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Heavy Medal: A Mock Newbery Blog
Inside Heavy Medal

The Hired Girl, Nina’s Take

Hired GirlWell I can’t say I’ve been looking forward to this post, but I have spent a lot of time trying to figure out whether to do it at all, and what it’s about.   Jonathan and I decided we wanted this book on our shortlist, despite my own reservations about it, because it is such a strong contender.  Traditionally, we revisit each book on our shortlist, closer to discussion, so you all have a chance to share and discuss after reading it yourselves, and, traditionally, we try to trade off posts so that we’ve each penned one about each shortlisted title.  

For these reasons, for the spirit of the discussion, which is the whole point of this blog to me, it’s important to revisit this title, even though our previous discussion covered a heck of a lot of ground, and I said plenty there already.   It is always impossible to put everything you think about a book in a blog post..and a Newbery discussion is different than a written review.  For the award deliberation, I want to look at an examine EVERYTHING. It’s like closet cleaning…you take everything out, sort and organize things, toss some, put some less important things to the back…. no matter where things end up, no matter the ultimate value you assign each item, you have to touch and look at and consider each and every piece.  I know that many of you were frustrated at how much of the last discussion focused on certain parts of the book.  I can’t promise that won’t happen again, but will try, and urge us all to, touch on new perspectives.  I have now re-read the book, and while I’ll say right here that I don’t think my feelings about it have shifted a lot, I can articulate more what I appreciate about the book, and the small parts that trouble me.

Besides revisiting the many amazing comments from our previous post, I encourage you to revisit other posts on the book that have touched on the same discussion:

Debbie Reese: http://americanindiansinchildrensliterature.blogspot.com/2015/10/a-native-perspective-of-laura-amy.html

Roger Sutton: http://www.hbook.com/2015/10/blogs/read-roger/which-book-will-hurt-which-reader-how/

Betsy Bird: http://blogs.slj.com/afuse8production/2015/10/18/are-historical-heroes-allow-to-have-prejudices-in-childrens-literature/#_

Amy Koester: http://showmelibrarian.blogspot.com/2015/10/problematic-trust-why-we-cant-just.html

Monica Edinger: https://medinger.wordpress.com/2015/12/02/thoughts-on-newbery-the-nature-of-distinguished/

With that preamble, here’s my current thoughts about THE HIRED GIRL, considering it on re-read as a book under consideration for a Mock Newbery discussion, and assuming all previous discussion is still on the table and part of the conversation.

This remains one of my favorite books of the year, one whose voice and character I’m drawn to personally, and a with a sentence-level writing style that I greatly admire, and is rare in children’s books.  Opening it again, I found myself sinking into the prose like a warm bath: I was so glad to be there, and wanted to stay.   Because this book speaks to me so personally as a reader, I had to both value, and distrust, what spoke to me.  I’m trying to be aware of what I know, and bring to the book as the reader I am…understand where my personal taste and experience enter into my judgment.

There is a deliberate carelessness and abandon in Janet/Joan’s character.  We see it in the sprawling prose, which some have objected to.  The “plot” here is certainly rangy, and as someone noted Janet/Joan seems to have an awful lot of time to write, but I appreciated how realistically sprawling the diary was, and I don’t think Schlitz could have told this story without it.  It is what allows Joan to be so naive, ignorant, and wrong-headed,…and change, right before our eyes.  I don’t think I’d have believed her moments of self-insight otherwise.  Some of my favorites are the moments where she gets half an understanding about herself… it allows us to see how her mind works smartly even while immaturely: 

p.118  “I’m mad at myself for wanting Mr. Solomon to notice me, and I’m mad at him for ignoring me, as if I were invisible.”

p.241 “Skip Mass? I know that’s a sin, and the dreadful thing was, right away I began to imagine myself committing it. Just like that!”

p.260 “Sometimes it seems to me that David’s more powerful than I am—not with his muscles but in some way I can’t put my finger on—and if he sees me beating carpets, he’ll be even more powerful.”

These moments lay the groundwork for ones like this to have full impact:

p.370  “It’s a strange and piteous thing, because when I dreamed of true love, I dream of David loving me. But I was the one who loved truly. Knowing that, I can hold up my head, even though I made a fool of myself and my heart is broken.”

Given that the sheer glut of words seems crucial to the voice and character, I’m willing to forgive the book its length and occasional drag.  On both reads, I found myself thinking simultaneously, “I can’t wait to get back to the book and Janet/Joan…” and “Why? Nothing’s happening.”  First thought always was redeemed. 

This abandon is also what underlies our previous discussion about her narrow mind and changing view.  Over and over, Janet/Joan exposes her own ego-centric view and naivete based in stereotype (all perfectly age-, and time-period, appropriate).  It comes up mostly in her regards to her views of Judaism, and to show how she develops and more complex understanding of it.  As just one example, Joan struggles with what she’s read about Jews, and the little she knows of them after a few days in the Rosenbach’s house, as she considers bringing up the matter of a salary with Mrs. Rosenbach:

p.114 “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 can’t think—I don’t want to think—the Rosenbach’s are like that. Mr. Solomon was very good to me, and anyone can see that Mrs. Rosenbach is a real lady….”

She begins the next diary entry:  

p.119 “I’m just boiling with shame, because of what I wrote about the Jews having a great love of gain. I am to be paid, and handsomely.”

Though she grows in understanding, she doesn’t do so unrealistically; I think of her character by the end as a little more knowledgeable, certainly more empathetic, and still bound by stereotype.  (For instance, her repeated references to “Jewish noises,” or, towards the very end:  “p.384 “I’ve become very Jewish, because it seems to me that the real New Year begins in the fall, with housecleaning and Rosh Hashanah.”)

Here are two passages which, together, sum up for me the journey Janet/Joan has taken as a character.  In one, she is posed a riddle, in form of a story, by Mr. Rosenbach, standing in front of people ready to judge her and hold power over her.  She solves it, and shares her mature and level-headed realization:

p.347 “Mr Rosenbach’s asking me to respect his faith. He’s telling me, in a kind way, not to try to turn Oskar into a Catholic.”

