitz has gone out on a limb in creating a protagonist who is so full of confused ideas, who constantly mangles and muddles and messes up. There is a brief author note at the end where Schlitz explicitly notes that “I have tried to be historically accurate about language” and recognizes how certain words that she uses in the book may be offensive, but that she used them because “These are the words that were used at that time.” I don’t wish to reopen the questions around this as much as present it as evidence that the author wrote this book with great care and that when she used something that was likely to be offensive today (e.g. the several American Indian moments), she did it to further the central aspect of this novel — that of the learning and growth of a young woman — and I think she was successful in doing so. For me, going along on this young woman’s journey — one of discovery, learning, awakening, contemplation, and growing awareness –during this discussion caused me to admire the craft of its creation even more.

      In the final chapter Joan writes of being forced to write her father and of his response. “…He added that if I wanted to live with a pack of dirty Jews it was all right with him, only I’d better not think I could come sashaying home. When I left Steeple Farm, I left forever. And I don’t think a man who never washes his neck has any right to cast aspirations on the Jews.” (p 384.) Perhaps there are Jewish readers who will find this along with the earlier uncomfortable statements and behaviors about Judaism to be not for them. But it was for this reader — one who believes in engaging with difficult topics, who worries when doing with children —but still does with the difficult material trying to be aware of the potential for hurt, who works to recognize where she messes up (hopefully not as badly as Joan, but it still happens) and works to do better next time. This is what Joan does repeatedly through the novel and so I think she is a fabulous character for so many young readers to meet and travel along side in this Bildungsroman, coming of age story.

      • Monica,

        Native people appear in children’s books in stereotypical ways, and sometimes–as I think you’re saying here–as a device for someone’s journey of understanding.

        This happens again and again and again. In book after book after book. Someone else’s need, or some theme, or some point, is held up as more important than what an author does with respect to Native people. We’re thrown under that bus, again and again and again.

        When will someone say no to that pattern? Will someone on the Newbery Committee this year say no to it? I guess we’ll know in January.

      • Monica and Debbie, I just want to briefly address both of your responses before a longer blog post on my own site: The book as a whole, to me, is all about Joan’s misconceptions, especially on religions (but not exclusively so), and how they are corrected along the way and her genuine struggles, even after the story in the book is done. Every time, Schlitz makes Joan think a certain way that’s in keeping with the times and her own narrow world view, she also pairs the scenario with new understandings and learned concepts, either from another character or from Joan’s own realization. I just think that our discussion here seems to not have gone to really point out the large and courageous thing that Schlitz attempted. In my view, she succeeded beautifully — tackling religions and cultures in ways that we don’t see enough these days.

        I still feel that the two references in the book to the Native Americans are in concert with Joan’s world and mindset. She also talks about many other groups, be they upper class, artists, writers, farmers, wives/husbands, lower class, Irish, Negro: because that’s how a rounded protagonist needs to be presented. For those who have not read the book but followed these comments, it would seem that all Joan thinks about are Jews, Catholics, and American Indians, which is really not the case.

      • On another note: Heavy Medal is a heavily-speculative blog. I don’t believe or think that it should hold sway over the actual Newbery discussion by the 15 officially elected and appointed committee members. I think certain points raised in the children’s literature community, over authenticity, styles, character development, child-appeal, etc. could definitely seep into the conversation just because these committee members do not function in vacuum. However, I truly believe that the process is a solid and well-honed one, and that we simply cannot second guess what’s being expressed or discussed in those many hours of intense meeting (or the many months of dedicated preparation.)

  42. Such an interesting and lively discussion. Thank you!

    In considering this thread I see two values that are of necessity in tension. On the one hand it’s important to remember honestly, accurately, even viscerally, the traumas of the past so that we may learn to do better in the future. Denying, diminishing, or erasing the suffering of the past serves nobody, neither the oppressed nor the oppressor. And to that end, it’s vital for readers to encounter past prejudices and misinformed well-intentioned people who do monstrous things and out right villains who commit attrocities.

    On the other hand, recalling past trauma risks re-traumatising people who are in many cases still suffering from current injustices and the lingering toxicity of past wrongs. I see this as not a matter of one side being right and the other being wrong but both sides being right and yet in opposition to one another. Hence the spirited discussion.

