what i'm reading, children's books edition: # 2

How this series works: I write about one or two older books, offer an my opinion on whether the book will be relevant and accessible to children today, and suggest a more contemporary equivalent. I also recommend two additional children's books.

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Still Classic?

My Side of the Mountain, Jean Craighead George, 1959
Hatchet, Gary Paulsen, 1987, first of series of five books

Sam Gribley, the teenage hero of My Side of the Mountain, runs away from his crowded New York City home, determined to live off the land. He brings only a few basic tools and a little money, and learns how to survive by trial-and-error and through research at the local library. Sam does more than survive: he builds a rich life for himself in the woods. After contact with some locals from nearby towns, this "wild boy" of the forest becomes something of a local legend.

I was fascinated with this book as a child. It inspired fantasies of living off the land the way Sam Gribley did, and deepened my appreciation of nature. Re-reading the book as an adult, I was still impressed. There are some awkward, old-fashioned phrasing - "You know, it really does hurt to be terribly hungry" does not sound like a teenage boy to me - but the arc of Sam's progress is compelling enough to overlook those. The book is packed with details about nature and survival, from how to build a fire and find edible plants, to how to train a hawk and tan a deerskin hide.

In Gary Paulsen's Hatchet, fifteen-year-old Brian Robeson survives an accident but is left alone in the Canadian wilderness, his only tool and helper, a hatchet. Where My Side of the Mountain is a naturalist's tale, Hatchet is about survival. Brian's life is at stake. He is forced to learn how to build a fire without matches, how to make a safe shelter, how to get food. These lessons are about more than information and technique. They are, quite literally, lessons of life or death.

As Brian adapts and learns, he becomes more atuned to both himself and his surroundings. He acquires more than new skills; he acquires a new sense of self, of nature, of the interconnectedness of all things. He also learns, painfully, about the random luck of life and death, of nature's beauty, and its cruelty, and its loneliness.

Paulsen's writing is sparse and urgent, and always feels authentic. Because Brian has survived a terrible accident and has no possibility of simply leaving and going home, Hatchet has an urgency that My Side of the Mountain lacks. Brian is also dealing with his parents' recent divorce and some painful knowledge about his mother. This also grounds Brian's character in reality. Sam Gribley's family, by contrast, is an abstraction.

Jean Craighead George, author of My Side of the Mountain, also wrote the excellent Julie of the Wolves (1972), among other books. George was a naturalist who lived with a family full of animals, and a prolific and excellent writer. She died in 2012, her death little noticed (perhaps because Maurice Sendak, a more famous children's author, died around the same time).

I would still recommend My Side of the Mountain to young readers, but I'd go for Hatchet first.

Little House on the Prairie, Laura Ingalls Wilder, series originally published from 1932-1943, republished in many subsequent editions
Dear Canada, Dear America, My Story, I Am Canada series, various authors

I was fascinated with the Little House series as a child, and you can guess why. The main character's name was Laura, and she grew up to be the Laura who wrote these books. A Laura who was a writer. I don't know if I read the entire series, but I read many of them, and many times. [The Canadian equivalent may be Lucy Maud Montgomery's Anne of Green Gables. But I didn't grow up in Canada, I don't share the Canadian obsession with these books, and I won't venture into that territory just now.]

I haven't looked at a Little House book since my grade-school days, and I had no idea how they would read. The answer is: really well. The writing is simple and straightforward, and surprisingly, does not feel dated. The Ingalls family faces challenges and hardships, always together as a family, and always seeing the bright side of every situation.

But. There's a big but. The Ingalls family were white settlers on the American frontier. That means they encountered Indians, as the Native Americans would have been called. And depictions of Indians, in those days, means racism. The Little House books are perennials on the Challenged Book list, always accused of racism. Picking up these books for the first time in more than 40 years, I was holding my breath a bit, wondering how bad it would be.

I'm pleased to say it wasn't that bad. Nowhere near as racist as Hollywood movies of the same era, where Indians are either bloodthirsty savages or lazy idiots. Wilder's Indians are utterly different from the white settlers - they are exotified - and their difference frightens the family. But they are depicted as real human beings - people with families and traditions, and an authentic culture of their own. When a character says, "The only good Indian is a dead Indian," Pa - who is the moral authority of the series, the voice of benevolent authority - disagrees. Pa believes in mutual respect, in live-and-let-live.

But. But still. These are settlers. They are descendants of Europeans, and they are "taming" a "wilderness"; they are claiming this land for their own. There is no challenge or counterpoint to Manifest Destiny. I would hardly expect a children's book to refer to the westward expansion as genocide, but the indigenous point of view is completely absent.

There are other cringe-worthy bits, too. In Little Town on the Prairie, a minstrel show comes to town. The racism here is blatant, and quite disgusting.