A few pages later, she muses, in a way that shows us she is still a vain and romantic teenager, but a pretty smart and self-reflective one:

p.352 “I ought to open up my heart to the possibility that I deserved to be unhappy, because I’m such a sinner. …..  I spent money on clothes that I might have given to the poor; and speaking of the poor, I don’t seem to care about the poor, and the poor are very important. Of course I wish there weren’t any poor people, but I almost never think about the ones there are, and if I cared about them the way Our Lord told me to, I would worry about them once in a while. But I daydream about clothes more than I think about the poor….”

This is, in effect, Janet/Joan’s “cataloging” of herself to herself, sitting in church, waiting for God and “His chastisement,” and which leads to her moment of faith.

If Janet/Joan’s sense of “abandon,” risk-taking, crossing lines, and growing as a result, is indicative in the narrative style Schlitz employs to tell it, we should acknowledge that much of the narrative does feel like throwing things at a wall to see what sticks.  What happens to the Belinda money?  What about Luke, the one brother she actually held fondness for?  There are endless threads out there, and to some extent it’s part of the aura…  it’s certainly gives a sense through text of the image we are given of Janet/Joan, with hair astray.   It’s both a strength and a weakness of the text, because it is, by definition, unpredictable and inconsistent. 

And, in some places, it presents troubling propositions for readers.  There are many many instances of anti-Semitism or Jewish stereotyping, but I do feel that Schlitz creates enough of a development and arc of this theme that the reader understands why, and expects it…and can choose to continue, or not continue, the book, since it is clear this is what the book is about. (I am not able to resolve for myself, a white non-Jewish atheist, how well Schlitz handles anti-Semitism in this book, except to note you all have presented convincing assessments on both sides, so I have to assume both interpretations are valid and will be indicative of a spectrum of reader responses.)

In the scene on p.93 in which Janet/Joan uses “civilized Indians” as a comparison point to Jews, one we’ve talked so much about,  she produces a stereotype, immediately shows how she doesn’t feel that way anymore…and winds up with another stereotype.  This is consistent with the overall arc of her character that I’ve outlined through the whole book: she grows, but only so much.   It feels chillingly realistic…and gratuitous.  This scene leads up to Janet/Joan offering to “learn” Anti-Semitism without knowing what it is, and Mrs. Rosenbach saying “You’re right, Solly.  She is utterly without guile. And as you say, she’s a stranger in a strange land.” (p.94).    Janet/Joan’s comment about Indians may be “deliberate and damning” as many of you have argued, but damning her narrow views about Indians is not the import of this scene, nor of any other scene in the book.  In fact, it’s the later references to playing Indian that amplify the way this comment hangs out there.”‘You’re good at playing,’ Oskar said earnestly. I felt terribly pleased. But of course, one buffalo was not enough; he had to hunt another one. Then we killed a few wolves.” ( p.302.). None of this is revisited, given any thought, except for an echo on p.383 “I’ve come to love Oskar. We have splendid games together.”  

In a later comment in our first discussion, Monica called these scenes “carefully positioned and contextualized.”  I cannot agree, after re-reading several times.  The first felt carefully positioned, but as leverage for putting a different point into context.  I think the playing Indians scene was just dropped in there.  Though these are small moments in a huge text, and we trust readers to bring knowledge and critical response to a book, and to take what they learn back into the world critically… we can’t ignore the real-world context in which many children will read these scenes, when considering reader response. I do think it’s essential to at least browse the student comments in the White House report on American Indian and Alaska Native Education report Debbie pointed us to in an earlier comment, to consider how readers, Native or not, may read these comments. I think there was a carelessness, and abandon, in using these small scenes in the way Schlitz did; that it was absolutely deliberate and consistent with what she was trying to do, but that the scenes will communicate to many readers in ways she did not intend, and which break the reader’s trust, by rendering what they bring to the reading invisible.

Now: this flavor of flaw is, sadly, present in so many books today, and none is cut and dry; there’s not one kind of presentation of stereotype that is “offensive/bad” vs. “contextualized/good.”   They are all over our shelves, and in all of our media, and each presentation serves a wider discussion of bias in our communities differently.  When I consider this book for a library collection, for individual recommendation, for classroom read-aloud…I can see completely different ways to approach this text.  However, when I consider it as a singular example of the most distinguished contribution to American literature for children, I find this small but deep fault in “Interpretation of the theme or concept” and “Appropriateness of style,” in balance with what the book brings to the reader and the other questions it asks, to undermine the book’s display of “respect for children’s understandings, abilities, and appreciations” enough to make me set it aside for the Newbery.

So, this is still my tipping point, though there is even more in the scales that I haven’t brought up here.  There are many more threads in previous comments that I’m intrigued to talk about in more, including Sarah Hamburg’s delving into Jim Crow history in Baltimore during the period, and Schlitz’s use of humor, which is a large part of what draws me in. I hope that you’ll each bring your new and developing thoughts to the discussion.

 

 

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Nina Lindsay About Nina Lindsay

Nina Lindsay is the Children's Services Coordinator at the Oakland Public Library, CA. She chaired the 2008 Newbery Committee, and served on the 2004 and 1998 committees. You can reach her at ninalindsay@gmail.com

Comments

  1. Thank you, Nina, for following Heavy Medal tradition, and for writing a very thoughtful and balanced review of your assessment of Hired Girl. I must leave for an appointment now, but will come back to say more later.

  2. Several hours have passed since I responded early this morning. I selfishly wanted to try be the first commenter and am so surprised to find that I could have waited hours and still have that honor. Where is everybody?