    Two commenters’ words particularly resonated with me. Leonard Kim, I liked what you had to say in your third comment. “As a teenager, I would rather have had something to be outraged about.”
    I agree completely! Some of my favorite memories as a teen involved riding the bus to debate tournaments and discussing religion in a group of Catholic, reform Jewish, Baptists, Sikh, and Greek Orthodox debaters. One among us was trying to figure out how to tell his parents he was an atheist. We argued for hours. We probably each said our share of ignorant and unkind things but I learned a lot from those conversations. I read things I wouldn’t have otherwise, attended services I might never have seen. They were not always comfortable conversations. My Baptist friends brought some anti-Catholic tracts for me to study. I was already familiar with many of the Catholic atrocities committed across history. The news that the pope was the anti-Christ and drank the blood of aborted children from a chalice made of a skull was an eye-opener. But I would not have traded those experiences for a more comfortable or supportive representation of my religion.

    I also appreciated what Molly Sloan had to say. “Always on the lookout for well-written, artful books with Jewish characters and themes to add to my collection, I am often frustrated and disappointed by the shallow, didactic or shoddy materials I find.”
    I too find depictions of religion in mainstream published books rare and often shallow. But here is a book that gets at belief–growing belief–in an authentic and complex way. How wonderful that it’s perfect for readers 12-14, an age when children are preparing for their bar and bat mitzvahs and confirmations, when they are deciding whether and to what depth they will observe their faith of origin. Wouldn’t it be lovely to have a joint book discussion of The Hired Girl between a Jewish day school and a parochial school?
    Which brings me to my final thought. These children we are so concerned about don’t exist in a void but live in a community where they are surrounded by teachers, parents, librarians, coaches, pastors, rabbis, grandparents and friends. An individual reader may or may not grasp the nuances of this book alone but I have great confidence in the community to help each child find the most helpful understanding of a book in light of that child’s own circumstances. Ultimately, in my opinion, the conversation a book inspires far more valuable than the mere text on the page.

    • Rosanne–

      I don’t think anyone’s asking that authors not write about historical traumas, and write about them with accuracy. If you haven’t seen it, there’s a discussion about this in the comments section on Betsy Bird’s post, too.

      I hope people will also click on the link Debbie provided, which addresses both your point about preferring “having something to be outraged about” and the school environments students might be in. On that last point: my boyfriend is from Florida, and when he was home visiting over the summer he went to see his niece perform in her school marching band. Her game was against Choctawatchee High School. This is what happened on the field: http://www.okaloosa.k12.fl.us/choctaw/Spirit/traditions.htm (You can listen to the songs by clicking on the links to the left.) That’s a public high school, where in 2015 playing Indian is an integral part of athletic and academic life. The idea that those non-Native students reading a passage about playing Indian would see it as a critical commentary because the narrator is unreliable, without anything in the text that specifically contextualizes or indicates criticism of playing Indian (or be helped to see it as such by their teachers) is just strange to me. And to the deeper question of why that matters, I’d point back to the link Debbie provided above.

      • Sarah, when I say “recalling past trauma risks re-traumatising people who are in many cases still suffering from current injustices” that is me agreeing with you that the information in the report that Debbie shared and the link you provided is indeed sickening and sad.

        I used to see mascot rituals like the ones you link to at Choctawatchee High School here in Oregon all the time. And we had thousands of long and involved and impassioned conversations state-wide about the issue of First Nations mascots. And then we passed a law several years ago requiring public schools to change all mascots and school names and sports rituals that involved First Nations in any way. I think Debbie might have written about this at the time the law passed. I’m not recalling the exact date of the legislation but there was a 5 year phase in process to allow fundraising for new uniforms, repainted gyms, new signage, and so forth. It’s obviously not the end of all racism against First Nations in the state but it is possible for the type of conversations we are having here to occur in a broader swath of the population and result in real change.

    • Rosanne, I think your ideas regarding the value of using The Hired Girl with an interfaith Catholic/Jewish group of children are brilliant. I will certainly express your ideas to my rabbi.

  43. Anti-Semitism is real. Racism is real. Ignoring those facts is far more harmful than portraying them accurately and in context, and in the context of an ultimately anti-bias message, which is just what is done in The Hired Girl.

    Not only that, but I agree that it is rare – and valuable – to find a children’s book in which faith is important. Joan ceases trying to convert her employers’ child when she comes to understand that her employers’ faith is as central to them as hers is to her.

