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.

* * * *

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.


M@ said...

Well, I've got an anecdote to share about one of these books...

In grade 4, I was put into a split class, with 7 grade 4s and the rest (about 25) grade 5s. And I was the only male grade 4 student in the class. I mark my status as an outcast geek and horrendous underachiever in elementary school as starting right there.

Both the grades were assigned novels for a long part of the English curriculum. (It seemed long at the time, but who knows, maybe it was about two weeks.) Two books were assigned: Snow Treasure and My Side of the Mountain. The less capable readers in grade 5 got Snow Treasure, the more capable readers got Mountain. The grade 4s had no choice: they all had to read Snow Treasure.

And I liked Snow Treasure: it was military history, it was an adventure book, it featured all the exoticism of Norway. But while the grade 4s were all pretty good students, the grade 5s who were assigned Snow Treasure, and who did all the class work with the grade 4s for this bit of the class, were extremely poor readers. Some had learning disabilities, some were just way, way behind in reading ability.

And the one thing that's never varied in all my academic ups and downs -- I'm a very good reader.

I can't tell you how frustrated and angry I was that I had to be held back with these dullards -- my thinking at the time, I assure you, I have a more tolerant attitude now -- and have to read the younger kids' book instead of the other book, which I was completely capable of reading.

I pleaded to be allowed to read the other book. I practically begged to be put with the more advanced class. And I was denied. I don't even remember if I was given an explanation; I only remember I was told no. And there were no spare copies of the book I could have.

I stewed about that for a good long time. I would listen to the other kids being lectured on Mountain, and I even have a pretty good idea of the plot to this day. But I never did get to read it. Once the novel unit was done, the books were collected and taken away, and I never got to read Mountain. It's possible that I could have gotten to read it at some point, but it just never happened.

Funny, how someone can post a completely innocuous review of a half-century-old book, and all these feelings get dredged up... I'm still an unhappy and frustrated nine-year-old boy at heart, I guess...

laura k said...

Thanks for sharing that!

I'm still an unhappy and frustrated nine-year-old boy at heart, I guess...

I think it speaks more to the power of books and art to connect us with our memories.

Also of the inflexibility of certain teachers! Would it have been so very awful if you read the other book??? Were there dozens of children asking to be switched that it would have caused such chaos?

I think you should read My Side of the Mountain immediately! It's available as a free download. :)

johngoldfine said...

May I recommend a wonderful and not particularly well-known children's book: 'Understood Betsy' by Dorothy Canfield Fisher.

I've read it many many times and always learn something new about teaching, about children, about New England, about writing.

It starts with the same premise as 'Anne of Green Gables' written a few years earlier but is a thousand times better book.

laura k said...

Now that is an old book! Published well before any of us were born. I'll check it out.

Would you say it is now for adults, or would you recommend it to a young reader?

johngoldfine said...

Jean read it as a girl and recommended it to me sometime after we met, so I probably first read it at 18 or 20. I have read it at least a half-dozen times.

It's certainly a children's book, intended as such, but, as I say, it has many pleasures for adults. In fact, after I posted at wmtc at 4:25 I found a LibriVox recording and have been listening to it for the last half-hour.

I read it to my sixth and seventh grade students back in the mid-70s but it was too slow for their taste, too 'queer' to use their inimitable term. They were more into Judy Blume. Still, if it doesn't have wide appeal to young readers, when it does find an appreciative reader, it will have deep appeal.

johngoldfine said...

Jean also introduced me to Frances Hodgson Burnett. 'A Little Princess' is my favorite of her stories; Jean prefers 'Secret Garden.'

I don't know how either would work with young readers. My sixth and seventh graders scoffed at Burnett's most vivid effects, at which point I had to tell them they had hearts of stone: there they were scoffing, while tears streamed down my face....

laura k said...

I liked Secret Garden when I was a kid. Maybe I'll put it on my "still classic?" list.

