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Which book will hurt which reader how?

hiredgirl_210x300There are some lively debates going on at Heavy Medal and Fuse #8 about Laura Amy Schlitz’s The Hired Girl, a presumed favorite for 2016 Newbery consideration. The Horn Book starred it; I like it too (and here’s a brief interview I did with Schlitz in the September Magazine). What’s interesting about this debate is that it has largely focused on one brief passage in the book where the heroine makes a glancing and ignorant comment about Indians. (Debbie Reese noted this before the current kerfuffle.) What’s also interesting about the debate is how thoughtful and polite it’s been, so far anyway.

Perhaps it is polite because no one is accusing the book of racism. Everyone agrees that the passage in question is meant to express the character’s ignorance of the world beyond her rural confines; the debate is over whether the girl’s unthinking prejudice toward Indians is necessary to the book, or if it will only serve to hurt those young readers who will miss the unreliability of the narrator as well as those who are Indian themselves, who will be hurt by the inclusion of the slur.

My problem with this argument is in its assumption of harm. Who will be hurt? How will they be hurt? Should all books be assessed for potential harm? (If the hurt is enough to keep The Hired Girl from winning the Newbery — as Nina Lindsay in a comment on Heavy Medal says it should — doesn’t it follow that the hurt is enough to keep it from library shelves altogether?)

These aren’t really possible questions to answer, which is why I hesitate to give them much weight. I am not suggesting that a book cannot hurt a reader, only that we don’t know what in which book will hurt which reader how. Those objecting to The Hired Girl are assuming some readers will be harmed by reading it, but there is no evidence of this, either in hand or beyond the simple assertion. And since we are all apparently in agreement that Schlitz’s depiction of a racist mindset is ultimately in service to its being undermined — meaning we can’t ding the book for racism or stereotyping — the only argument we have against the book’s value (in this particular aspect) is that Kids Won’t Get It.

Some will, some won’t, some will blaze or snooze right past the passage in question. How the heck is this different from any case of any book we entrust into any reader’s hands?

Roger Sutton About Roger Sutton

Roger Sutton has been the editor in chief of The Horn Book, Inc, since 1996. He was previously editor of The Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books and a children's and young adult librarian. He received his M.A. in library science from the University of Chicago in 1982 and a B.A. from Pitzer College in 1978. Follow him on Twitter: @RogerReads.



  1. Mm. Well put. I initially included the phrase “trigger warning” in my post, and then realized that its very inclusion would slide the debate in a far less agreeable direction (and not one that I wanted to pursue), plus it didn’t really fit with what we were talking about. Still, I did want to bring up some of the questions you mention here and couldn’t quite figure out how to phrase them. This is why I like these kinds of discussions. That and, y’know, they make me think and occasionally change my mind.

  2. Might not farm youths’ feelings be hurt that Joan despises the hard life on a farm and it seems the worst kind of life anyone might have?? Granted, the book is set more than 100 years ago so contemporary readers wouldn’t have confused her life then to their lives now, so there’s no way that kids on the farms will ever feel embarrassed by an author’s portrayal… hmmm…

  3. The only way a book can hurt me is if it falls on my head.

  4. This is another round of baloney.

    Everyone is in this area of work because we believe in the GOOD of books. We believe that books can change a life, in a good way. We believe words have power. We believe books inspire people. And so we flock to get as many of those books on our shelves as we can. When someone famous tells us about a children’s book they were inspired by, we cite that person’s words. That one anecdote carries tremendous weight. We make sure we have that book.

    Why are people so unwilling to acknowledge that books can do the opposite, too?

  5. Roger Sutton Roger Sutton says:

    Debbie, did you read what I wrote? “I am not suggesting that a book cannot hurt a reader, only that we don’t know what in which book will hurt which reader how.”

    Think about some of those famous people touting books that inspired them. THE GIVING TREE is a big one for that. But it sure didn’t inspire me. It horrifies me, basically. My point is simply that what don’t know what a particular book will do to a particular reader at a particular time.

    As it happens, I don’t think books often change lives either way. Reading does, though, and I believe always for the better. I can’t speak for anyone else, but that’s why I’m in this business.