  44. Leonard Kim says:

    I wonder whether this discussion is pointing towards more Printz rather than Newbery appropriateness for this book? I believe we’re moving (or at least I am) towards the opinion that the problematic aspects are intentional on the author’s part. (I would argue that even the incidental mention of children’s play is intentional). Wouldn’t the Printz readership be better-expected to handle the problematic aspects in the way the author might have hoped? Whereas there might be a concern that a Newbery readership (even 13-14) might not and be thus more vulnerable to unintended hurt and victimization.

    • Leonard, I might not have come in contact with 13/14 year old readers across the nation, but I am doubtful that readers of that age really will have so much trouble understanding and making inferences of Joan’s thoughts: since her initial thoughts on the Jewish people are proven incorrect and also her understanding grows as the story unfolds, wouldn’t the readers be able to infer that her thoughts on the Native Americans follow a similar trajectory? (My 7th and 8th grade students will be able to make this connection.)

    • Jonathan Hunt Jonathan Hunt says:

      While I do think THE HIRED GIRL is fair game for the Printz committee, the Newbery criteria explicitly state that the Newbery committee is not to consider whether it might be “better suited” for the Printz.

      A book may be considered even though it appeals to a fairly small part of the age range if the committee feels that
      * it is so distinguished that everyone of that age should know the book;
      or
      * it is so distinguished, in so many ways, that it deserves recognition for the excellence it provides to a small but unique readership;
      or
      * it is exceptionally fine for the narrow part of the range to which it appeals, even though it may be eligible for other awards outside this range.

    • Leonard Kim says:

      Yes I know the committee can’t consider Printz eligibility. (That said, an audience of only mature 14-year-olds seems to me considerably less than “a fairly small part of the age range.” Nor do I consider mature 14-year-olds a “unique” readership.) What I’m really saying, and this is response to Roxanne as well, is that even as a strong student at age 14, I was not yet “there” in my reading abilities in terms of being able to do close reading, considering context, being sensitive to hidden meaning, unreliable narration, irony, nuance, etc. That’s an age where one is still learning and being taught how to do such things in school. Consider that high school students today have to be explicitly taught how to read something like Huck Finn at around the age of 16. And that’s the kind of reading ability I feel we’re asking of our Newbery audience with respect to some of these issues in the Hired Girl.

      • Jonathan Hunt Jonathan Hunt says:

        Like many of us, I have learned much from this conversation and I can’t pretend to have seen all of these implications on my own. If we who are adults cannot fully appreciate and unpack all the nuances of this text on a first reading, what makes us think children will? Sure, I think Schlitz shows great respect for her young audience and many of them will rise to the occasion and grasp essential elements of what she is trying to do, but the reality is that people read books and take what they need, so I cannot begin to predict the full range of child responses to the text. The same person can read this book at various ages and read completely different books.

  45. Jonathan Hunt Jonathan Hunt says:

    I think there are two ways to read Joan’s “civilized” statement. You can read civilized to mean the opposite of savage. There’s certainly a long history of this in regard to American Indians and so through this lens, it seems only right that Debbie would ask if assimilation equates to civilization with the clothing as a token of this. So, on the one hand, I think Debbie is justified in taking offense to this passage. But I have been reading Debbie’s blog long enough to know that too often people think of Indians as a historical phenomenon rather than a contemporary one. You can read civilized as Joan’s acknowledgement that there is a stereotype of how Indians are, but that she knows there are contemporary Indians who wear modern clothing rather than headdresses and moccasins and such. I think this, too, is an entirely valid way to read the text. Can both readings coexist at the same time? Or is this an either/or conundrum?

    • Jonathan–

      Your latter reading still depends on the assumption that American Indians who wore and wear “headdresses and moccasins and such” aren’t “civilized”.

      • Jonathan Hunt Jonathan Hunt says:

        I don’t think it does, actually. She is essentially saying, “I know there is a stereotype that Indians are this way, but I also know that stereotype to be untrue.” I don’t think she is actually making a value judgment on whether Indians are civilized.

