Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Friday, July 15, 2011

But That's a Girl Book!

While on a family trip a couple months ago, we picked up an audio book of Little Town on the Prairie to keep the back seat peaceful. We'd already read the first six of the Little House books aloud to the girls (some of them multiple times), but he hadn't tried this seventh book on them yet, since it deals with Laura in his mid teens -- an age still somewhat distant from our young ladies. Still, car trips are car trips, so we tried it on them.

In the end, I think we probably enjoyed it more than the girls did, though it did tamp down the fighting in the back seat a bit. (We now have all seven seats of our minivan occupied, so long car drives are contentious and make us wish for a larger vehicle.) I'd forgotten how suddenly the book ends -- after Laura gets her teacher's license and before she starts to teach -- and I found myself wanting it to go on. So last weekend, when taking the kids down for their weekly library run, I picked up These Happy Golden Years, the last full book in the series, and read it over the next couple days.

Truth to tell, these last books of the Little House series are fairly familiar territory for me. I read Long Winter, Little Town on the Prairie, and These Happy Golden Years a number of times in my early and mid teens. (I don't believe I ever re-read the early books, though I had read them as a kid and I would at times sit in while Mom was reading them to my younger siblings.) I'd also read The First Four Years a couple times and a few books about Laura's life.

Of course, there's the fact that there's a lot of fun "American frontier" history and background in the Little House books, and looking back I see it was ideologically congenial to me. But the truth is that I was not necessarily against reading "girl books" as a kid and even in my teens. I read Little Women a few times and tried Little Men and Jo's Boys each once as well. (Though unlike just about any female fan I've met, I liked Amy better than Jo in the second half and was glad to see her marry Laurie.) And I read some of Louisa May Alcott's other books as well.

I read several of the L. M. Montgomery books as well, though I tended to find her heroines less congenial than Wilder or Alcott's. I even had a fondness for Burnett's Little Princess (though I could never finish Secret Garden) and Rumer Godden's Holly and Ivy still feels like Christmas to me (I read it to the girls a couple times each year.)

Now, lest I start sounding like a total milksop here, I'll say in my defense that this was in part because I just read so much that I was always looking for new things to read, and since Mom was a children's literature specialist, reading classic kid lit (which can be a little heavy on the "girl books") provided good conversation and common ground. And, of course, I voraciously read "boy books" as well. Heinlein's juvies were a huge favorite of mine (my favorites included Space Cadet and Tunnel in the Sky) as well as other Golden Age science fiction authors -- and, of course, I read the Narnia books and Lord of the Rings repeatedly.

Quality kid lit, I think, tends to transcend the girl book/boy book division. Coming back to Golden Years after all this time, I'd say it held up moderately well. It no longer has the gripping quality which reading about people only very slightly older than you has for the child eager to grow up, and like all the Little House books other than Long Winter, it's fairly low on plot. But characters and period atmosphere are as involving as ever, and some aspects of young Laura's interactions with her friends and family I find I see from another angle now than I did then. Altogether, it was an enjoyable quick read.


bearing said...

Coming back to the Little House books as an adult with a couple of kids, after not having cracked one since my early teens, was a weird experience. I am now convinced that the main character, and certainly the most interesting one, is actually Ma.

Darwin said...

Interesting. Could you expand on that a bit?

Kyle Cupp said...

Quality kid lit, I think, tends to transcend the girl book/boy book division.

I'm inclined to agree with this, but I'd add that it can be beneficial for boys to hear/read "girl books" and vice verca. Alterity and all that.

bearing said...

Well, I meant that a little bit tongue in cheek about the "main character," but not about the "most interesting" bit. But how many times do we hear about how Ma was the prettiest girl in town back East, how she used to have her dresses made by a dressmaker's? How she kept the girls scrubbed clean, especially on Sundays, even though there wasn't another person around to see them for miles? Remember the glimpse Laura got of Ma, pulling in the latch string the night Pa didn't come home, and sitting in the rocking chair waiting up for him? Remember how much Ma hated and feared Indians?

When I read those books now, I keep coming back to look at Caroline Ingalls again and again. Seriously. What on earth went on between her and her husband? How on earth did he convince her to follow him out into the middle of nowhere? Was her insistence on scrupulous cleanliness and tidiness her brave way of maintaining her sense of belonging to a civilization she had left far behind? Or was it a quiet protest of sorts? Whose idea was all that Sunday silence -- Pa, or Ma? I don't know -- I find her a cryptic and fascinating character.