  6. When I was a kid I hated Judy Blume. There was a period in school when I didn’t fit in and I was bullied. I read Judy Blume because some friends were and I think one was assigned in school. Even back then I knew those books were aimed at me. They were supposed to be about me, a 10-12 year old girl back in the 70’s. I was supposed to relate to those characters. I didn’t. I hear other people talk about how important those books were for them, how it finally felt like someone understood. For me, those books just made it clear that I really was a weirdo, just like the other kids said.
    So, I agree with Roger on this one, readers are too individual to predict the effect any particular book will have. This is especially true of children whose brains are capable of the strangest twists of logic and imagination.

  7. Meaghan Ahlbrand says:

    I once heard Nancy Pearl speak at a conference. She pointed out that no one reads the same book. You bring to it your background, your prior knowledge, your ideas and experiences. There’s no way to tell which book will convey which message to which person…but that’s one of the beautiful things about reading.

  8. This seems like something of a false argument in relation to keeping in mind microaggressions in children’s literature (or any media, really)–which is really what we’re talking about here. To me this is very similar to the straw man argument made about trigger or content warnings, which go more or less “you can’t possibly know what everyone’s triggers might be, so why put anything at all?” Of course, it’s been documented that there are clearly some particular subject matters that can be very triggering to people who have had specific types of experiences (not all, but GENERALLY); similarly, there are certain turns of phrase, actions, etc. that are widely regarded as microaggressions or even outright racist, sexist, etc. No one is saying individuals don’t read, interpret, and react to things differently from one another; but it seems silly to argue that because you can’t account for the response of every single reader, you shouldn’t consider the ways that widely acknowledge oppressive tactics may cause readers to feel unnecessarily unwelcome, unwanted, and betrayed.

  9. I think that Laura has done such a wonderful job with this book. I think that this book will endure because of the historical accuracy of the character of Joan. What does Joan know exactly? Time and time again she has to learn, to be educated about very basic things. What I like about the character is that she is willing to learn. She seems like she could come from that era and she has the prejudices of a person from that era. If she had been portrayed otherwise I would think she was too good to be true. I think we must face history head on, and the sad truth is that there were people who were even more uneducated than Joan. Do we wish it could have been otherwise? Of course we do. Is it though? No, the character of Joan is true to life and true to history.

  10. Roger Sutton Roger Sutton says:

    Yes, Kazia, I can see where my line of thinking could devolve into “well, everyone reads differently, and we don’t know what happens to them as a result, so there’s really no point in trying to eradicate things that are noxious in children’s literature.” I don’t believe that, but I also don’t believe that it is any more of a slippery slope than thinking “I don’t like the depiction that I think is a stereotype, and thus a micro-aggression, and thus harmful to children, and thus must be . . .” must be what, exactly?

    I don’t mean to pick on your sentence structure–oh, who am I kidding, i totally DO–but I notice that all your appeals to authority are phrased in the passive voice: “it has been documented that,” “that are widely regarded as microaggressions,” “widely acknowledged repressive tactics.” Sez WHO? None of these are evidence of anything beyond group values; they assert harm (“cause readers to feel unnecessarily unwelcome, unwanted, and betrayed”) but do not demonstrate it.

    As someone who has at times–both as a child and as an adult–read books that made me feel “unwelcome, unwanted, [or] betrayed,” I would ask two further questions. First, is the book always to blame when a reader feels this way? And second and more important, was I HARMED? Hurt, sure, offended, absolutely, scared, a LOT. (You try being a baby gay in the 1970s reading EVERYTHING YOU ALWAYS WANTED TO KNOW ABOUT SEX* (*BUT WERE AFRAID TO ASK).) Rather than fussing over themes or words or depictions we find problematic in books, I wish we spent more time helping kids become strong–in many senses–readers who know the the truth doesn’t begin or end in a single book.

  11. Pick away at my sentence structure–sentences are meant to be picked at! While I think over your questions, I want to pose a question in return (or ask for clarification): since EVERYTHING is constructed through “group values” (that’s how “society” works!), who’s to say what “group values” are more or less valuable or legitimate? (I realize that that’s a bit more rhetorical, as the true answer is that it’s determined by the kyriarchy). What kind of “evidence” is necessary? How is someone saying that something feels harmful to them not evidence? What are you looking for? (This is a real question, not meant to be obnoxious).

  12. Roger Sutton Roger Sutton says:

    Kyriarchy? We ARE from different worlds!