    The Hired Girl has become the book I value over any I have previously read. I am 69 years old and a Jew-by-Choice. My conversion at the age of 43 was totally influenced by a lifelong inability to understand and accept the meaning of certain Christian beliefs about Jesus. As a young person in my family, I would have never risked disclosing those feelings. I simply went along with the practices of my elders and was actually president of the Senior High Youth group of the Methodist Church my family attended where I met my husband. After marriage we moved hundreds of miles away from both of our families. The Methodist Church was the first institution we turned to to help us begin the process of becoming comfortable in our new town. Many years later, an invitation from a former student to attend his Bar Mitzvah was the catalyst that eventually led to my conversion. I read about the beliefs of Judaism and started to attend services. When I expressed a desire to formally explore the possibility of becoming a Jew, the Reform movement welcomed me with open arms. After a period of study and active involvement in the practices of the religion, I took the plunge. I have never looked back with anything other than awe, wonder, and deep appreciation. However, I think it is very important to say, one week before the actual ceremony, I turned to my husband and said, “I’m depending on you to tell me what is “wrong” with this because I cannot find a single thing.” In my case, the influences from family and society were still very, very strong.

    I escaped negative experiences with Jewish relatives and childhood issues. However, I am very much aware of Jews who do have painful memories and issues with the religion. I have come to view a person’s religious beliefs and feelings to be as complicated and unique as a set of fingerprints. Probably because of my own personal journey, I respect all forms of religious expression to be valid and worthy and hold no idea that any one religion is somehow more “right” or “true” than another. Of course I am referring to mainstream Christianity, Judaism, Islam, etc.

    I read about The Hired Girl months before publication and couldn’t wait to read it. I was not one bit disappointed. Very positive reviews began to appear from professional sources and from several blogs I follow. Then Jonathan’s review on Heavy Medal showed me that The Hired Girl had the merits of Newbery consideration. We all know what developed in the next weeks. I have read and reread a variety of opinions and ideas several times, all the sources you provided above. I have thought much about that conversation and the various points of view. I have reread this book twice and after much effort to understand and accept the validity of the problematic issues raised, I am sad to say I still do not comprehend.

    The committee is 15 individuals we have not heard from on this blog. Each member will have personal reactions to this book. They will have limited time to discuss its merits and its weaknesses. However, The Hired Girl will also pass through the evaluative process for at least two Jewish awards.

    I find The Hired Girl to be “distinguished” for the reasons Jonathan stated in his review so many weeks ago. . . the exploration of a young girl’s search for her own religious identity. I like to envision this book in another context. How would we respond to the value of this story had Laura Amy Schlitz chosen to place Joan in a Muslim home instead of an Orthodox/Reform household. I, for one, would have been learning a wealth of new information about a religion I know very little about. More important, I would be exposed to the varieties of personal response within Islam. And most important, I would be exposed to a very wonderful display of RESPECT FOR DIFFERENCES. Mr. Rosenbach models over and over an inclusive and respectful way to handle our differences. Could anything be more needed or more important in today’s world?

    Thank you for this opportunity. I’m eager to read what others have come to believe.

    • Nina Lindsay Nina Lindsay says:

      Judy, thank you in turn to share you thoughts so clearly. I sense people are taking their time to read, consider, or even take a break from this discussion (!) but I’m sure we’ll hear from others as they are able.

  3. Thanks, Nina. I think I’ve already shared most of my own thoughts about The Hired Girl in this space, but I just wanted to leave a link to this article, if I may, as food for others’ thoughts too. (I’ll add it to the thread about Baltimore history as well– thank you for linking to that.) Debbie shared this article some time ago, and I both think of it often, and have seen it as relevant to this and other discussions about books that have continued this year. http://wowlit.org/communities/files/2011/09/Ching-cultural-authenticity1.pdf

    Also, if it’s okay, I wondered if I could leave some questions for others. I appreciate the arc you point to, in Joan’s character development, which is not straightforward but contains complexities and contradictions to the end. (In some ways this seems mirrored in her being two ages at once.) As this relates to Joan’s developing awareness of stereotypes and prejudices, I would love to hear other people’s thoughts on how they track that arc. In interviews (like one with SLJ) Schlitz has said that she sees Joan as having largely escaped antisemitism through growing up in a rural area where her primary knowledge of Jewish people came through books. I wonder what others make of this, and how people understand where Joan is when she first goes to Baltimore. Do people read her attitudes and actions at the start of that arc as coming from a place of naivité, or learned prejudice?Where does something like her father’s overt bigotry– which she would have been exposed to in living with him at the beginning of the book, but which we don’t learn about until the end–fit into this question? Another way of saying this might be: if the typical Bildungsroman charts a path from innocence to experience, do people understand Joan’s attitudes and actions leading up to a (still flawed) awareness at the book’s conclusion to be coming from a place of innocence, or of experience that she unlearns? *What* exactly does she learn about prejudice during the course of the book, and what did she know, or not know at the start? (Of course nobody has to answer these! I’m just curious to know how other readers understand that development.)

    And thanks so much for sharing your thoughts and experiences, Judy.

    • And just to add to the above questions: how does that arc frame the relationship/distinction between personal prejudices, and systems of antisemitism, racism, and power (including the scene you point to, Nina, where in your words Joan “solves” the “riddle”– which is about a basis for religious tolerance– while “standing in front of people ready to judge her and hold power over her.” Along with the scene on p. 154 in the ARC, where Mr. Rosenbach contrasts the U.S. and the “Old Country” and tells Joan: ‘It’s hard for you to understand, because you’ve grown up in America, and America is truly the Promised Land. Even here, there is bigotry; but there are laws to protect us.'” And, later in the same scene on p. 156, his explanation of antisemitism to Joan: “‘Anti-Semitism. The hatred of the Jews,’ said Mr. Rosenbach. ‘The word is modern, but the hatred has a long history. We’ve been hated for thousands of years.’ ‘I don’t understand it,’ I said. He shrugged. ‘Perhaps we are both too innocent to understand it.'”

      • I want to study your comments, Sarah, but just wanted to say that the scene of America as the “Promised Land” is another part that I highlighted in my copy.

        That “Promised Land” was Native homeland. Having it spoken of as Promised Land obscures what happened. I assume most people know a little about what Winthrop said in the 1600s: “For the natives, they are near all dead of the smallpox, so the Lord hath cleared our title to what we possess.”

