Friday, December 31, 2010

Some Talk About One Of My Least Favorite Genres

The New York Times has a neat piece on YA dystopian literature's popularity. The layout of the material is interesting because there's no interaction at all among the authors discussing the subject, no give and take with an interviewer. You just click on the author photos, and you are directed to their spin on the subject.

I met Lisa Rowe Fraustino earlier this month. I was excited to see someone I kind of know in The New York Times.

My favorite contributor contribution came from Jay Parini, who described teenagers as feeling gamed by the system. He seems to be expressing an adolescent feeling of "I'm mad as hell, and reading about civilization falling will make me feel better." It's odd that I liked Parini's piece best, because his is not a name I associate with YA or kidlit.

Link from Cynsations.

Still More On Steampunk

Steampunk: Full Steam Ahead at School Library Journal. With suggestions for how teachers and librarians can use the genre.

From Cynsations.

Thursday, December 30, 2010

My 2010 In Books

Last year I did a post on my year in books. I enjoyed it so much, I'm going to do it again this year.

By midnight tomorrow night I should have read 91 books. Usually I get a little closer to 100. Though I enjoy obsessing as a general rule, those 9 books just aren't bothering me.

One of the big events of my reading year was learning the satisfaction of book series as an escape from hard times. In addition to polishing off all the Chrestomanci books, later in the year I read all nineteen of the Amelia Peabody mysteries. When I was much, much younger I was big on reading all the books in a mystery series, but then it was a matter of feeding compulsion and not getting away from suffering or--in the case of Amelia, whose adventures vary in quality--worry. Books can function like medication.

My nonfiction reading this year was nowhere near as successful as last year's. I read America, A History in Art but found it a bit disappointing. I ordered it through a book club and expected it to really be history told through a series of art work. There's much more traditional text than I expected with the art work functioning as illustrations.

I had to give up on reading Emerson's essays. Waldo is beyond me.

I'm about to finish Amelia Peabody's Egypt, a beautiful book that I received as a birthday gift. It's a series of essays on the various historical aspects of the Amelia Peabody novels. We're talking two levels of history here because the Peabody books are about Egyptologists working at the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth centuries. So there are chapters on the "discovery" of ancient Egypt by Europeans and the history of the British in Egypt along with chapters on Edwardian fashion, popular literature, and childrearing--every historical element you can imagine, if you've read the books. What makes this collection particularly intriguing is that the authors of the essays maintain the fiction that Peabody and her husband Emerson ("the greatest Egyptologist of this or any other age") as well as the rest of their family and friends, were real people who knew real Egyptologists. Since some of these real Egyptologists (as well as other historical figures) also appear in the novels, you can find this whole mashup of fact and fiction either fascinating or frustrating.

If I read any other nonfiction, I'm afraid it didn't make much of an impression. But I have plans for next year.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

December Carnival Of Children's Literature

I couldn't pull my mind off Christmas prep long enough to submit to this month's Carnival of Children's Literature, but check it out, anyway. Lori Calabrese made it very festive.

Note the cover image for Jean Craighead George's Dear Rebecca, Winter is Here. I stood in line at a book fair years ago so George could sign a copy of that book for my niece, Rebecca, in honor of her first winter.

Monday, December 27, 2010

YA Vs. Adult Themes

I've written before about the Holmes on the Range books by Steve Hockensmith, because I felt that, thematically, they'd be of interest to older YA readers. You know, the YAs old enough to tolerate plenty of foul language and dead bodies in sad states.

The first three books, I thought, dealt with twenty-something young men (one all the way to twenty-seven) who were seeking a place in the world, deciding who they wanted to be. The whole Who am I? thing works for YA readers.

I just finished the fourth book, The Crack in the Lens. It's still fine reading (Hockensmith does some great work with the word "fudge."), but thematically it's different from the earlier books. Old Red, who still hasn't reached his thirtieth birthday, is no longer intent on becoming a deducifier like his hero Sherlock Holmes. Now he's wondering if he made the right choice in turning his back on cowpunching in order to become a detective. Do Holmes' methods even work? Yeah, there's plenty of whore talk in this volume, but it's the looking back and worrying about regret that make this book more adult than the earlier ones.