      • Not to bring the discussion in another direction, but I feel like I’d be remiss if I didn’t also touch another point: while the novel includes characters of varying religious observance, as has been discussed, there are other ways that the Jewish people it depicts are quite homogeneous. The Rosenbachs are an affluent family in an affluent urban Jewish community (something that hasn’t really been talked about here, and which in addition to other dynamics also seems to fit with the “successful” immigration/assimilation story). They are also Ashkenazi. There’s a brief mention of tensions between Eastern and Western European Jews, but no mention of Sephardic Jews that I can remember? I don’t know what the responsibility of one book is to address or represent everyone, but it just felt important to mention this– and that Joan’s encounters with “Jewish people” are really encounters with a particular group of Jewish people. Monica mentioned the author’s note, and I think this was a place Schlitz missed an opportunity to give more, and broader information to help readers make these contextualizations. This definitely goes for information about history of Native people in this time and place, too.

      • Jonathan Hunt Jonathan Hunt says:

        Sarah, I don’t mind taking the conversation in a different direction. I think you’ve brought up some very interesting points. Obviously, no book can represent Jews and Judaism in its entirety, but it’s good to know what’s missing. Many of the servants I have read about in children’s literature have involved African Americans working for Southern whites (I think somebody even referenced THE HELP on one of these many posts scattered across the internet, no?). In that light, it’s a different perspective to have the tables turned and have the white servant working for the Other. I don’t seem to remember the author’s note, and I wonder if it was included in the ARC. I agree that it was a missed opportunity for Schlitz especially if she discussed other problematic elements of the text.

    • Mia Thompson says:

      (Yes, I know I’m a *little* late to this conversation, but this thread is really interesting.) Sarah- As an observant Jew myself, I think that it is a little unrealistic to assume that Schlitz can accurately portray every branch of the faith in one book, especially coming from a book that is largely set in one place. In order to really touch on every aspect of Judaism, be it Sephardic vs. Ashkenazi (which does happen to be the large majority of Jews), Reform vs. Conservative vs. Orthodox, being kosher to its varying degrees along with the moral aspects of it, or any other subdivision of the religion. On that note, there is the question of whether it’s beneficial to represent the majorities or the minorities. Judaism is, to some extent, a minority, even if it’s not “oppressed” nowadays in America.

      Since this book was partially based on historical context, Schlitz may have just been trying to portray a scenario that was realistic at the time. The truth is, a Jewish family that wasn’t affluent probably wouldn’t have the money or the status to be able to take in a girl of the streets to work for them. I know Sephardic Jews may have gotten here first, but right around the time the story takes place, a lot of Ashkenazi Jews were emigrating from Germany and Eastern Europe. Sephardic Jews, however, came to America much earlier than most Ashkenazi Jews, due to their being expelled from Spain. In fact, the first JEWISH congregation was a Sephardic one founded in 1684 in what is now New York. I believe Schlitz did a historical disservice by making the family Ashkenazic, but I do think that when the plot centers around such a touchy subject for some people (just look at this discussion!) familiarity can be a key element to the story, as Ashkenazi practices are better known to non-Jews, as far as I know.

  46. Seems to me that if Joan knew enough to know about stereotyping of Native people, she’d also know enough not to invite Oskar to play Indian…

    You recall that part? They make a tent and Oskar hunts buffalo. What image does that bring up? Stereotyped ways of thinking about Indians.

    • Jonathan Hunt Jonathan Hunt says:

      Debbie, I’m thinking aloud with this line of thought . . . which means I’m putting these ideas out there, but I’m not completely sure what I think of them myself.

      Can a text be problematic and not problematic at the same time, depending on which lenses one looks through? I can absolutely see your point of view. The use of the word “civilized” triggers a civilized/savage dichotomy especially in relation to the clothing. I think the before/after image that you posted in your blog post communicates this as powerfully and viscerally as anything that you’ve written.

      But I also wonder if–based on Joan’s use of present tense (there *are* Indians)–whether she is saying that there is a stereotype of Indians and that contemporary Indians don’t conform to that stereotype in various ways. This is a generous reading, to be sure, and there is certainly no way to excuse the playing Indian (historically accurate though it may be). At best, we see Joan’s perspective on American Indians as flawed.

      Does Schlitz have a pattern of introducing polarizing and contradictory elements: Malka’s comic Orthodoxy vs. Solomon’s Orthodoxy, the conversion of the baby vs. her rumination on how marrying David would affect her faith. I believe she even briefly considers converting to Judaism, but I can’t remember and don’t have the text on hand. And awareness of Indian stereotypes vs. playing Indian. Earlier I questioned whether these balance each other, and Sarsh didn’t think so, I’m inclined to agree that “balance” is probably not the right word, but I do think their presence in the text creates nuance and complexity, making it hard to definitely label Joan one thing or another. Is she ignorant? Is she prejudiced? Probably a little bit of both. And probably not unlike most of us, either.

