Hard times on the distaff side in kiddie lit?

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?

0 thoughts on “Hard times on the distaff side in kiddie lit?

  1. Hey Historiann–

    [Spoiler alert: sweeping stereotypes and wild-a**ed guesses, dead ahead]

    Good questions. I suppose Rose will probably point out all the innaccuracies and idiocies in what follows, and I have to confess to not having read Lois Lenski, but I’ll point out two issues regarding twentieth-century children’s literature. First, from the thirties to the fifites (?) much of this literature seems to have focused on the logic of the frontier, in which one “grow[s] up with the west,” in the less-often-remembered half of Horace Greeley’s memorable phrase. I’m thinking not only of the Laura Ingalls stuff (never read it) but Lois Lenski’s Appalachian stuff (never read it) and stuff like The Yearling (never read it). One might also point to orphan stories like Anne of Green Gables (never read it) where the protagonist is placed in a position of difficulty from which to demonstrate plucky determination. The link being that deprivation works to show character in ways that privelege cannot?

    Then, in the seventies, how about the possibility that 70s authors mine their own younger experiences from say, the Depression years, and recycle Depression-era ideas in their own texts?

    Boys, of course, are busy reading sports stories, where plucky determination derives from the hardships of (perceived) physical–rather than financial, geographical, or familial–inadequacy?

    Can we fit the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew books into this scheme?


  2. Tom–that’s a good start. I will however point out that Anne of Green Gables is a Canadian story. (She lived in Prince Edward Island, as I recall.) But, Canada has its own frontier mythology, to be sure.

    Your comment calls to mind the interesting fascination with rural life amidst the reality of an increasingly urban and industrial country over the course of the 20th C. That may explain more your theory about the presence of frontier mythology in children’s lit., which I think is pretty much a gender neutral thing. (There were some urban boys tales a la Horatio Alger, but there were hundreds and hundreds of adventure tales about the wild frontier, too, which very frequently feature Boy Scouts and Mounties, for some reason. Lots and lots of Mounties in late 19th-early 20th C dime novels for boys.

    Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew are more urban kids, who emerge in the midst of the Depression in total denial of the whole situation. I’m not sure how they work into your scheme, except as an exception to the rule. (Nancy Drew is like the Disney Princesses, though, in that she has no mother. But unlike the Disney Princesses, being without a mother is more about opportunities for adventure rather than simply danger. A mother surely would have put her foot down about Nancy’s driving all over town with George and Ned in her “roadster!”)


  3. My instinct is that it’s probably more that Perl, as a girl, read books about girls. There were some books which had boys as the protagonists, and usually involved being alone or semi-alone and having to get through the scary wilderness. Oddly, what I remember of that genre either had white boys (Trouble River), or Native American girls (Julie of the Wolves, Island of the Blue Dolphins).

    Nancy Drew (and prob. the Hardy Boys, although I never read them) was rich and happy — so her stories were more an escape from dreary reality, rather than “wow she’s just like me”. I always wondered why she was allowed to get away with pretty much anything, too.


  4. According to the book, _Ghost in the Little House_, Laura Ingalls’ books were heavily edited by her daughter Rose Wilder Lane, who was a harsh critic of the New Deal — she say it as little more than a communist plot that was destroying the American pioneer spirit.

    BTW, I just blogged about a Girls Studies conference down at Southern CT University – they had some interesting stuff on girls literature and of course, TV and other media.


  5. I found Strawberry Girl’s approach to economic hardship rather strange myself. The depiction of rural Florida is quite realistic, but the social philosophy the book seems to espouse is fairly reactionary. The protagonist’s family is well off, while the people around them are not. This drives much of the interpersonal conflict in the story. When the heroine’s younger sister brags about her calico dress to the other schoolgirls wearing flour sacks, she’s accused of being “biggity.” More seriously, their father is a property rights advocate, who objects to the other, much less affluent ranchers grazing their cows and pigs on his land. So the “bad guys” are the ones who are experiencing economic hard times, while the “good guys” are doing fine. It’s portrayed as if the poor deserve being poor. To be fair, the bad guys have lots of other negative qualities, including violent temperament, disdain for education, and indulgence in alcohol, which DO contribute directly to their poverty, but the message that that poverty is the poor’s fault rankled me even when I was ten.


  6. Wow, Buzz–I have no memories of the ugly class messages you report in Strawberry Girl! (Maybe I was out to lunch at age 8 after all?) I’ll have to take another look at it. I just remember everyone being terribly poor, but that’s not accurate from what you say.

    And KC–I’ve had a post-in-waiting about Anita Clair Fellman’s Little House, Long Shadow: Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Impact on American Culture, which is based in part on William Holtz’s research in Ghost in the Little House. It takes a longer view of the Little House books in American education in the 20th Century, and argues that it’s no coincidence that the Little House books and TV series in the 1970s coincided with the beginnings of the Reagan revolution. (And remember, LHOTP was Reagan’s favorite TV show–he would talk about watching it in bed with “Mommie” in their jammies in the WH.)