What am I going to be?/looking forward--YA

Did I make the right life choices?/looking backward--Adult

Hot damn. There's a new Holmes on the Range story coming out next month.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

New Work From Pamela F. Service


Stinker From Space by Pamela F. Service (who really ought to consider getting herself a website) is remembered fondly here at Chez Gauthier. More recently Service has been writing a series called Alien Agent. I found one of the latest volumes on the new book shelf at one of my local libraries and sought out the first book in the series, My Cousin the Alien.

My Cousin the Alien is about a young boy whose cousin believes he's been placed on this planet by aliens. It sort of plays with the old situation of children who can't believe they're actually a true member of the family they find themselves in. (I used to fantasize about being, in reality, a Mafia princess.) Because of a parallel storyline involving a definite alien, we know that there is, indeed, an alien placed in a family on Earth and that he is in danger.

Some of the writing here is a little awkward, and the parents are definitely cliches. I figured out the twist in this story early on, but in this case, that's not necessarily a bad thing. Readers can enjoy feeling they know something the characters don't. This book (and presumably the series) is marketed toward middle grade readers, but I think it is most appropriate for kids on the young end of that range. It's well done for that age group because it has a real story line and doesn't lean on pointless, silly jokes. I'm surprised I haven't heard more about it.

Plot Project: I wouldn't say that this plot is built around giving its protagonist something to want and then throwing in obstacles to his getting it. It's more likely that the author had an end point in mind--the big reveal, say--and created what might be called some flashpoint scenes for the characters to experience before getting to it. That's all speculation, of course.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Some Down And Dirty Talk About Harry P.

Check out Harry Potter and the Incredibly Conservative Aristocratic Children's Club at The Awl. The author, Maria Bustillos', thesis statement is "The multitude of sins committed in Rowling’s imaginative but horrible story can be roughly divided into three classes: ethical or pedagogical, literary and political." She makes some good points. For instance, I, too, find Dumbledore to be an odd figure who is always saving the day and ignoring a great deal. But she undermines her arguments with her tone and her personal attacks on Rowling.

Check out the comments, which end up veering off into discussions of His Dark Materials and C.S. Lewis and probably many more things. (I had to give up. There are a lot of them.)

J.L. Bell responds to the article at Oz and Ends. A discussion follows in his comments, too.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Steampunkers

Last week was Alternate History and Steampunk Week in some parts of the kidlitosphere. Another thing I missed while I was doing God knows what. Though on Friday night I did end up throwing together what I thought was a steampunkish outfit for a company Christmas party. I thought I looked as if I'd just stepped out of a dirigible, though a family member objected because I wasn't wearing any leather or metal.

Anyway, back to last week's goings on: Charlotte's Library offered up six steampunky books, including Behemoth, which just happens to be upstairs waiting for me.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

A Little Christmas Present For Me

I have mentioned before that I cannot abide the word "suffragette." It doesn't enrage me quite as much as hearing adult women referring to themselves as "girls," because I understand that discussions of suffrage are few and far between these days and not everyone is familiar with the correct terminology, whereas adult women sure as hell ought to know better than to demean themselves by labeling themselves as children. Nonetheless, why would people talk about suffragists if they didn't have some modest knowledge of the subject? And knowing the correct term is a really modest knowledge of the subject.

Anyway, today a family member who has been going through his late father's professional and personal papers came upon a pamphlet called Guidelines for Equal Treatment of the Sexes in McGraw-Hill Book Company Publications. I can't find a publication date in the pamphlet, but it was stamped as received in my father-in-law's office on Dec. 7, 1974. (Our papa held on to everything, bless him.) On page 8 there are two columns headed "No" and "Yes." One of the items under "No" is "female-gender or diminutive word forms, such as suffragette, usherette, aviatrix. In the "Yes" column you'll find "suffragist, usher, aviator (or pilot)."

Note: Thirty-six years ago, a major publisher referred to "suffragette" as an unacceptable diminutive. Thirty-six years ago! It's time to get with the program.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Reading Challenges

If you like to push yourself with your reading (yeah, and who doesn't, right?), check out A Novel Challenge-The Place to Find Your Next Reading Challenge. It's a blog that lists all kinds of challenges being hosted/organized by bloggers.