      Again, I’m not committed to this line of thought. Just thinking aloud here . . .

      • Both American Indian moments are carefully paralleled with Joan’s ignorance/evolving understanding. In the first instance, as has been examined and discussed here, she expresses surprise that Jews exist in the way that American Indians do. In the second, out of desperation to entertain Oskar, she remembers a game that she played with her brother on the farm — a playing Indian game. It is as this ends that she comes up with the idea to convert him (page 302). This is followed with Joan first attempting to justifying it to herself and then, finally (page 307), coming to understand how wrong it was. . So whether you think they are successful or not both are carefully positioned and contextualized.

      • But the coming to see how wrong it was refers to the conversion attempt, not to playing Indian. Earlier I asked Jewish readers who liked the book whether they would have felt differently if there hadn’t been a moment where Joan specifically regretted the conversion scene, or where the text otherwise showed it to be misguided. Say that the reader has general information that shows Joan is flawed and holds prejudiced views, but that the conversion itself is left unaddressed. I think most would be uncomfortable with that? And this is the situation with playing Indian– there is the larger context of Joan’s flawed thinking, but nothing that specifically counteracts those moments.

  47. I’ve gathered my thoughts on the book into a single blog post, viewable here:
    http://americanindiansinchildrensliterature.blogspot.com/2015/10/a-native-perspective-of-laura-amy.html

    • Jonathan Hunt Jonathan Hunt says:

      Debbie, thanks for such a thoughtful, comprehensive post. I really appreciate the links to all the various discussions around the internet as I was only aware of Fuse #8 and Read Roger. Off to read the rest.

  48. Monica wrote “It is as this ends that she comes up with the idea to convert him (page 302). This is followed with Joan first attempting to justifying it to herself and then, finally (page 307), coming to understand how wrong it was. . So whether you think they are successful or not both are carefully positioned and contextualized.”

    Is this the passage you mean, Monica?

    “I recalled what happened with Oskar and felt uncomfortable. I explained to God how good my intentions were, and how it was just too bad of Mrs. Rosenbach to be so cold and withering. But I felt as if I’d missed something. At last I asked the Blessed Mother what she thought, and she said, “Well, you see, Joan, they trusted you.” It was then that I saw I’d been wrong. I knew all along that converting Oskar was going against the Rosenbachs’ wishes. I went behind their backs. It was a kind of betrayal.”

  49. Nina Lindsay Nina Lindsay says:

    Everyone, thank you for delving even more deeply into this. I appreciate the lines of questioning happening. I want to thank Debbie for collecting and sharing her thoughts, and Monica for her deep readings. Monica, and Elissa, I still ultimately disagree with the end result (Newbery-Worthiness) of what I think I hear in your arguments. I *agree* that the complex readings you are giving this exist for some readers, and were intended. But even that reading (which is not the only one we should expect from intended readers, as it is VERY subtle) I find to be problematic, because it *uses* the stereotypes of First Nations/Native people in service of Joan’s story. Her problematic views about “Indians” are not the point. They are a tool. They appropriate someone else’s trauma in service of telling a story about a different trauma. I believe this is what Debbie means when she refers in her blog to “instances in which gatekeepers throw Native people under the bus”: http://americanindiansinchildrensliterature.blogspot.com/2015/10/a-native-perspective-of-laura-amy.html

  50. Karyn Silverman says:

    There’s probably an automated trackback waiting for approval, but in the meantime — THANK YOU all for this conversation. I’ve been lurking and pondering and in the end I wrote up my thoughts for Someday (http://blogs.slj.com/printzblog/2015/10/26/printzbery-part-1/), with lots of linkbacks, rather than writing them here, because all along my reading had been contextualized by the fact that I was only reading with an eye towards the YA award. (Also, I don’t think that I really had anything new to offer, except that the award context is different.)

    • Jonathan Hunt Jonathan Hunt says:

      Not showing a trackback needing to be approved. Probably lost in cyberspace and will arrive next year. I enjoyed reading your thoughts on the book, Karyn.

  51. This is from an almost (in two weeks) 14 year-old student at my school. (For those who follow the Battle of the Kids’ Books this is Kid Commentator NS.)