    I don’t think we need to decide “whose values are more or less valuable or legitimate.” While I value aesthetically challenging books, for example, I don’t care if people (kids included) want to read junk. “Feels harmful to them” means nothing to me, honestly–if something feels harmful to you, stop reading it. But I think what you actually mean here is “feels like it would be harmful to young readers,” which, as I said, is in my view a terrible way to approach the provision of books to children.

  13. Elissa Gershowitz Elissa Gershowitz says:

    Also, Kazia, I’m curious about how you feel about Hired Girl specifically in relation to all this harm. Because I know you’re a lit-crit person, and I feel like I’ve been trying to argue — in a lit-crit-ish, show-me-your-textual-evidence way — that this particular book is doing exactly the opposite of the harm to which some of the people are objecting. Schlitz is asking readers to question society’s harmful beliefs at every, single turn. The approach is subtle, and ironic, and respectful of readers’ abilities to recognize the harm done — in real, historical life and also today — by prejudicial thinking. In my Jewish-girl, lit-cri-ish opinion. But I’m curious about yours.

  14. Hmmm I’m running on low energy today, so I’m going to think some more about the best way to re-articulate what I’m trying to express (in contrast to how you’re interpreting it, which isn’t fully incorrect based on what I’ve written, but also isn’t what I mean).

    Elissa, I’ve been loving seeing your critical and personal perspective throughout the discussion. I haven’t read THE HIRED GIRL (I was vaguely interested and may still read it but at the moment feel a bit of fatigue when thinking about it), so I’ve been purposefully not commenting on that text specifically, but rather trying to think about what to do with a text that, like the notorious GRASSHOPPER JUNGLE, seems to be both enormously spirit-lifting and spirit-sinking to our community.

  15. As I’ve said elsewhere, I don’t think those of us who have objections to Hired Girl are raising them because we’re reading it literally (not seeing the ways the author meant us to question the main character’s point of view) but because we see a subtext the author may not have intended. There, the question is more whether people consider it to be award worthy.

    As to the more general question of harm– like others, I’m interested in how this conversation compares to others within the community about boys and reading. There’s strong evidence that this sense of alienation from the majority of books used in classrooms can be linked to racial reading gaps. (See Ebony Elizabeth Thomas’ writing on this, for example.) There are also studies like the one showing that among white children who watch TV, white boys experience a rise in self esteem, and black children and all girls experience a decrease (these were the only groups they looked at.) TV isn’t books, but it does point to what’s being talked about when people say “harm”. There’s a lot of attention paid, and importance given to the reading gap between boys and girls, and publishers have made decisions in an effort to correct it. Why do these other harms not seem equally worthy of addressing?

  16. Elissa Gershowitz says:

    And I’ve said, Sarah, that the author DID intend for readers to recognize that subtext and to condemn it. So, that’s where we fundamentally disagree.
    Kazia, there are far, *FAR* fewer boy-parts jokes in the Schlitz.

  17. Elissa said “Schlitz is asking readers to question society’s harmful beliefs at every, single turn.”

    Being able to question assumes that readers have the knowledge they need to pose those questions. When Jonathan raised THE HIRED GIRL discussion at Heavy Medal, he pointed to what Joan says about Indians being “civilized.”

    I do not think most kids in US classrooms have the background knowledge to question society’s harmful beliefs about Indians. There’s a lot of evidence people are clueless–today–about society’s beliefs about Indians.

    Indeed, Schlitz has her characters play Indian later in the book. There is nothing in that part of the book that pushes back on the harm of that particular act. Based on past discussions, I know there are a great many people who think there is no harm in depicting that act. It is well-trod ground here on Read Roger.

    Schlitz’s intent aside, the words in THE HIRED GIRL are what we have to work with. The October 2015 White House report on American Indian and Alaska Native Education was released a few days ago. The testimony of Native children, talking about how their peers and teachers treat them, is difficult to read. For those who want to read the report, here is the link:

    My guess is some people will find a way to discredit their voices. I can’t turn away from it, and I hope that my contributions to the discussion are useful to readers who want to see all children uplifted by the words they read in a book–especially those that are singled out for distinction. Those are the ones that kids will be assigned to read.

  18. KT Horning says:

    Elissa, please re-read Sarah’s first sentence again, especially this part of it: “…but because we see a subtext the author may not have intended.” [emphasis on “we see.”]