Check out the sidebar so you can search for, say, pending challenges for 2011. I have one picked out, which I will be announcing New Year's Day, along with some other reading plans for next year.

What You May Have Missed

Yes, I am always behind on my blog reading. While I'm trying to catch up on all I've missed, I can help you do the same.

What I missed and you may have, too:

Some talk about what used to be called Monster Blood Tattoo at Oz and Ends.

Laura Hillenbrand isn't a children's writer, but what she has to overcome in order to write makes my whining about work seem like, well, whining. Whenever I read about her (and she had a very good essay a few years ago describing her early years with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome), I'm able to buck up and get on with it for a while. Link by way of Chasing Ray.

A Holiday Readathon was held earlier this month. Link from The Children's War.

The entire Winter Blog Blast Tour happened without me.

I came really late to a discussion of skimming at Read Roger. (Should one either bother commenting at a nearly two-week old post? Is it too much like trying to prolong a conversation at a party that everyone else has lost interest in?)

This list brings me up to December 8 in my blog reader--for the lit blog category. I'm still in November for two of the others.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Like A Documentary With Talking Dogs

Marlo Garnsworthy has a great cartoon up at Wordy Birdie. It's called So You Want to Make Children's Books. I kid you not, I have heard or read every word that comes out of the blonde bear's mouth.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

I Went To The Movies

An Old-Fashioned Girl and life got in the way of my writing about Library of the Early Mind, a documentary on children's literature that I saw nearly two weeks ago. Early Mind is a collection of interviews with a huge number of children's writers and illustrators. If you've attended book festivals or writers' conferences, you'll probably have seen some of these people. You may have followed some of them on blogs or on listservs. Watching them speak on the big screen is like watching someone you know.

I'm making a list of books to read in 2011, and three of them are there because of this movie.

The Next Time Your Kids Tell You They Can't Find Anything To Read, Tell Them About This

Number of Children's Books Published. These figures are for 2009. This particular article doesn't state whether these figures include self-published books. I'm going to guess, yes, they do.

Happy Birthday, Shirley

Today is Shirley Jackson's birthday. If any of my regular readers are out there, you know I have a long-term relationship with Shirl. I believe I've done fourteen posts in which she's mentioned.

Thanks to Blog of a Bookslut for letting me know about this.

Monday, December 13, 2010

How Did I Miss This On NaNoWriMo?

I'm 175 posts behind on my blog reader, and close to a month behind on the "Writers" category. That means I'm still reading about National Novel Writing Month, even though this year's event has been over for nearly two weeks. Thus I was fortunate to learn at an old Spectacle post about Laura Miller's Salon column, Better yet, DON'T write that novel, relating to NaNoWriMo. I can't believe I missed it. I go to Salon nearly every day, and I love Laura Miller. Plus I did NaNoWriMo one year. How did this get by me?

Everything Miller says about NaNoWriMo is true. But, you know, it's harmless. When writers are sitting at word processors cranking out the 1500 words or so a day that they have to produce to meet the 50,000 word deadline for the month, they aren't getting into trouble. If lots of them are submitting unrevised crap to publishers and agents, well, I feel for those publishers and agents. But let's face it, having to read a crappy submission letter or the first three pages of a crap-filled manuscript is probably not the worst thing that's going to happen to them.

I also agree with Miller about promoting readers instead of writers. We should have a National Novel Reading Month.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

The End Of My Own Cybilizing This Year



I happened to have a couple of Cybil nominees in my TBR pile, and I've finally finished them. Which is a good thing because they're due at the library tomorrow.

Binky to the Rescue by Ashley Spires is a very clever and charming graphic novel for younger readers. The basic premise is that Binky, an indoor cat, believes that the outdoors is outer space. Insects that come into the house from outside are aliens. When Binky accidentally goes through a window, he's truly out in the great unknown. He manages to survive the ordeal, but his dear friend, Ted, has been stranded out there. Thus, Binky to the rescue.

A marvelous little book.