    I thought The Hired Girl was great, while I was reading it at least. The familiarity Schlitz put into the book, and the endearing naivety Joan possesses shines through in a vaguely kind, albeit misguided way, rather than a malicious one. A comment made about Samuel’s nose when she met him for the first time was, unbeknownst to me, perceived as anti-Semitic. As a Jew myself, I took no offense to this remark. In a different context, perhaps, I would have felt insulted, but Joan is shocked, even outraged when she hears that anti-Semitism exists, not even crossing her mind to think if she practiced it or not. Growing up where she did, it may have been a blessing of sorts to never be exposed to anyone Jewish, because she became more tolerant than many Catholics at the time. Although she did try to convert the Rosenbachs, it wasn’t out of malice or of an idea that she was superior to them; it was simply her trying to find a purpose to her running away and her life with them. The priest at her church was more indicative of the mindset around Jews at the time, considering he believed it was wrong of Joan to work for them when she could be working for the Possits, a Catholic family, instead, calling her obstinate when she refused. However, I believe it was merely a lack of exposure to diverse people that led her to make potentially disrespectful comments, not an underlying anti-Semitic mindset.

    • Thanks for this, Monica, and I appreciate hearing this perspective. I’m intrigued by the contradiction here between the idea that lack of exposure to Jewish people protected Joan from learning antisemitic attitudes (Schlitz says something similar in the SLJ interview about the book) and the idea that it’s contact with Jewish people that helps her unlearn biased attitudes. To me, the comment reflects an internal contradiction that’s there in the book, too. Of course, I don’t think it’s exposure to Jewish people that teaches antisemitism. And I also have my own questions about a narrative that says contact with Jewish people is the primary means for undoing those prejudices. (By which I don’t mean to discount the power and truth of those personal experiences and changes, which I VERY much believe to be true. But more that I wonder about the prevalence of this narrative, especially in books for young people which are, as you describe, variations on the Bildungsroman. I’m not sure about the tendency to describe the work of undoing racism and prejudice always within this personal frame, brought on by the lessons imparted in getting to know and love others, with the structures and systems of prejudice always left outside of that personal framework. Not to mention that at both sides of the contradiction, the responsibility for prejudice lies with those it targets.) Related to this contradiction, I’ve been thinking a lot about the idea of innocence as described in the book and discussions about it (the word people have used most is naive, but I think that’s another term for innocent here.) Is Joan innocent, or is she prejudiced? Has she been protected from learning prejudice, or is her naivité that she’s unaware of her prejudices? Is it that she’s read books that include villainous portraits of Jews and absorbed ideas she needs to unlearn, or is she a blank slate since she lived in the country (with a father who refers to “dirty Jews”) and knows nothing of antisemitism? Is it just that she, with her large, literate vocabulary, doesn’t know the word? I see a complicated shell game happening with this idea of innocence, always protecting her from responsibility for her attitudes– and, more than that, from responsibility for their effects on other people. Mrs. Rosenbach and Malka have moments where they are angry at her, but they are never hurt. Even at the conversion attempt– where the child is also unhurt and unaware. Joan’s innocence is harmless. And the Jewish people she meets gently, and generously, guide her to experience.

      • I should probably amend that to say that Malka does take Joan’s words to heart at points, and she is certainly not gentle in her demeanor– but the overall narrative is one in which Joan acts innocently, and does no real damage, and is always forgiven based on the understanding that– if misguided– she is innocent.

  52. I’m late to this discussion, but am wondering about how it fits into the Newbery criteria. When I see “the award is for literary quality,” I think of the choice the author made when including the phrase that led to this discussion. She’s created a rich, complex character, of a distinct time and background experiences. I feel like that phrase is one that the character’s creator must have felt would have come from Joan. It does not seem inconsistent with her character to me. The author made a literary choice. But some of the concerns here are focused on the possible effect of that literary choice on particular children. It can be useful and thought-provoking for us to consider those effects, but should the Committee be concerned at all? If they’re truly focusing on literary quality? I also wonder about the “not for didactic content” guideline. If the concern is that this book may teach harmful things, doesn’t that fall into those didactic elements? I think we usually think of that as a warning not to reward books for positive messages, but can we also view it as a reminder to stick to literary quality (which come from the author’s choices) rather than whether we like or dislike the messages (which comes from reader responses).