    Essentially, Sarah and Debbie have been saying the same thing (mostly over on the Heavy Medal blog) about the notion of “civilized” vs. “wild” or assimilated = “like us” = good, . Both Sarah and Debbie have years of experience as critical readers and as members of the targeted groups, and this has likely given then a heightened sensitivity to evidence of the subtext in question.

    They both understand the argument that many of the book’s champions are making that these notions reflect Joan’s thinking, rather than the author’s. And they may even believe, as I do, that, in much of that book, that’s true when we’re considering Joan’s attitudes and beliefs about Jews in general.

    But it’s when we get into the specifics of Joan’s feelings about one character who represents a less assimilated Jew whose practices and beliefs are not taken seriously, are never understood, and are written off as foolish and humorous, they suspect they see the author’s own prejudices shining through. And, interestingly, they both get linked (Jews and Indians) in this idea of civilized vs. wild, a construction of the author’s own making that she uses to show the starting place in Joan’s thinking. In both cases, with Orthodox Jews and American Indians, there has been a long history of Western thought that reinforces the belief that “civilized” is superior, and this book seems to square with that.

    This discussion overall has given me a lot to think about and it’s been enlightening to see the (mostly) civil discussion of vastly different readings of the same book.

  19. Elissa Gershowitz Elissa Gershowitz says:

    KT, yes, but where we disagree (and where I don’t quite agree with the people saying, “That’s just how people THOUGHT back then”) is that I believe Schlitz used the word “civilized” intentionally to stop us, to call readers’ attention to this notion of “civilized” and its ugly implications.

  20. I’ve gathered my thoughts on the book into a single blog post and invite anyone who wishes to study my concerns with the Native content to visit it here:

  21. Nina Lindsay says:

    Elissa, my question is “why” does Schlitz call our attention to “civilized” in this way, and was it necessary? I believe it *uses* First Nations/Native trauma in service of a white story.

  22. Elissa Gershowitz says:

    Nina, because the book’s theme: Question the kyriarchy. Or as Inigo Montoya might say: “Civilized — you keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”

  23. Nina Lindsay says:

    I don’t think that segment is intrinsic to her theme. Sure she intends in the spirit, by *why* did she feel the need to use this problematic trope? She didn’t need it.

  24. Roger Sutton Roger Sutton says:

    A “white story,” Nina? Do you really want to start down that road?

  25. Thanks, KT for your comment, which articulates my thoughts better than I did.

    I’m realizing, too, that my comments that point to the issue being subtext and not a lack of appreciation of irony, seem to be in contradiction with the argument that many readers *won’t* have a greater perspective with which to contextualize these scenes and moments. In my own head the two aren’t contradictory at all– I think the specific choices an author makes in *how* to include and contextualize different prejudiced attitudes reveal a great deal about an underlying perspective, and this perspective includes an understanding of the relationship between “now” and “then”. (Since the irony hinges on the idea that there is a large distance between most readers’ understanding NOW, versus what the character believed THEN, even as those “historical” attitudes keep seeping through in the contemporary text.) But I’d have to think more about how to describe those connections, and it’s possible this has also added to miscommunication.

    I do think it’s interesting to see the direction the conversation takes, where the emphasis is on those with a reading that goes against the dominant one first needing to convince the majority, a task that can never really sufficiently be accomplished, in order for the question of significance or harm to be addressed. Among many other things, I think this emphasizes the need for internal diversity in the industry, including on award committees, at the same time that it highlights the limitations of internal diversity as a sole solution.

  26. Elissa Gershowitz Elissa Gershowitz says:

    On the subjects of “white” books and “dominant reading” and awards recognition and such — let’s not forget that part of what is remarkable about this book is that it is a Jewish work of historical fiction about something OTHER than the Holocaust. Or an immigration story about fleeing persecution in the Old Country and being poor-but-happy in America. And it’s smart and romantic and subversive and funny and and and…Because in the Jewish children’s book community, the argument goes something like this: Holocaust books are so important because we must never forget BUT, wow, what a dispiriting way for children to see your culture depicted, when it’s basically the *only* way your culture is depicted in children’s books:
    So, harm? I don’t know. But we sure need diverse Jewish books. The last time (the ONLY time?) a “Jewish book” won the Newbery was in 1990 with “Number the Stars,” a wonderful, wonderful… Holocaust book (and a “white” book?), and it’s thrilling to have a book like “The Hired Girl” be part of the Newbery discussion.
    Which is not to say that this conversation about “civilized” shouldn’t have taken place — it’s enlightening and invaluable and lends real richness to the context of this book. But please do go back and read the comments on Heavy Medal by the smart, thoughtful, observant-Jewish women (hardly the dominant white-male patriarchy) who are talking about the worth of this novel as a Jewish book.