Marcus Sedgwick began his review of Enchanted Glass by Diana Wynne Jones with the line "It's always the sign of a truly accomplished writer when their book holds you, despite the fact that not awfully much happens." That's exactly how I felt about Enchanted Glass. I enjoyed reading it, liked slipping into that world, but when I finished it, I thought...Did much happen here?

Enchanted Glass is one of those books in which a character finds out something about himself. In this case, it's not that he can perform magic. Lots of people can perform magic in the world of Enchanted Glass. Young Aidan Cain knows about the magic. Learning who his family is is the surprise here.

In an interesting twist, there is also an adult character who is learning things about himself in this book. Adult Andrew Hope and young Aidan Cain are almost co-protagonists.

Wynne Jones is very good at dealing with powerful adult characters in children's books. They don't take over the story or overwhelm the kids. That's true here, too.

Enchanted Glass's ending reminded me of The Pinhoe Egg's in that both books are wrapped up with what I can only describe as a bizarre twist relating to what some people would call morality. In the case of Enchanted Glass, the ending also seemed to be essentially saying that the action of the book had all been a big mistake.

I had the feeling that this book could be the jumping off point to a series. I'd be happy to see that happen, and if that's the plan, I hope Wynne Jones gets the opportunity to do it.

Thursday, December 09, 2010

There Are Two Of Us, Anyway

Sundee T. Frazier, who wrote Brendan Buckley's Universe And Everything In It a while back, did a guest post at Cynsations last month. In it she sounds a bit like an organic writer, which makes us writing partners or members of the same tribe or some such thing.

When she talked about, "The nights I spent crying to my husband that we were going to have to send back the advance money for my second book..." I almost shouted, "I did that, too!" at my computer monitor. Except that I didn't actually cry. I grabbed my husband by the front of his shirt, shook him, and wailed, "You don't understand! We may have to send the money back!"

My sister, Sundee, has a new book out this year, The Other Half of My Heart.

Round 'Em Up

In my fantasy life, I keep up each week with the Sunday Round-up of Middle Grade Fantasy and Science Fiction at Charlotte's Library and the monthly I Can Read Carnival, which I believe moves from blog to blog, though I'm not sure of that.

Tuesday, December 07, 2010

An Old-Fashioned Girl: And In Conclusion

Today is December 7th. In addition to being the anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor, it's the last day of the Cuci Mata discussion of An Old-Fashioned Girl by Louisa May Alcott. Fortunately, I am just about out of thoughts on this subject and ready to put it to rest. The bottom line is we're supposed to decide if we think this book stands the so-called test of time when it comes to race, ethnicity, gender, and class. Does it deserve classic status?

An Old-Fashioned Girl deals much more with gender and class than it does with race and ethnicity. The little it has to say about race is not positive. Early on, Polly, the protagonist whose values and behavior are superior to that of almost all the other characters, objects to a play she's been invited to for a number of reasons, one of them being that the players, whom she originally thought were supposed to be "sparkling creatures" from "fairy-land," "sang negro melodies, talked slang, and were a disgrace to the good old-fashioned elves whom she knew and loved so well." Of course, given that Alcott had that Transcendentalist thing going and the Transcendentalists were pro-abolition, maybe she really is just talking musical taste. I guess you can believe a people shouldn't be enslaved without loving their music. Today's young readers, however, living in a twenty-first century world where African American musicians are highly regarded and popular, may be mystified by the comment. The same is true of Alcott's depictions of Irish women servants. Most child readers will never have seen a servant, anyway, forget about one who arrived from Ireland so recently that she still speaks with a heavy accent.

Are there enough race and ethnicity problems to deny An Old Fashioned Girl classic status? Probably not.

I have to say that the same is true for gender and class. An Old-Fashioned Girl is all about gender and class. While I don't like the stereotypes here and would even go so far as to say that I find most of them uninteresting, I have to say that a lot of them appear in contemporary fiction. Maybe stereotypical, uninteresting teenage behavior makes a book timeless.

I would argue that An Old-Fashioned Girl isn't a timeless work of children's literature for other reasons--its awkward structure connecting what is essentially an adult book with an older children's story, its extremely judgmental and instructive attitude, and its romanticizing of poverty and women as wives and mothers. But that's not what we were asked to consider in making our judgment.