    • May December says:

      But Steven, if we were to look at the book for the Newbery criteria, we would have nothing to be outraged about. That would force some of the most vocal here to talk about the literary aspects of the book (good bad or otherwise), which doesn’t seem to be of much interest.

  53. Jonathan, in your initial post regarding The Hired Girl, I believe you said in your remarks about the first section that you thought your feelings about that first section might change if you were to reread. I’m wondering if you have reread the book by now. If so, do you have a new perspective? I read the book first on kindle, second in hardcopy with a highlighter in hand, and a third time out loud to my husband as we traveled in our RV from Maine to Arizona last week. I can see how readers might be reluctant to read through that section to reach the “real” story. Indeed, I skipped that section the third time through when reading out loud. My husband loved Joan’s story and was eager to have me read each day, but he did not ask me to go back and read that first section. My summary of the events and characters satisfied him.

    • Jonathan Hunt Jonathan Hunt says:

      I haven’t had the chance to reread it yet, but I’ve been thinking about that first section, and I think its only saving grace–and I suspected this, but Carol Edwards articulated it much better above–is that itdemonstrates that this really is Joan’s story, that she has her own arc, and it’s a quest for her religious views. I think I will enjoy that on a reread because I know and like Joan now, but I think I will always feel the pacing suffers nevertheless.

  54. I know the conversation is over, but I just wanted to add one last thought, which is really a request. This conversation has included many different perspectives and readings and interpretations. But I just wanted to ask of non-Jewish authors who are choosing to write about Jewish characters or culture or themes: please include research into common Jewish stereotypes, and stereotypical tropes, in that work of preparation before writing. I think most are familiar with the stingy miser stereotype, but are maybe less familiar with the “belle juive” or the “nice Jewish boy” or the old crone. Especially in a book that actively conjure those stereotypes from the literature of the last century, I think it’s important to be conscious of them and their continuing effects (I disagree that they’re harmless now). And, if working against them by evoking them– still something I am not convinced is happening in this book– to do so with care.

  55. May December says:

    From Marjorie Ingall’s THE BEST JEWISH CHILDREN’S BOOKS OF 2015:

    “It is. I’m not exactly sure who the audience for The Hired Girl is—it’s very long and full of literary references, and Joan is about as unreliable as a narrator gets. Some adults have taken offense at her insensitive comments about American Indians, Jews, and African-Americans. (And she insults the Irish, too!) But I think any reader who’d choose this book would understand the difference between a character and the author, and Joan is clearly someone who learns, a soul whose intentions are good, and a product of her time and circumstances. The book’s masterful, and I’m sorry for people who want to censor it. (Age 12-adult.)”

    • I whole-heartedly concur! Particularly with the last sentence. It’s a sad day indeed when librarians are the PC fear-mongers seeking to dismiss literary works at the very hint of scandal. Let’s leave that sort of faulty logic to the TV pundits.

  56. For those who do not keep up with every single children’s lit award out there, it would it be interesting to note that The Hired Girl won both national Jewish literary awards announced this month:

    SYDNEY TAYLOR BOOK AWARD (For Older Readers)
    http://sydneytaylorbookaward.blogspot.com/2016/01/2016-sydney-taylor-book-awards-announced.html

    NATIONAL JEWISH BOOK AWARD (Young Adult Category)
    http://www.jewishbookcouncil.org/awards/2015-national-jewish-book-award-winners-and-finalists

Trackbacks

  1. […] are some lively debates going on at Heavy Medal and Fuse #8 about Laura Amy Schlitz’s The Hired Girl, a presumed favorite for 2016 Newbery […]

  2. […] The Hired Girl by Jonathan Hunt and especially the Comments section by many enthusiastic readers — from Heavy Medal […]

  3. […] recent problems found in books like A Fine Dessert and The Hired Girl, along with long-standing problems in publishing in general, indicate that now more than ever, […]

  4. […] 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 […]

  5. […] his own review, though, SLJ’s Heavy Medal blogger Jonathan Hunt made it clear that while he understood what Reese saw as a problem, he […]

  6. […] eye to eye, some loved the book while others did not (a range of these responses can be seen in this Heavy Medal post) . What are we to make of these varied responses in lieu of our concern about equity? What to think […]

  7. […] a line in The Hired Girl about Native Americans. The debate continued on SLJ’s Heavy Medal blog [here and here], The Horn Book’s Read Roger blog, Book Riot, and others — and it continued to spread, […]

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