Racism and imperialism in classic children's literature is a huge issue, and I won't try to deal with it exhaustively here. Little House on the Prairie is the tip of the iceberg. Some old children's books considered classics, still on the shelves in libraries throughout the English-speaking world, are shockingly racist, and I question the need to include them in our libraries today.

Here are two interesting perspectives on this issue. In The Diamond in the Window, a blog about children's books, a mom writes about dealing with the racism, both written and implied: Racism, History, and Little House on the Prairie. This mom feels the answer is providing context. I agree, but it's a tough job, and I wonder about the necessity of it. Do our children really suffer if they're not exposed to the books of their parents' or grandparents' youth? Won't books of their own generation do well enough?

In the Laura Ingalls Wilder blog Only Laura, a writer and fan of the series asks, "Little House on the Prairie: Racist or Not?".
Yes, Ma is racist (and as a mother I must say understandably so, trying to mother her children in the middle of such unrest). But if Ma is racist, isn’t Pa her counterpart? And whose side does Laura take? Whose side does the narrator take? What emerges is, in fact, a complex push-pull relationship as Laura has to make a decision about how she feels about these people she knows as Indians. And the author shares with me — the reader — that decision.

Laura likes Indians. She admires them. She feels badly for what’s happening to them. She does not say each of these things outright, although she does say some of them. By what Laura Ingalls Wilder, the writer, chooses to share about the character Laura’s thoughts about the Indians, it’s clear that to her, Ma’s judgment does not ring true.

I think that for young readers, the lesson here is not racism. It’s acceptance and respect.
Well, maybe. This is the perspective of someone who finds racism "understandable" when a woman is "mothering" children, and who employs that delicate, blame-free euphemism, "unrest". I agree that Wilder, through the character of Pa, emphasizes tolerance and mutual respect. But the reader is still identifying with the trials and tribulations of the settlers. The Indian perspective is barely alluded to.

I think young readers are better served from a fresher perspective on history. Historical fiction series like Dear America, Dear Canada, I Am Canada, and My Story all tell history from the first-person point of view of a young person. They tackle some difficult territory, like the internment of Ukrainian immigrants in Canada, the anti-Semitism that led to boatloads of doomed European Jews being turned away from North American shores (both in the US and Canada), and child labour. The writing is very good, and the first-person narratives are gripping.

I was very disappointed to see that the "Dear Canada" series is marketed exclusively to girls. The equivalent series marketed to boys is almost entirely focused on war. (One exception is a book about building the transcontinental railway.) Don't boys need and want to learn about history? As a student librarian, I already find myself clashing with childrens' readers' advisory that is almost entirely segregated by gender. Let's save that discussion for another day.

However, as I was writing this post, I was very pleased to learn that the "I Am Canada" series, the "boy" history series, includes a story of a war resister! A soldier in the trenches of WWI, horrified and traumatized, wanders off, as if he can go home to Canada. He comes upon a band of deserters, and must decide whether to continue to resist the war, or to return to the front. I've requested a copy from the Toronto Public Library (the Mississauga Library System doesn't own it) and will write about it soon.

These historical fiction series are, of course, still official readings of history. Don't expect Howard Zinn. But the non-dominant perspective is brought forward, in a way that the Laura Ingalls Wilder books cannot do.

Contemporary Classics

When You Reach Me, Rebecca Stead, 2009

Set in New York City in the late 1970s, When You Reach Me is a straightforward, realistic story, with a touch of the fantastical mixed in, a kind of magic realism that is thrilling and just a bit scary.

As Miranda's long-time best friendship breaks apart, and just as she tentatively begins to form some new friendships, the barefoot, laughing man appears in the neighbourhood for the first time. Who is sending Miranda these tiny handwritten notes - and how does the note-writer know so much about her?

This powerful tween novel also pays homage to one of the best children's books of all time, A Wrinkle in Time. I can't tell you what the two books have in common without giving too much away. Like Holes, When You Reach Me is a story of redemption. It's also about friendship, and independence, and what gets left behind as we come into our own. Also like Holes, it's one of the very best tween books I've read.

Because of Winn Dixie, Kate DiCamillo, 2000

When 10-year-old Opal finds a big, ugly dog in a Winn-Dixie grocery store, she names him after the store and brings him home. Opal lives with her father, a preacher, and misses her mother, who she doesn't know much about. Opal needs friends, and she makes them - because of Winn Dixie.

An assortment of quirky but very believable characters comes into Opal's life. The town librarian, whose ancestor made his fortune by creating a candy that is sweet, but tastes like sorrow, and who once fought off a bear with a copy of War and Peace. A nearly blind woman who town children say is a witch. A man in a pet store who plays his guitar for the animals. Winn Dixie brings these people into Opal's life, and Opal brings them into each other's lives.

This is a lovely, sad, heartwarming, but not sentimental, story. Children who like it will want to read it again and again, to get closer to the wonderful characters.

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