An Old-Fashioned Girl is a marvelous piece for an adult reader interested in children's fiction and women's history, though. It's been a fun blogging week.

Monday, December 06, 2010

The Women Of An Old-Fashioned Girl

You guessed it, followers. Today we are considering gender in An Old-Fashioned Girl.

Louisa May Alcott covers a wide array of women in An OFG. Are they classic types? Are they stereotypes?

In addition to Polly, whose perfection stems from her adherence to old-fashioned values, we have her friend, Fanny, who might be the only character with any real depth and certainly the only character who is at all dynamic, since she changes. She begins as a shallow rich girl, interested only in being with her friends and fashion. This is a character we see a great deal of in YA today. Even in books that are not of the teen-girl-gone-bad variety, adolescent young women are often portrayed as being fixated on friends, clothing, and boys. Personally, I have no idea whether or not they are or the adult publishing world simply believes they are. With Fanny, there is a sense that she, unlike most of the other shallow rich girls she knows, is just a bit troubled. Particularly after she reaches adulthood, she appears to be looking around with a "Now what?" attitude. (I see this as a twenty-something scenario, by the way, not YA.)

Oddly enough, Fanny has what might be described as a posse, like the ones you see in many YA books today. The members of it are pretty much interchangable, which you often see today, also. In fact, you could probably switch some of Fanny's posse members with some from a contemporary posse without a lot of effort. A timeless element.

Also, that's an idea for a book! I've got to remember to write that in my journal.

Grandma Shaw is a revered elder woman. At the beginning of the book she is neglected and unappreciated by the young until Polly teaches everyone that she has much to offer them. Elderly people are often portrayed this way in all kinds of literature today, suggesting that writers are terrified of growing old.

Mrs. Shaw, Fanny's mother, is a minor but fascinating character if you know anything about late nineteenth century women's history. Lucky for you guys, I do. Mrs. Shaw is a sickly woman. The infirm woman is a late nineteenth century phenomena, of which much has been written. She appears in adult fiction in Charlotte Perkins Gilman's The Yellow Wallpaper. (I am sure all you former women's studies students remember that fondly.) What is so intriguing about Mrs. Shaw is that the third-person narrator really, really dislikes her. Both the narrator (who occasionally breaks out of omniscient mode to address readers as "I") and Polly have absolutely no sympathy for Mrs. Shaw, who they portray as not pulling her weight as either a mother or a wife.

I'm not an expert on nineteenth century fiction and can't recall reading many other fictional portrayals of invalid women from that period. I'd be interested to know whether or not this is a common attitude toward them or if Alcott is doing something unique here.

When Polly moves to Boston to work as a music teacher, she rents a room with a spinster (a word that appears to have no negative connotations for Alcott--maybe it didn't in her day), Miss Mills, who could easily end up being Polly's future if she remains unmarried. Miss Mills, maybe even more so than Polly, is a saintly character. She's poor enough to have to rent out rooms in her house but not so poor as to have to wait on others like the Irish women servants. Thus she is the right kind of poor. And being ennobled by poverty, she spends her time doing good works for others.

So we have a lot of very traditional portrayals of women here--very good girl, shallow adolescent, revered grandmother, bad mom, and saintly caretaker. And then, out of nowhere, in a chapter called "The Sunny Side," we get something entirely different.

Polly takes Fanny, who, remember, is sort of at a loss as to what to do with her adult self, particularly since she hasn't been able to catch the attention of the guy she's interested in, to visit some friends we didn't know she had. They never appeared in the story before, and they never appear again. Becky and Bess are artists. I'm not sure what Bess does (except that she does it with a block and some tools), but Becky is a sculptor who is working on a woman's figure. It's supposed to be her "idea of the coming woman," and Polly, who, remember, is an old-fashioned girl with values rooted in the traditional past, finds it "bigger, lovelier, and more imposing than any we see nowadays; and at the same time, she is a true woman." These women then get into a discussion of what item to put in the sculpture's hand, an item that would define her. Becky, the sculptor, objects to the suggestion of a man's hand because her woman can stand alone; she says no to a child because her woman is going to be more than a nurse.