Plus, there was that one time she slapped the bear. You have to admit that was cool.

Darwin said...


Well, on thinking back, I would also add that one of the attractions was the chance to know one of these strange creatures up close.


Fair enough.

Along those lines, I'd add: It's not till you're reading the books as an adult that you realize the bravest and most terrifying event in the books is in Little House on the Prairie when the Indians come to the house while Pa is gone and push their way in -- when Ma sends the girls down to the barn so that whatever happens they won't be there and stays in the house herself.

Brandon said...

I always liked The Secret Garden better than A Little Princess, although the latter was good, too; although I also liked Little Men better than all but the first half of Little Women. I always thought the 'playing pilgrim' features of that half made it the strongest story; but after that Little Men was my favorite in the series (although Nan was always the character I most liked in the latter). I liked Jo better, but I've always thought that Amy isn't usually given a fair shake. In a Jane Austen novel I think she'd have been the heroine, and there's a sense in which the book is more structured by her journey, mortifying her pride and tempering her ambitions with sense to find happiness, than even Jo's.

Of Heinlein's juvies, I always liked Starman Jones the best, although Tunnel in the Sky was probably a close second.

I think the best children's literature tends to do at least one of two things: build good characters or striking scenes, and these are definitely things that can be found even in (and sometimes especially in) the "girls' books".

mrsdarwin said...

Alas, the first Heinlein I read was Stranger in a Strange Land when I was 18, which turned me off his whole oeuvre. Darwin says this is an unfair bias, but so be it.

I read The Secret Garden several times when I was young -- the mixture of ancient manor on the moor and walled-in gardens and Mary Lenox's character arc appealed to me in a way that A Little Princess did not. In the end, I don't think I prefer Cinderella stories of degradations heaped upon degradations until a dazzling final reversal of fortune.

I don't know if this counts as a "girl book" or not, but Caddie Woodlawn was always one of my favorite books, and it too features a refined yet strong mother, though one with a Boston temper kept mostly under check.

I've come to admire Ma Ingalls more and more as I get older, and I think Laura did too -- Ma's character gains more facets in the later novels; note Laura's sudden realization in These Happy Golden Years of how much Ma hates sewing, after all these years.

Brandon, keen observation about Jane Austen's Amy. Meg and John Brooks, though they have a bit too earnestly American, would also integrate well in her world. But Jo would be a complete misfit. Austen doesn't have any "career women" in her novels, which is why I've always thought that theatrical attempts to make her heroines budding writers or aspiring intellectuals fall so flat. (See, or rather, don't see, the 1999 Mansfield Park).

Brandon said...

Stranger in a Strange Land is the sort of science fiction that generally only adolescent boys, and men with nostalgia for when they were adolescent boys, could really like. I think it's the Heinlein which will inevitably date most harshly; much of its popularity, like that (in non-SF) of Catcher in the Rye, comes from appealing to a very particular generation.

The very, very first book I ever remember reading -- not the first book I ever read, but the first one I remember reading -- was Caroline Rush's Tales of Mr. Pengachoosa. To this day I remember vividly parts of the story about the four seasons. Looking back, I suspect it was intended to be something of a 'girl's book'; but it never occurred to me at the time.

I've been trying and trying to think of a 'boy's book' that was definitely originally written to be a 'boy's book' and having some difficulty with it. A lot of books that we think of as more boyish were written for adults, and a lot of the real boy's books -- Tom Swift and the like -- haven't survived all that well. But Esther Forbes's Johnny Tremain might be an example.

I actually liked the 1999 Mansfield Park in some ways, but it's certainly not a very Austen-y version of the most Austen-y of Austen's novel. MP is, for about ten jillion reasons (mostly having to do with the moral view implied by it), the one Austen novel that you can guarantee Hollywood will never, ever get right. Which is too bad; an excellent movie version of MP would be an indirect but still scathing attack on Hollywood itself.

My suspicion is that if Austen wrote any career women into her novels, she'd treat them like she treats Mary Bennet -- that is,I think she would think the idea of a career woman as just another version of the sort of artificial 'female accomplishment' Mary stretches for. (Not the worse thing -- Mary gets off rather lightly for not being either Jane or Elizabeth and has more to her than comes out at first reading -- but she's still treated as mockable, less for her pretensions than for the humorless artificiality of them.)

mrsdarwin said...