    • Sarah and Nina, both of you took time to thank me for my comments. This means so much to me because I am sensitive to the fact that my writing is so tangential to the purpose of this blog. I’m am one older adult reader, not schooled nor experienced in the field of evaluating children’s literature. Anything possibly worthwhile I had to offer was said during the LONG discussion.

      I would like to clarify two statement of my December 10th post. I mentioned respect for Christian, Jewish, and Muslim beliefs. I neglected to add Native American beliefs to that sentence. Secondly, I stated that I cannot agree with the interpretations and significance you and Debbie and others have regarding the Indian references in The Hired Girl. Now I would like to add this: my remarks are limited to this one book at this one point in time. I care greatly about your interpretations and I’m very interested in continuing to read, study, and think about the issues talked about. I care deeply about truth and respect for all people.

  4. Thank you, Nina, for keeping all readers in mind, and especially for asking others to go read what Native children say about their experiences in school. I agree with your assessment that THE HIRED GIRL does not respect children’s understandings.

    Helping children see the problems in the ways that ideas about Native people requires that adults see the problems themselves. But do they? One need only look at the cover of Parents Magazine for December of this year, and the comments their apology for that cover elicited, to know that society has a very long way to go in understanding who we were, who we are, and how we’re misrepresented. Another example: the activity my cousin’s little boy had to do at school—pick his Indian name based on ridiculous instructions.

    We all know that books that win awards–especially this award–become institutionalized in schools. The idea that yet another book with this kind of material is going to become required reading for Native children leaves me chilled. It isn’t the warm bath that you felt and that warmth is clearly felt by so many others. Perhaps it means we ought to be pay attention to the warmth itself. Why do we feel it? What ideas in it, in that intoxicating way of warmth, is it giving/affirming?

    I long for the day when Native parents don’t have to un-do what was given to them at school.

  5. Sheila Welch says:

    I’ve been attempting to write some of my thoughts concerning THE HIRED GIRL but am finding it difficult to do.

    I agree totally with Debbie’s reaction to the cover of the December 2015 issue of PARENTS MAGAZINE. I didn’t locate the comments that she mentioned and could someone send a link? I think the cover was based on the pervasive, stereotypical “wild” Indian, and this occurred to me the moment I saw it. The picture is intending to depict an unruly child and that sort of visual short cut is disheartening, and I can understand why everyone should realize this sort of image is disrespectful. It is just as bad as using a Black mother with three or more kids hanging on her to illustrate an article about welfare fraud. I am still mulling over the Indian-playing scene in THE HIRED GIRL and trying to decide how I feel about it. Several questions are nagging me. Is it a necessary part of the story? What sort of stereotype does that scene portray? Could Janet have played a different “game” with Oskar? Is it possible for any book in which White kids are “playing Indian” NOT be offensive to children of American Indian heritage?

    I did like this book a lot — although not as much as SPLENDORS AND GLOOMS. Since no one else has brought up the farm and farming that’s in the beginning of the book, here are my thoughts. The way Joan described the farm didn’t seem realistic to me. I grew up on 35 acres of land in Pennsylvania that was pasture for a few goats, two horses, and included a large vegetable garden. My parents weren’t farmers. On a real farm, the spring and summer are intensely busy, but 14 acres isn’t much of a farm. I couldn’t quite imagine what those four “men” were doing all day, every day, on such a scrap of a farm that sounds as though it was mostly on a steep hill. Farming it would have been quite a feat. Joan mentions sheep, cows, chickens, and horses. That too seems unlikely because of the size of the farm. I thought maybe the men were doing everything by hand, but Joan does say the horses were being used. Altogether, farming is not portrayed very realistically and not in a remotely positive light. Just sayin’ . . .

  6. Sheila Welch says:

    Part of what I’m saying below is a reaction to the article that Debbie and Sarah pointed out earlier. I am starting to apply all these thoughts and ideas to the discussion of THE HIRED GIRL but am not sure I’ll ever get to that point.

    I appreciate the links that have been supplied and found the report on American Indian/Alaska Native Education disturbing. The comments by students are heart wrenching. Reading through kids’ accounts of bullying by other students, teachers, and administrators made me feel angry and frustrated. We tend to assume that the people who run our schools are basically good and have the welfare of all their students in mind. Yet, I remember being terribly upset when one of our teenage Black sons was bullied at school by a “good” White boy who was a big football star. When this boy shoved our son against a plate glass display case, the broken glass cut our son’s back. The whole incident was treated as “Boys will be boys,” as if the two of them had been having a friendly shoving match.

    Later, when our son came home with a bloody lip and I called the principal to complain, our son was suspended because this was his second “fight.”( He’d been punched and hadn’t hit back.) At a meeting with teachers and the principal, my husband and I were dismayed to hear the principal say that he could not guarantee the safety of our son in the school. I ended up homeschooling him for a while until he decided he wanted to return. I don’t think it’s easy for someone who has never really been through something like this to quite comprehend how devastating it can be.

    While I’ve been aware of the abuses of the educational system toward American Indian children, reading the report sent me back in time. I’d been a teacher in an inner city school in Philadelphia, PA, and had just started a new job in MN. My husband and I had no children at this time. I remember the principal of my new school was chatting informally in the teachers’ lounge. He said something like, “I’d always heard that Indians were lazy, and now that I’ve met [kid’s name] I can see why people say that.”

    I had lived in the East and had grown used to speaking up when I heard racist comments even if I simply said, “I don’t agree.” But I don’ t remember saying anything in this case. Why? Looking back, I think I was silent because I was young, the principal was my boss, and I was a new teacher in his school. Still, I should have said something! Over the many years since then, his careless, cruel remark has haunted me. After reading the report mentioned above, I realize his attitude was/is typical, and that is sickening.