Re Understood Betsy, I get that it was originally for children, my question was do you think kids would like it now. I will check it out at some point. Thanks for mentioning it.

johngoldfine said...

I don't know kids now, not really; I don't even know the students I teach, most of them young enough to be my grandchildren. But I don't think 'Understood Betsy' would work for a reader put off by the least bit of confusing old stuff. For the child already addicted to books, particularly girls of the right age, yes. As I say, it does not have a wide appeal but for some a deep one.

Worth contrasting it to the superficially similar but very inferior 'Anne of Green Gables.' That book is beloved and still delivers busloads of tourists to Prince Edward Island every year on pilgrimage, god knows why. The superior book goes a-begging, again god knows why.

But I suppose if I were offering a reader advisory, more often than not I'd go with the wisdom of the crowd and suggest Anne in lieu of Betsy....

laura k said...

I will never write about AoGG. Besides singlehandedly propping up the tourism industry of an entire province, it's obviously a cultural experience that I cannot enter into retroactively as an adult.

Maybe it's the Rick Mercer of the children's book world.

Apologies for the wmtc inside joke.

Sarah O. said...

I haven't commented here in probably over two years, but the Anne of Green Gables comments drew me out of the woodwork! Sorry in advance for the tome:

In PEI's defence, the island gets over a million visitors every year, yet Green Gables only gets about 200,000 visitors. PEI's tourism industry would have developed without LM Montgomery's contribution, just the same as it did in Nova Scotia. Antimodernism has always been more of a driving force to PEI's tourism industry than "The Land of Anne," as historians and cultural geographers have observed.

I would say that in some ways AoGG is to nature-loving girls what Black Beauty is to horse-loving girls, and that contributes to some of its persistent appeal. It's probably not a coincidence that my favourite books at the time I first read AoGG were My Side of the Mountain and Julie of the Wolves. Granted, L.M. Montgomery shows a different side of nature appreciation, but it is one that was attainable to me as a kid; the wonder of nature in my back yard and neighbourhood.

Full disclosure: I am currently writing a thesis on literary landscapes related to L.M. Montgomery. I'm not out to convert anyone to enjoying her books, but I do essentially study why people like them.

laura k said...

Sarah O, how nice to hear from you! Thanks so much for the PEI and LMM info.

I should know better than to make pronouncements about a province's tourism industry, but I really did mean that as a joke, albeit a lame one. I look forward to visiting PEI one day.

Now that you've placed AoGG alongside My Side of the Mountain and Julie of the Wolves, I am more inclined to read it.

johngoldfine said...


Great piece by Margaret Atwood, which, had I not read AOGG in the past few years, would certainly have convinced me to give it a whirl. But I would have regretted it because the book Atwood describes is not quite the book I experienced.

Although every word Atwood says is true, the deeper truth is reflected in the Anne kitsch and tsotchkes she refers to: there is something incurably cheap and meretricious about AOGG. Atwood describes the book's descent from a long line of Victorian orphans-rescued fantasies, and my taste for 'Little Princess' and 'Understood Betsy' and much Dickens certainly inclines me to see the truth of that.

But the late 19th and early 20th Century also saw another genre of books--the mischievous-child genre. Think Pecks Bad Boy or Tom Sawyer or Penrod. AOGG is closer in spirit to those books (Kids! The darned lovable little rascals!') than it is to Oliver Twist or Huck Finn.

deang said...

"Because of Winn Dixie" was my youngest niece's favorite book when she was about nine years old. She read and re-read Dicamillo's books for a year or so. I still remember the candy that tastes like sorrow.

Sarah O. said...

Johngoldfine, thanks for the link. Parts of it were familiar, but it has been a while since I read it. I agree there is no real social advocacy in Montgomery's work, it's all individual fulfillment-type stuff; Montgomery was not a social campaigner and her Scotch Presbyterianism was very, very deeply engrained in her. Montgomery was always more about Home and beauty and nature, and those are themes that are easily adopted by conservative world views, because they don't need to challenge the status quo. I don't think that makes these themes in and of themselves valueless.