  27. Let’s not forget, Elissa, that there are smart, thoughtful, observant-Jewish women who felt otherwise, too.

  28. I wanted to express how well thought out Debbie’s post was. Here are some questions I have which I wanted to post here as the discussion continues:

    1) If Laura had included Joan’s mistakes regarding Native Americans, but her viewpoint had been changed through the course of the book as she became better educated would that have made this book acceptable to those who are worried about how children will perceive Joan’s uneducated worldview?

    2) If Laura had included in the author’s note an explanation of why she included this viewpoint and why it was wrong would that have been sufficient to help clarify that this viewpoint is incorrect?

    3) In general what would have been a better approach to keeping the book historically accurate while still addressing the widely biased opinions of the time?

    4) Betsy Bird asks a good question in her post (and I’m writing this at the end of a workday so please forgive any errors) when she asks if historical fiction characters are allowed to have prejudices. Should our historical fiction for children reflect the truth of the time they lived in, and how can we obtain this goal while still addressing modern children?

    These are just some of the questions I have. I’m sure more will come to me later. I will say that for a book that doesn’t deal with Native Americans as a focal point there are a lot of references that don’t really move the plot along. While they do pertain to the attitudes of many European American people of the time in the United States it does bother me that this was not noted in the author’s note at the beginning of the book when Laura noted how the terms she used in her book shouldn’t be used these days. I’m afraid that without a character to guide a child reader to a correct, educated viewpoint and without an author’s note including Native Americans that some child just as naive as Joan could walk away with the wrong impression. There’s no clarification at all. With the lack of education already at large in the world today regarding Native Americans present in adults (as Debbie so accurately points out in her post) I have to wonder what adult would be present to correct a misconception if Native studies are not taught in classrooms. If a child who isn’t Native American, who isn’t directed by the text or by the author’s note to come to a different conclusion, and who lacks an adult in their life to steer them in the right direction (parent or teacher) you have to wonder what the takeaway would be.

    Whenever I’m faced with multiple viewpoints I try in my limited way to be a part of every group. When I try to imagine myself as Native American I see how insensitive this would seem as there is no correction. I would certainly, as Irish American, be appalled by children playing Irish! I know it was a common game until fairly recently to play being Indian (the author’s words not mine). So yes, it’s accurate, but without explanation even in the author’s notes…well there is no guide is there?

    I would point to Tim Tingle’s How I Became a Ghost as a very good example of how to show all aspects of human behavior in regards to the Choctaw Trail of Tears. It was so very nicely handled. However, this book isn’t about Native American experiences. It ranges into that experience without really needing to and without guidance.

    It is such a well written book in so many ways and so wonderful that my emotions threaten to get the better of me! Well, thanks for reading the ramblings and sorry if I drifted off topic a bit. I guess I would really like to know what you all think would have made this book acceptable if currently you think that it’s not. I’m sorry if I sound ignorant on any of these topics and would be glad to be educated as Joan was on many different things! I’ll be sure to repost this to Debbie’s site.

    As an aside I have a friend who is Native American. I am grateful to her for sharing her knowledge and her experiences with me. I don’t want to invade her privacy overly much so I won’t go into the tribe she belongs to, but as she is never reluctant to tell this story I feel that I can share it here. One night when she was quite a little girl the KKK burned a cross in her front yard. At a local store her father would receive his change back and sometimes there would be a coin inscribed with the words, something like, “We are watching you.” This just blew my mind. I was appalled. I was disgusted. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. Here we are in the 21st century and such things still happen. I understand the concern about this book more fully because of my friend. However, if it weren’t for her I would be totally ignorant of such things happening. Again I want to say that I do understand the concern about this book.

  29. Sorry but I can’t currently repost to Debbie’s site as this is too long. Will try again later!

  30. Sorry but I can’t currently repost to Debbie’s site as this is too long. Will try again later to post something shorter.

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