    The other link that I found remarkable was the one concerning children’s literature that Debbie and Sarah have pointed out. I’ve read a few of the books mentioned and based on my limited knowledge of them, I think I grasped the point. The group that’s in control wants to stay in that position, and even what gets published for children is used to reinforce the strength of the “in” group. This makes sense and certainly, looking back over children’s books of the past, we see rampant stereotyping, misrepresentations, etc. of various groups. And the books being published today suffer from being selected by (mostly) White people in power. Now, the goal of getting along is being questioned even if it seems to be a worthy one because it can end up contributing to oppression of some groups of people.

    So how do I feel about THE HIRED GIRL? It’s complicated partly because I write and illustrate for children myself. While I can understand how portions of a book can be disturbing and insensitive to a group of people, I’m concerned that in an attempt to protect young readers from harm, we may do more harm than good. As I mentioned in a comment on this blog some time ago, I think damage and harm to children comes from the real world. Books can be discussed and explained and ridiculed and dismissed and . . . even burned. But broken glass and ugly words directed at a child can cause injuries that are beyond our control.

    • Nina Lindsay Nina Lindsay says:

      Sheila, thanks so much for sharing you thought process, and so much that is personal, here.

      When you say “I’m concerned that in an attempt to protect young readers from harm, we may do more harm than good”, you suggest that this discussion is about protecting young readers from harm. For some, that may be the case, though I will say I have not heard that here. For me, this is about how we use the power we have, as children’s literature critics, to hold up standards in children’s literature that deliver the best reading experience to children. I can’t protect children from harm through books. I can try to give them the best books for them, and call upon the book community to serve its readers.

      • Brenda Martin says:

        Hi Nina,
        I honestly believe that there are folks who are concerned about the discussion being about “protecting young readers from harm”, but are afraid to say so in this forum. At a recent conference there was much discussion off-the-record by authors and librarians alike about the effect of the discussion here about THE HiRED GiRL and A FINE DESSERT. Everyone found the discussions both helpful and eye-opening. The authors additionally felt that they will change their writing, whether it be with less inclusiveness for fear of reprisal, or simply being more accommodating and making subtle artistic changes to what and how they write. Neither option seemed ideal, but those I spoke with felt there was no other way.

      • Nina Lindsay Nina Lindsay says:

        Brenda, I do sense that concern too, and Sheila expressed her version of it. But I think also people have put words in each other’s mouths. This discussion is happening in so many places it’s hard not to bring all our defensive points with us. (For the record, we haven’t been discussing ONE FINE DESSERT here.)

        I know authors feel, or are, challenged by this discussion. I believe we can move past a stuck place on this though.

  7. Jonathan Hunt Jonathan Hunt says:

    1. One of the rules of multiple rounds of Newbery discussion is to try not to repeat points which have been made before, and I certainly think that’s one reason why we’re seeing less discussion this time around. For me, Carol Edwards made the case for this book as strongly as anyone the first time around. What she said, basically, is that this is a story about a young woman coming into her own religious convictions, and part of that journey is realizing that the Rosenbach’s religion is just as important to them as her religion is to her. Sarah, I think this is the arc where you see growth and development in Joan. She exhibits lots of ignorance and repeats lots of prejudice. I’m not sure that we necessarily see her grow and change in this respect, or if we do, it’s only marginally.

    2. I think another reason that people may not be as quick to respond is because of what one colleague termed, “confrontation fatigue.” It’s definitely been an intense fall with discussions of A FINE DESSERT and THE HIRED GIRL dominating the internet. To a lesser degree, we have asked similarly hard questions about most of our shortlisted books (and we could easily ask them of the rest of them, I think). But, at some point this season, whether it happens on this thread or on other threads, I’d like to see us attempt to answer them on other books as well. For example, while I know that each book has a lot of complex factors to consider when evaluating it holistically, I think we need to discuss whether or not our other shortlisted authors have reached the tipping point in their questionable treatment of cultural proficiency.

    • Just to clarify– I don’t personally see that kind of coherent growth and change in Joan’s character arc, but am curious as to how others are understanding her development. I also, for myself, have trouble with the way the development of her personal awareness and understanding of other religious beliefs is framed within the larger theme of prejudice.

      In terms of the questions about discussions this year: I don’t think the focused attention on a few titles has been with the intention of singling those books out– though it has certainly appeared that way at times, and maybe even had that effect. I think there is definitely an awareness that these issues aren’t unique to one or two titles, but are collective issues– which is why individual books matter. There are many people who’ve been pointing out issues with many books for a long time; these particular discussions just reached a wider audience. I’d love to see more people talking about other books, too. And, maybe more importantly, talking about the larger contexts in which all of these books are published and read (which are also the contexts in which people are discussing the notion of harm.)

      I have to admit, too, that I’m uncomfortable with the idea that authors from dominant cultures feeling increased inhibition in writing cross culturally is the significant concern. I think the publishing landscape is evidence that some greater inhibition isn’t a bad thing– in the sense that a greater awareness of the need to listen, research, and consider issues of power and representation in writing about marginalized identiies is needed in all steps of the publishing process. The elevation of this concern about inhibition among those coming from dominant positions is also striking in an industry that has for generations tolerated the exclusion of so many voices and experiences (and the inhibitions this active exclusion has created.)

      • Prejudice is a big word. I feel that I am a mixture of truth and prejudice. I behave in life exactly the way I view Joan’s behavior. She and I go about our business until our schema runs into an obstacle. I may believe I know exactly how to row a boat across water to get to the other side because my technique has worked successfully for me in the past. However, If a new element is introduced, such as wind or current, my way of rowing will not produce the expected result. If I wish to reach my destination, I must adapt. When I encounter information or a concept or a point of view that differs from mine, I can examine my schema to see how it fits. When I change my schema as a result, I call it GROWTH. For me, and I think for Joan, this process takes place over and over. Sometimes I need several exposures before I see differently, sometimes I take one step forward and then two steps backward. It is often a slow, messy, and jerky process. Joan is only fourteen years old. Her 400 page story takes place over a period of just a few months. I have no expectation that she goes from prejudice to complete truth. What I do believe, based on her character traits, is that she has the capacity and desire to continue to grow and evolve her thinking. I trust that her prejudice will continue to decrease as she travels through life and that she will be surrounded by others who facilitate that process. All I expect from her, and myself, is to demonstrate progress in the direction toward truth.