Laura K, If you were only ever to read one L.M. Montgomery book in your life, I'd say AoGG is not the best one. My favourite LMM is Emily of New Moon, a book which some of Canada's best female writers usually claim as a source of their childhood inspiration to become writers. Emily is ambitious, sensitive, prideful, finds ecstasy in natural beauty, and she needs to write. For a childhood-and-nature fix, Jane of Lantern Hill is a great pick, and the novel starts and ends in Toronto so it has more of an awareness of "the city" than any other of LMM's novels. It's a fun book, and shows again Montgomery's skill at depicting how children form a relationship with nature.

I'm enjoying this series a lot, by the way, especially for keeping an eye out for books that my conventionally-raised (i.e. "this is boy stuff") 8-year-old nephew, currently consuming Goosebumps and Diary of a Wimpy Kid, might like.

laura k said...

Sarah, thanks for reading (and enjoying) the series! There's no plan to the books I'm choosing, but I will try to include a little of everything.

"Holes" is thought of as a "boy book", and of course "Hatchet" and "My Side of the Mountain" pass the boy test. Depending on the kid, 8 might be too young, or might not.

I love the Wimpy Kid series. It is probably the most popular series in the library, or maybe a tie with Geronimo Stilton.

laura k said...

Also thanks for the tip on Emily of New Moon. That book has intrigued me, I see it mentioned in many places, as you say. I'll add it to The List. :)

I still remember the candy that tastes like sorrow.

What a great image that is - the candy is sweet, tastes like (I think) root beer and strawberry, but has an aftertaste of sorrow. Opal is finding most of life's happinesses are like that.

laura k said...

Sarah O, I just realized I've already written about many boys' (and girls') favourite book, Rick Riordan's The Lightning Thief. If your nephew hasn't read it, you could recommend that to him.

Amy said...

Sorry to be joining the conversation so late, but just got back from vacation and saw this post.

A few years ago three of my (women) colleagues and I read Little Town on the Prairie. It was one of those winters when we had lots of snow and everyone was complaining, and one of my colleagues suggested that if we lived when LIW lived, we'd realize how lucky we are. I had read all the LIW books when I was younger and loved them for their sense of history and sense of place and for Laura as a female "hero."

In rereading Little Town, I also was struck by how well-written they were, how well she evokes prairie life, town life, and family life in those times. I decided to go back and read the rest of the series. I read about four of the books before I got distracted and started reading something more contemporary.

I did find myself grimacing quite a bit at some of the racism (mostly anti-Native American---not sure that's really racism) and sexism, but was able to put most of into historical context. I would hope that any adult who encourages his/her child or student to read the books would do the same. (Those were some of the issues my colleagues and I discussed in reading Little Town.)

I never read A of GG, but speaking of cults, while reading the LIW books, I discovered there is also a cult of LIW followers also. I read The Wilder Life by Wendy McClure around the same time---a woman's memoir about her experience of visiting various LIW sites---where the town was,the house in the big woods, etc.

laura k said...

Thanks, Amy. (Never any reason to apologize.)

That's great that you went back to explore those books. I also thought the writing was very good.

It would be good if we could count on adults giving context to these books every time a young person reads one, but that's very unlikely to happen. A, the adult has to know the book and why context is necessary, and B, the adult has to discuss the child's reading material. That's a lot to expect, I think.

I think the term racism is correct, as a catch-all term for degrading stereotypes based on group identity. I don't believe in the concept of races at all - to me it's a purely social construct - so if the term racism applies to African Americans and Asians, then it applies to Native Americans as well, IMO.

Amy said...

I agree and recently watched or read an interview with some geneticist who pointed out that the DNA shared by all human beings is remarkably similar and what we call "race" has no true genetic basis.

laura k said...

Amy, I'd love to see that if you have any idea where you saw it.

What started me thinking about race as purely a societal fiction was seeing old newspaper stories (possibly from Allan's book research, not sure) that referred to the Italian race, Irish race, etc. - various immigrant groups, all referred to as separate races. So they were races then, but aren't now?