    What’s interesting about Buzz’s comments about SG and KC’s comments about the LH books is that both apparently depict poverty and hard times while arguing simultaneously that the government shouldn’t alleviate people’s distress and underscoring a “bootstraps” approach to problem-solving.

    Talk about depression!


  7. I’m no expert on children’s lit but I read everything L.M. Montgomery ever wrote and also knew her son – he delivered me into the world and maintained a friendship with my mother until his death. Lucy Maud’s own childhood was certainly deprived and gender was a big issue – her mother died when she was a baby and she was left to be raised by her Presbyterian (I think) grandparents while her father f’ed off to “the frontier” in Alberta. L.M. idealized her absent father and had a very difficult relationship with her grandmother who just about choked the life out of her (metaphorically speaking). She spent a year living with her father and stepmother when she was sixteen but she was clearly used as a babysitter and housekeeper, a la Cinderella, and returned home to PEI to live with her grandmother when her grandfather died. In her short stories and novels she created a fantasy world in which her heroines persevered through tremendous hardships and found not only love and family but also intellectual lives through education, teaching and writing.

    Lucy Maud ended up marrying a Presbyterian minister who, it became clear later, was severely ill with untreated depression which he used painkillers to relieve. It’s pretty clear that L.M. ran the family and earned the greater piece of the family income and her heroines often did the same. Her work can be pretty sentimental but the lesson I learned, when reading her books throughout the early sixties, was that women could and did run families, get university educations and become writers. I’ll be forever grateful. To her son, Stuart, too!

    Most of Lucy Maud’s stuff was written in the early 1900s when she lived with her young family in an Ontario town close to where I live now. And, of course, some of her work draws on her own childhood experiences in Prince Edward Island in the last quarter of the 19th C. I’ve been doing some geneological research on my Dad’s side of the family and, though we have no PEI connection, there are some Scots immigrants way back in his family along with Ontario farming life. However, my Dad’s family was Roman Catholic. Many details of life were similar, but religion made a huge difference. The bigger part of my Dad’s family was Irish and that made a difference as well. But in doing my research, I’m often struck by the roles that women played. They did all the heavy duty farmwork alongside their husbands and sons but, in my family anyway, like L.M.’s, it was the women who seem to have been much more likely to move out of their rural backgrounds to become nurses, teachers and even businesswomen. When people say more women “work” today than ever before, I often think it’s a bit of an ironic statement. Many of those women tell stories of men who couldn’t make their poor farms work but had no alternative. They often languished in alcoholism and other self-destructive behaviour, leaving it to wives and sisters to secure the family income – when I look at census material, I’m often struck by how many sisters remained unmarried and living not just with aging parents, but also, unmarried brothers. It often seems a further irony to me that one of my first “feminist” role models was a pretty small “c” conservative woman who set out to survive not only in material ways, but through use of her imagination and intellect.

    Sorry to go on and on but I couldn’t resist once mention had been made of one of my heroines.


  8. Along these lines, I remember reading (and loving) the All-of-a-Kind-Family series by Sidney Taylor, about a Jewish immigrant family with mostly daughters growing up on the Lower East Side of NY in the early 20th c. For that matter, you could fit _Little Women_ into the “hard times for girls” narratives, too.

    Of course, I was also a sucker for all kinds of fantasy/sci-fi lit, too, which is a whole other kind of escape from reality.


  9. I loved Lois Lenski because the heroines were allowed so much more independence than I was, or that is how I remember it. The Ingalls books were much more puritanical and the kids were very controlled, like us. This was in the early to mid 60s. Ingalls and Lenski were everywhere.
    Among others, of course, but those two were big.


  10. I always disliked the Little House TV series — only because I was a huge fan of the books and couldn’t get past the idea of Pa without a beard. I will definitely have to read the two books mentioned that are about the novels — heck, there are a lot of books mentioned here that I never read and now really want to!


  11. Y’know, reading this I’m realizing that I don’t remember *anything* about the content of Lois Lenski’s books, just the beautiful artwork.

    I do think it’s true that those stories increasingly feature traumatized girls. So much so that when students in my adolescent lit class recently read Karen Hesse’s wonderful novel about the Dust Bowl, _Out of the Dust_, they expressed shock that a man who gets into a boxcar with the main character as she’s running away from Oklahoma *doesn’t* rape or otherwise sexually assault her. Are we conditioning a generation of girl readers to anticipate that a female character, alone, who encounters a strange male, is inevitably about to be molested?

    Certainly, a lot of other popular contemporary YA texts support this idea: _ttyl_, _Speak_, even adult texts that have been taken up by classroom teachers like _I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings_ and _The House on Mango Street_ are about the dangers that girls face from boys and men.

    Granted, the upshot of those books is about how the heroine overcomes the trauma and triumphs, but still…as a standard plot, it’s creepy. Are we suggesting that the *only* kind of adversity contemporary girls face and that builds character is rape? Ick.


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