      • Nina Lindsay Nina Lindsay says:

        Sarah, thanks for these comments. I’m still pondering your questions to us about Joan’s character arc, specifically:

        “Do people read her attitudes and actions at the start of that arc as coming from a place of naivité, or learned prejudice? … “*What* exactly does she learn about prejudice during the course of the book, and what did she know, or not know at the start?”

        I don’t know the answer, honestly. I sense most of her prejudice based in naivete, but informed by learned prejudice that she has overheard, or read. The stereotypes she assumes don’t come from her imagination, she heard or read them somewhere. What does she learn about prejudice? She learns to recognize what a stereotype is, certainly…and how to measure a learned stereotype against her own observations.

    • I’m late replying, and I don’t want to repeat myself. Thanks for recognizing my attempt to redirect the conversation to the book. All books have flaws. How relevant those flaws are to what is trying to be achieved is what matters, to my mind.

      I kind of wonder Jonathan and Nina, is you have a strong opinion on what is award worthy and best, but say ten others on the committee are not swayed how do you handle it when a title is awarded the medal or an honor that you personally do not favor. I know this happens, but I’ve never seen any discussion of the honorable way to maintain confidentiality and integrity simultaneously. Maybe this is why we do not discuss books that are eligible when on the committee.

      • Nina Lindsay Nina Lindsay says:

        Carol, that is an excellent question. From my experience, by the time the consensus is clear, you have so much knowledge of the reasons behind the opinions at the table, and respect for your committee members (hopefully! If the process has worked), that whether or not you agree fully…you know exactly why the books with stickers have stickers, and can speak to it if you choose to.

      • Jonathan Hunt Jonathan Hunt says:

        Carol, this is a great question and probably worthy of it’s own blog post rather than buried down here in the comments to an older post. Maybe we’ll have time to resurrect it after the announcements.

        I think it’s key to have the right mindset going into the whole process. Since it’s entirely possible to serve on the committee and not have any of your personal favorites appear as either a Medal or Honor book, it’s important to value the journey as much, if not more, than the destination. You can have a very bad committee experience (not like the people you work with or the books you choose), but still have a positive outlook on the whole thing. That’s a worst case scenario, though, and I think most people can take a lot more away from it.

        It’s a very emotionally difficult process to go from hundreds of books down to a single one, but I have found that choosing honor books, calling winners, and celebratory dinners at Annual can go a long way toward healing wounded hearts. As Nina mentioned most people eventually get to a philosophical place where they can spin the books in a positive manner even if they weren’t personal favorites.

  8. “When you say ‘I’m concerned that in an attempt to protect young readers from harm, we may do more harm than good’, you suggest that this discussion is about protecting young readers from harm. For some, that may be the case, though I will say I have not heard that here. For me, this is about how we use the power we have, as children’s literature critics, to hold up standards in children’s literature that deliver the best reading experience to children. I can’t protect children from harm through books. I can try to give them the best books for them, and call upon the book community to serve its readers.”

    But, Nina, aren’t you doing both? Wouldn’t you say your standard for the “best reading experience” is one that does the least amount of harm to all young readers? If a book contains even one passage that might be perceived as harmful, all other possible standards, including literary ones, are null and void, or, at the very least, diminished to such an extent it becomes impossible for you to recommend the book. If I’m wrong here, please correct me; I’d love to see an example of a book that you recommend despite it containing something you perceive as harmful.

    “But I think also people have put words in each other’s mouths.”

    One could use your own words to show why this seems like a discussion about “protecting young readers from harm.” In the original discussion about The Hired Girl, you wrote:

    “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.”

    and

    “…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.”

    “…ignoring them is a microagression.” It sure sounds like you’re trying to protect children here, else why use that sociological term? If your concern isn’t to protect children from harm, why would you feel ashamed if this book won a Newbery medal when the references to Indians are consistent with Joan’s character? Even if the references weren’t entirely consistent with Joan’s character, why would these passages make you feel ashamed? I think the shame you’d feel wouldn’t originate out of some lofty literary standard that wasn’t being met, but out of your ideological desire to protect child readers. You would feel complicit in that harm, if the book won, so unqualified rejection relieves you somewhat of your guilt.

    In the end, you may be right that we can move past this stuck place, but if we’re going to get anywhere, I think it’s helpful if first we’re clear and honest about our definitions and goals. I still don’t understand why you’re not being upfront about that. What’s wrong with saying you couldn’t care less about literary standards, if there’s a chance a book might harm a child reader?

    • Nina Lindsay Nina Lindsay says:

      Gosh, Bradin… yes you are wrong. I’ll try to be brief, but you are misreading me, and putting words in my mouth.

      You ask “Wouldn’t you say your standard for the “best reading experience” is one that does the least amount of harm to all young readers? ” No, I would not, and I’ve never said it. I’ve also never said I wouldn’t recommend this book, only that I wouldn’t give it this award. (The circumstances in which I’d recommend this are particular, but I have it in my library as I know others do wish to recommend it widely.)

      I did not say the passages made me ashamed. This does not come from an ideological desire to protect child readers from harm. It comes from a desire for the children’s literature critical community to hold writers to write their best for their audience. I take exception with those passages in this book because I feel that Schlitz failed her readers there, in my own estimation, in a big way (others disagree with calling that a “failure,” or with how big it is). I believe that ignoring the way that different readers will respond to these passages is failing those readers too. That is the micro-agression I’m speaking of…and that has to do with us a critics. That’s the part that makes me ashamed, though that is a very strong word that I used there deliberately, and do not wish to overuse.

      I would never say, for myself, that I “couldn’t care less about literary standards, if there’s a chance a book might harm a child reader”, so please don’t suggest that I’m not being upfront, or put these words in my mouth. I’m talking about literary standards.

