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

Posted : Oct 28, 2015 07:42


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

Posted : Oct 28, 2015 07:41


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.

Posted : Oct 28, 2015 07:12

Debbie Reese

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

Posted : Oct 26, 2015 09:55

Elissa Gershowitz

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: http://www.tabletmag.com/jewish-life-and-religion/190231/enough-holocaust-books-for-kids 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.

Posted : Oct 26, 2015 02:15

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