Bridget Crawford at Feminist Law Profs asks an interesting question: “is there a gender angle to the ‘financial hard times’ narratives and books marketed specifically to girls?” It was inspired by this article at Slate by Rebecca Perl, who waxed nostalgic about her 70s recession/stagflation childhood and the large number of children’s literature titles that seemed to be about hard times:
One of the ways I coped was by burying my nose in books and discovering kids who had it worse than I did. Like Ramona Quimby, whose dad got fired and took up residence on the couch. And Laura Ingalls, whose dad kept hitching up the wagon to drag his bonneted brood to the middle of nowhere. Many of the books I discovered during the late ’70s featured themes of economic hardship that made my circumstances seem manageable by comparison—a happy coincidence, I thought at the time. Looking back, I’m not so sure this was an accident.
Crawford notes that the big-screen adaptation of the American Girl franchise’s Depression-era kid, Kit Kittredge, was released this summer, and notes that the other books Perl mentions all feature girls as main characters. Thus her question: is this a coincidence, or is there a gendered angle to hard times in kid lit?
I’m about the same age as Perl, and I have no memory of Ramona’s dad being out of work. But that’s not to say that I was clueless about class and economic deprivation–I tended to read lots of historical children’s books natch, not just the Little House books, but also those beautiful books by Lois Lenski, which (more often than not) featured girls who wore flour sack dresses and took their lunches to school in tin pails (like Strawberry Girl, if I recall correctly.) I also really loved a biography of Jupiter, who was a boy enslaved on Thomas Jefferson’s father’s plantation and grew up with Jefferson. (At least, that’s what I remember–I can’t seem to find this title anywhere. It was probably published in the 1960s. Maybe I dreamed it up?) On the other hand, the modern stories written in the 1970s (Are You There, Judy Blume? It’s Me, Historiann) were more about “social issues” of the day like divorce, menstruation (Are You There, God…?), voyeurism (Then Again, Maybe I Won’t), and scoliosis, of course. Scoliosis was a big fear of ours in the late 70s, thanks to Deenie!
(Hey, fellow early American/borderlands warfare freaks–how did I miss this Lois Lenski title when I was a child, Indian Captive: the Story of Mary Jemison? I guess I’ll put that on my Christmas list this year!)
All of this is to say, yours is a great question, Bridget, but I’m clearly lost in a fog of nostalgia and can’t venture an answer. Maybe some of our lurking lit profs, folklorists, historians, and other ex-girls and former boys can chime in with their reflections and best guesses. What do you think?