      This is very interesting for me, because you’ve pointed to exact things that I’ve said that have made you leap to these conclusions, and I still can’t understand fully how you did. I cannot tell you how many times I have read over what I have written in this blog to figure out from where this is coming.

      Perhaps when I speak of “failing readers,” does one (and Bradin, I don’t assign these words to you unless you claim them, I’m asking anyone if this is true) assume I mean “fail to protect them from harm?” …that is reading a LOT into what I am saying. I simply mean failing readers as readers…those endless individuals with individual minds, who read to escape, or engage, or make sense of themselves, or make sense of the world, or because their teacher made them do it, or because they want a chance to win tickets to the Warriors game, or because they are waiting for the bus, still, and luckily, they have a book.

      [Added a few minutes later]: This was not brief, but I feel I should add… I’m fully willing to accept I could express myself better, or am missing or reading things in myself. Just wanting to understand, and read these discussions better. And am not expecting anyone to participate in this thread if you find it exhausting.

      • I’ll give you this, Nina: You offer a tricky rhetorical stance, one where it’s difficult to find angles of attack. You tell me I’m wrong, that I’m misreading you, and putting words in your mouth, but then you just provide abstractions that do little to help me better understand your position. I hope if you answer the questions that follow, I’ll be able to grasp where you’re coming from. And, fair warning, I do ask a lot of questions in this comment–so many, in fact, you might accuse me of sea-lioning you. Maybe I am, but I don’t think so. I don’t expect you to answer them all, but I do hope that you answer a few, or at least use them to provide me an accurate summation of your position. Mostly, I hope your answers will be devoid of abstractions like: “best writing,” “failing readers,” or “just trying to be real,” etc.

        “You ask ‘Wouldn’t you say your standard for the “best reading experience” is one that does the least amount of harm to all young readers?’ No, I would not, and I’ve never said it. I’ve also never said I wouldn’t recommend this book, only that I wouldn’t give it this award. (The circumstances in which I’d recommend this are particular, but I have it in my library as I know others do wish to recommend it widely.)”

        Okay, then how do you describe your standard? Will you please tell me one specific book that you’d recommend to all readers, despite it containing passages perceived by the kidlit community as harmful? Would you recommend the Little House books? What motivates you to say the circumstances are particular in which you’d recommend The Hired Girl? Would you recommend The Hired Girl to me? Would you recommend it to a thirteen-year-old Native American girl? Why/why not?

        “I did not say the passages made me ashamed. This does not come from an ideological desire to protect child readers from harm. It comes from a desire for the children’s literature critical community to hold writers to write their best for their audience.”

        So then how do you define “best” in that last sentence? What is “best” to you? If you agree that the passages about Indians are consistent with Joan’s character, what else should a writer be responsible for and why is it such a big deal if they fail in that?

        “I take exception with those passages in this book because I feel that Schlitz failed her readers there, in my own estimation, in a big way (others disagree with calling that a ‘failure,’ or with how big it is). I believe that ignoring the way that different readers will respond to these passages is failing those readers too. That is the micro-agression I’m speaking of…and that has to do with us a critics. That’s the part that makes me ashamed, though that is a very strong word that I used there deliberately, and do not wish to overuse.”

        How is ignoring a writer’s “failure” a microaggression? From a literary perspective, why are microaggressions a “bad” thing? Should we root them out of literature and critical responses and why? Let’s say a writer has one passage in a book where the protagonist says something innocuous but that isn’t consistent with the character (an even more egregious literary faux pas than Schlitz’s, since even you agree the references to Indians are at least consistent with Joan’s character). Did that author fail the reader? If the book went on to win the Newbery, did the critics fail the reader? Is that failure a microaggression? It’s probably unfair to ask you to judge such a vague hypothetical, but what I’m trying to get at is this: is any old literary failure–like a cliche or stilted dialogue–a failure against the reader? Is ignoring any old literary failure a microaggression? If not, when is ignoring a literary failure a microaggression?

        “I would never say, for myself, that I ‘couldn’t care less about literary standards, if there’s a chance a book might harm a child reader’, so please don’t suggest that I’m not being upfront, or put these words in my mouth. I’m talking about literary standards.”

        I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to suggest that you’d say those exact words. But I did ask what’s wrong with saying them. Whether it’s said out loud or not, I believe this statement is the position many are taking in the kidlit world. A good example is the RWW blog’s review of Carson Ellis’s Home. It doesn’t matter to the reviewer how well the book is crafted, how wonderfully illustrated or written; those aesthetic/literary things DO NOT MATTER to that reviewer. What matters is that there are a few pages in the book that the reviewer finds “problematical” and “harmful,” and those pages “cancel out the aesthetically pleasing bits” of the book. Do you agree with this blog’s assessment of this particular book? Why/why not?

        “Perhaps when I speak of ‘failing readers,’ does one (and Bradin, I don’t assign these words to you unless you claim them, I’m asking anyone if this is true) assume I mean ‘fail to protect them from harm?’ …that is reading a LOT into what I am saying. I simply mean failing readers as readers…those endless individuals with individual minds, who read to escape, or engage, or make sense of themselves, or make sense of the world, or because their teacher made them do it, or because they want a chance to win tickets to the Warriors game, or because they are waiting for the bus, still, and luckily, they have a book.”

        When you use incredibly abstract language, such as “I simply mean failing readers as readers,” how can someone not read into that?! What does “failing” mean in that statement? Does it mean that the writer hasn’t figured out how each different reader might respond to their writing? And if there are “endless individuals with individual minds,” how can we expect writers and critics to anticipate that infinite variety of responses? And why should we? How does it strengthen children’s literature for a writer or critic to anticipate every possible response from a reader?