All of a sudden, in a very positive portrayal, we've got 1860s era bohemian women discussing the status of women. And then they're gone.

How out of place is that scene and those women in this story? Go back to the Preface and look at Alcott's statement of her intentions for the book:

"The 'Old-Fashioned Girl' is not intended as a perfect model, but as a possible improvement upon the Girl of the Period, who seems sorrowfully ignorant or ashamed of the good old fashions which make woman truly beautiful and honored, and, through her, render home what it should be,--a happy place, where parents and children, brothers and sisters, learn to love and know and help one another."

In that statement Alcott is using a romantic view of women to keep them narrowly confined as wives and mothers. What were the bohemian women doing discussing women's status and work and living on their own and travel in a book that states straight out that it's about women in the home? Polly says at the end of the chapter that she and her friends will be showing Fanny "the sunny side of poverty and work," but they never appear again. And just what is this sunny side of poverty and work that Polly is talking about? Intellectual stimulation? Independence? Art?

I know I overthink things. Actually, I don't know that. I've been told that. But what I'm overthinking here is that Louisa May Alcott never lived as a wife and mother. She was a writer who needed to generate income to support herself, her parents, and maybe her sisters early on. She went off to nurse soldiers during the Civil War. In Minders of Make Believe, Leonard Marcus says she worked as a magazine editor for a while. Did she believe any of the "good old fashions which make woman truly beautiful and honored, and, through her, render home what it should be" stuff? Were those women artists the real Alcott leaking into this book?

Does it matter what was going on with Alcott since what we're supposed to be talking about this week is whether or not her portrayal of gender is timeless, the kind of thing that makes a book a classic? Only to the extent that those women artists types/stereotypes butting up against the very traditional female types/stereotypes make for a little confusion.

Sunday, December 05, 2010

An Old-Fashioned Girl: Poverty Is Ennobling--So Long As You're Not Irish

Today we will consider class and, to a much lesser extent, ethnicity.

In An Old-Fashioned Girl Alcott romanticizes what used to be known as genteel poverty--your better-quality people who have fallen on hard times or perhaps have just never had much in the way of disposable income. Polly Milton comes from just that sort of background. She hasn't been exposed to wealthy adults who encourage materialism in their young and who enjoy seeing children imitating adult behavior. (Something that many would argue hasn't changed since Alcott's time.) Whether fourteen or twenty, Polly is full of so many good qualities that seem to be a product of her poorer upbringing--She knows how to have good, clean fun making candy, how to empathize with those who are even poorer than herself, how to get over her envy of others who have more, how to remake last season's clothes, how to respect and admire her elders, how to play in the snow, how to make others feel good. These things either come naturally to her or are taught to her by her poor but noble mother "whose dress never was too fine for little wet cheeks to lie against, or loving little arms to press." Polly's fine manners don't come naturally to the wealthy Shaw children, whose own mother, Polly believes, doesn't have a "right motherly heart" and didn't teach her young to stand when Grandma enters the room or to show proper sibling love toward one another.

The Shaw children's father is a man of business who worked his way up from humble beginnings to an upper-class New England life. He is a very sympathetic character; his early poverty is a big plus and, presumably, is the reason he recognizes Polly's sterling qualities and hopes they will rub off on his own daughter.

Polly's kind of poverty is placed on a pedestal. Another figure in the book suffers from much more serious want. Jane Bryant (whose name, I think, is sometimes Jenny) is a seventeen-year-old girl who is alone in the world and unable to make enough money to live. She finds her situation so dire that she tries killing herself. But even here we have a romanticized ending when she is saved by the "old and homely, and good and happy" Miss Mills and befriended by "dear, kind" Polly.

Polly's kind of poverty is good. Jane's kind of poverty is bad. But the very poor can benefit from Polly's attentions just as the very rich can.

How good is Polly's kind of poverty? There is only one path to nobility for the Shaw family. They must become poor like Polly. In fact, you could argue that Polly's eventual mate only becomes good enough for her when he loses his money and becomes noble and poor like she is.