Most African Americans have some ancestry that is white, but if they look black, as far as society is concerned, they are black. (One obvious example springs to mind!) The playwright August Wilson used to talk about this - his father was white, but he grew up in a world that saw him as black, and his identity was black, even though at least half his biological background was not black.

Amy said...

I cannot remember where I saw the interview, but here's a link from the PBS site that is relevant.


I always wince when I hear or read references to Jews as a race, not only because of Hitler and Nazism, but also because it leads to certain assumptions about shared traits that lead to stereotypes (both positive and negative) that then lead to prejudice. Certainly that must be true for African Americans and Asian Americans as well.

There once long ago was some percentage that defined whether or not you were black for purposes of the vote, the census, or some other governmental purpose. Maybe it was 1/8? 1/16? I forget exactly. But yes, people like Obama and Jeter will always be perceived as black even though they had white mothers.

laura k said...

Thanks for the link.

A percentage that defined a person as black, I don't know if I've ever heard of that. The first thing I thought of was that 3/5 of a person thing.

There were also a slew of movies from - when? 1920s? 1930s? - made by one of the first African American directors, all about forbidden "interracial" love affairs, when suddenly, at the last moment, it was found that the white person had "one drop of black blood" so it was all ok!!! Allan and I saw a documentary about this. It was bizarre.

laura k said...

This Wikipedia article speaks to what Amy said about what was officially considered black. Unsurprisingly, it depends on who was asking, when, and why.

laura k said...

Also, a book I read about crossing the colour line in various directions.

I can't believe I used to title posts "what i'm reading" and nothing else. Stupid.

johngoldfine said...

Someone I know very well of mixed Asian and African American ancestry was recently talking to her WASP neighbor.

The neighbor said with maximum bitterness, self-pity, and anger--referring to the USAian presidential election and the coalition BO put together of non-angry, non-old, non-white, non-male voters-- "I guess we're the new minority now."

How could he have looked at this patently non-white minority woman and said that?

Still on topic: I once had an all-white terrier bitch, but she had one small black freckle on her otherwise pure Caucasian belly. Given the one-drop rule that obtains hereabouts, I had to name her 'Pinky' a la http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pinky_(film)

laura k said...

Not actually on topic, but that's fine. :) Tala has 4 black hairs. Individual hairs. We find that amusing.

Re the angry WASP neighbour, I'm sure you know, that is a VERY common attitude. Allan and I used to hear our (now-ex) brother-in-law rant about "being a minority in your own country!" because the neighbourhood of his birth had changed from being predominantly Italian-American (him) to being predominantly Korean-American (not him).

johngoldfine said...

I think I stepped on my own punchline: the point the mixed-race woman took away was that somehow he was including her as one of the new minority! She does have an amazing ability to match the style and social complexion--at least the social--of any group she finds herself in, an ability perhaps the result of her difficult personal history and what it demanded of her.

Anyway, there the neighbor was including her as one of the new minority, this daughter of a Vietnamese laundrywoman and an American GI, raised by a WASP Quaker and a deracinated Jew! I wish she'd told him to fuck off, but that certainly is not her style.

But surely, surely dogs are relevant to this (and nearly all other possible!) discussions. Think of how some people are pedigree snobs, how the word 'mongrel' has become pejorative ande replaced with 'mixed breed' or (god help us) 'designer dog,'and most of all how ferocious pogroms and lynch mobs sweep up the breeds deemed 'incurably vicious.'

If we can't find enough humans nearby to hate and fear, there are always dogs.

laura k said...

Oh sorry about that misreading, too much multitasking (reading comments in class) on my part.

Perhaps the neighbour was including her because he likes her, or at least is used to her. I've heard white people say to people of colour, after making a racist remark in their presence, "Not you, of course, I don't think of you that way". And it's supposed to be a compliment!

Dogs: not necessarily on topic, but always relevant, and always welcome.