        Finally, what happens when a writer “fails” the reader? What happens when the critic “fails” the reader? What happens when a twelve-year-old Native American girl comes across Joan’s reference to Indians being civilized? What’s the absolute worst that can happen to that reader? I’ll posit that if your concerns are literary, then your answer will be along the lines of: “Nothing much. She closes the book and goes about her life, eventually finding a different book or author that speaks to her.” But if your concerns are cultural, as I believe them to be, then I think you’ll make the stakes appear much, much higher.

  9. Nina Lindsay Nina Lindsay says:

    Bradin, many of my abstractions are short-cuts to lengthier examinations we’ve had elsewhere on this blog; so I accept that they are hard to see or understand here unless you remember everything that’s been said before. I’m going to choose not to answer the questions you ask that I think a reasonable person could elsewhere in these pages. I’ve gone over almost all of this before.

    I don’t think I expect writers or critics to know every individual reader (though my exasperating listing of them leads there, I realize). I do expect critics to consider the knowable likely children’s reader responses out there…how different kinds of “ideal” readers (meaning readers to whom the book naturally appeals, I guess?) for this book are likely to respond to the text, and thereby assess it’s literary achievement. Isn’t that the job of a children’s lit critic, since we are not children ourselves? What else are we supposed to be doing?

    Writers may write to whomever they choose, of course. But if they miss the mark, and break the writer/reader contract, that willingness of the reader to follow the author…. then I think the book is not award-winning. I imagine that you have read books like this before yourself.

  10. Jonathan Hunt Jonathan Hunt says:

    I have more I want to say about this issue, especially as it relates to criticisms of THE HIRED GIRL that should have also been asked of other books on our shortlist, but I have dithered about doing so, not just because the moment seems to have passed, but because it would probably appear churlish of me to do so. However, we have several weeks after the YMAs and I think that time might be a appropriate to reflect on this again.

  11. Maybe I shouldn’t enter the discussion at this date, because I admit I haven’t been able to read ALL of the discussion linked above, but I did read Jonathan’s previous post and all the comments there and here. Forgive me if I’m being repetitious or hashing over something that the rest of you are through with.

    I happened to read the book while I was visiting a country without internet access; it was one of only a few books I had with me, and I had lots of reading time, so not only did I engage with it pretty deeply, I read it twice through–even though I really disliked it on the first read. (The second read made me forgive some things but feel more strongly about others.

    Honestly, I didn’t think the book-as-literature was very good, but I see a few other people (Leonard Kim, for instance) have made points similar to those I would have made. If I’d been running the blog, we might never have gotten to in-depth considerations of racism or religious stereotype because I wouldn’t have thought it was in the running and wouldn’t have brought it up in the first place. Which, I’m sure, is one reason why this blog has two authors… though in this case they’re both in agreement.

    In the comments on Jonathan’s previous post, there were several requests for Catholics to respond to the Catholic content, but I didn’t see any response there (I can’t imagine there isn’t, elsewhere). I’m not a practicing Catholic, but I was raised to be one and I don’t have anything against the church, and would consider that I know a fair amount about church doctrine and history. I was really grossed out by the portrayal of Catholicism in this book and remembered someone saying, maybe in Read Roger, that the book should be considered as another example of a “diverse book” because it is rare to see a Catholic protagonist. No, no, no! (from my POV, I assume there are Catholics who love this book, and I don’t know what Schlitz’s religion is). I hate the idea of anyone reading this book and thinking this is what Catholics are like or what Catholics believe. I’m not going to pretend that the anti-Catholic prejudice I have experienced compares to racism or anti-Semitism or Islamophobia–it really didn’t affect me–but I certainly heard and continue to hear plenty of it, and most of the people spouting it are absolutely convinced that they are correct and I am the one who doesn’t know the truth about Catholics. Now, in a happy coincidence, I had a learning opportunity. I had never run into Joan’s brand of Catholicism in a non-pathological context–I know more about Renaissance and then WWII-present Catholicism–and thought it was over-the-top and possibly a misrepresentation. But the next book I read talked a lot about Rose Kennedy and how she attended convent schools as a teenager (same time period) that turned her from a moderate Catholic into an extreme one, similar to Joan and her priest. So there is definitely a historical background there that I wasn’t aware of (and it would absolutely sound like splitting hairs to anyone with a shallow or modest knowledge about Catholicism, but it isn’t like that to me). On the other hand, some of the things Joan felt/believed still did not make sense to me; she sounds like someone who’s been raised in a convent, a strict one, instead of someone who was taken to church as a child and hasn’t been in years. At any rate, I would never suggest this as a good gift for a Catholic child so he/she could have a “mirror”.

    Now, something that was a big problem to me that I didn’t see discussed in either of the two Heavy Medal threads: didn’t it disturb anyone else that Joan got away with letting people think her father beat her up? She not only let them think that, she got benefits out of passively pretending to have been physically abused. That’s probably the book’s biggest “fatal flaw” to me.

    This is, I’m sure, directly related to me having spent the last year in a developing country, and I’m still in the midst of “reverse culture shock”, but I thought Joan was full of first world problems. She was educated to the age of 14, fed well and clothed adequately, not asked to do any more than many young women of her age, physically safe. I’m not discounting the emotional abuse, but I just didn’t have the same reaction as everyone else seems to have had, that her life on the farm was somehow “unbearable”. But maybe if I’d read it after I’d been back in the US for a few months, I would have seen it differently. I just don’t get why she was so hard on her brothers. For the most part they weren’t bad to her, and if anything, their lives sounded worse to me. But then, they weren’t gifted academically… so maybe we were supposed to think they didn’t care, or something. Joan is compared to Anne of Green Gables a lot, but Anne’s life, pre-Green Gables, was much worse.

  12. Jonathan Hunt Jonathan Hunt says:

    THE HIRED GIRL has won the Sydney Taylor Book Award in the Teen category.

    http://jewishlibraries.org/images/downloads/Sydney_Taylor_Book_Award/st_media_release_2016_rev.pdf

Trackbacks

  1. […] Lindsey basically summarizes all my feelings on Laura Amy Schlitz’s The Hired Girl here on Heavy […]

  2. […] 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, 140 […]

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