Except for Jane/Jenny, we don't see a lot of truly poor characters. The few servants who appear are Irish women who are portrayed as weak or even cowardly. In a warm-hearted intergenerational scene, Grandma Shaw, who is everything you could ever ask of a grandmother (though I don't think she bakes) tells the children a story from her childhood in which she refers to her family's servant as "our own stupid Biddy" and then goes on to make fun of her, including an imitation of her brogue. Neither Polly, nor the third-person narrator, object to this.

Legend has it that Alcott and her family nearly starved one winter when her father made his ill-fated attempt at communal living. She also served as a nurse during the Civil War. She was the main source of support for her parents as well as herself. This is a woman who experienced real poverty and saw real suffering. So what's going on with the glow she throws around Polly? (And, to my recollection now, the March family in Little Women?) Is it a coping mechanism to make her own past more acceptable? She also romanticizes the elderly (Grandma Shaw) and the West (Tom goes out there to make his fortune and comes back so brown, healthy, and manly). Is this some kind of Victorian thing? She grew up in a Transcendental culture. Does romanticizing the common person in the form of the poor (but not too poor) have something to do with that philosophy? Or was Alcott a shrewd marketer who was writing to an audience?

You still see elements romanticized in children's books today, particularly eccentric small town characters and the elderly. Not so much poverty, though. I think that with the advent of photography and film and mass journalism, the realities of poverty are all too well known, even to children. Today's child readers might have a very hard time accepting An Old-Fashioned Girl because they know too much to buy into the joys of being poor.

Thursday, December 02, 2010

An Old-Fashioned Girl: What Is It?

We're in the midst of the Cuchi Mata discussion period for Louisa May Alcott's An Old-Fashioned Girl. We're going to be considering how race, ethnicity, gender, and class are treated and whether or not those treatments stand the test of time.

I am so overwhelmed with thoughts about this book that it's going to take more than one post to contain them.

First off, what is this thing about? According to the author's own Preface, An Old-Fashioned Girl is really two books. The first book is about Polly Milton, a poor, old-fashioned girl who comes to Boston to visit her much better off friend Fanny Shaw and her family. Polly, I believe, is around fourteen and Fanny a year or two older. A visit back then means two months. (It's an accepted fact in my family that I can only tolerate being with other people for three hours. I can double that for a holiday, but I will need to rest most of the next day. I found the idea of a two-month visit both fascinating and horrifying.)

This portion of the book reminded me a lot of Best Friends for Never, the one volume of The Clique series that I've read. You've got the same outsider less-well-off girl circling the group of wealthy girls. In that way, you do seem to have a timeless situation here. The big difference is that Alcott provides an extremely judgmental third-person narrator. There is absolutely no doubt that Polly is Polly Perfect, that old-fashioned country values are far preferable to nineteenth century Boston's big city ways.

Evidently that first half of the book about fourteen-year-old Polly was the original book. The second half takes place six years later and appears to have been written because Alcott received requests for a sequel. Polly has been visiting the Shaws regularly over the years and now comes to Boston to work, while Fanny is sort of struggling with ennui and her brother, good-natured Tom, is living the good life at college. This second half would probably not be published as a children's book or even a YA today. While the characters are determining what kind of people they are going to be (good old-fashioned sorts or bad modern types), a theme that I associate with YA, they are also all in their twenties and sorting out work and settling into marriages, not a YA situation. The third-person narration makes it clear that Polly's work ethic and values are still to be preferred over all but those of an older spinster who has committed her life to serving others.

This is hardcore nineteenth century instructive, improving literature for the young. In her Preface, Alcott is very clear that this is no accident. She knows exactly what she's doing:

"The 'Old-Fashioned Girl' is not intended as a perfect model, but as a possible improvement upon the Girl of the Period, who seems sorrowfully ignorant or ashamed of the good old fashions..."

"If the history of Polly's girlish experiences suggests a hint or insinuates a lesson, I shall feel that, in spite of many obstacles, I have not entirely neglected my duty toward the little men and women..."

Speaking of little men and women, I suspect that there was a lot of this same type of instruction in those two works I loved so when I was young. This makes me wonder if children can tolerate preaching a lot better than adults can.

Okay. The stage has been set.