I actually liked the 1999 Mansfield Park in some ways

Oh, Brandon, we hardly knew ye!

The final conceit of the movie -- "It could have been different... but it wasn't" -- has become rather a responsory around here. To be honest, I don't remember much else about the movie except for a) the odd flashes to brutal plantation life, and b) the plot point in which Fanny breaks an engagement, which seemed so entirely out of character and out of world that my suspension of disbelief was irreparably shattered.

I guess I think of Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn as being "boys' books", though perhaps they're the sorts you're referring to as written for adults, but (true confession!) I've read neither. Is that legal in America? However, I did just read the selection (found in an anthology of children's lit) about whitewashing the fence to the kids, who thought it was hilarious. And now they have as much Tom under their belts as I do.

I'm pondering the genesis of a love of reading "good books", and I think much of it does come down to the sorts of literature one was exposed to as a child. My parents were neither of them voracious readers, but when I was nine or ten a great aunt sent us a box of books which included Anne of Green Gables and Anne of Avonlea, which I devoured for all I was worth. (When I was that age, I couldn't understand why Anne was considered talkative; about ten years later I wished she would just shut up sometimes; now, ten more years again, I've taken a more tolerant view.) And though we read plenty of whatever turned up on the library shelves, my parents were particular about not letting us read lots of junk. I credit my father with quashing a fit of mine in which I read chiefly paperback Star Trek novels. Thank you, Dad!

Darwin said...

Admittedly, I'm recalling this the bio of Robert Louis Stevenson from the 50s era Childcraft encyclopedia that inhabited a shelf at my parent's house, but Treasure Island was written in response to Stevenson's son's request for "A good adventure book with no girls in it." And sure enough, the only female to make an appearance (and brief at that) is Jim Hawkins' mother.

Of course, when I read that to the girls a little while back they loved it.

Johnny Tremain sounds like a good possibility. Red Badge of Courage is often assigned in middle or high school these days, but I'm not sure it was written for boys, specifically.

Was stuff like King Solomon's Mines written for boys specifically, or is that just general adventure/pulp?

Moving up into '50s I can think of a lot of "boys books": Henry Huggins, Henry Reed Inc., Homer Price, The Enormous Egg, etc. And then, of course, you've got the golden age SF juvies like the Heinlein books (with which the rule is: never read anything written after 1960), Del Rey's books, etc.

Brandon said...

Mrs. Darwin,

I think the weird flashbacks were the movie-makers' heavy-handed attempts to deal with the fact that Sir Thomas Bertram has a plantation, and therefore slaves, in Antigua; one of the standing puzzles is why (apparently) Abolition-sympathizing Austen would do this. Although, noticeably, since Bertram is gone for most of the novel due to problems with the Antigua estate, and his being gone is the reason almost everybody in the novel starts getting into trouble, there's more to it than just casual mention; but whatever point is being made is very subtle. Trust the movies to take a subtle point and try to make it a sledgehammer!


Now that you've mentioned Treasure Island, I think I've read something similar somewhere; it was first serialized in a children's magazine, so it seems a safe enough bet as a 'boy's book'. Apparently Kidnapped was also.

I think Haggard's works were all written for adults, though; it's easy to overlook in all the adventure, but the themes are certainly very adult, and I don't think any of them were originally serialized for children's magazines.

I wonder about the sticking power of a lot of the boy's books since the 50s; a generation ago, I think, people could have rattled off a list of boy's books from before the 50s that we've either never heard of or never read. I don't think it has much to do with quality -- certainly some of the old Tom Swifts are as good as most of what could be found today; maybe it's just that what gets counted as boy's fare changes too much.

Susan Bailey said...

You're not alone regarding Amy, I preferred her too for a couple of reasons. First, I was interested in Louisa May Alcott long before I read Little Women so Jo seemed like a shadow of Louisa. But with Amy, I felt like she got a raw deal. True, she was very obnoxious in the first half so you were likely not to give her a break. But she grew up to be a gracious and thoughtful young woman and her little kindnesses and graciousness are why she EARNED that trip to Europe with Aunt March. She also brought out the best in Laurie whereas Jo didn't necessarily.

I journaled about Little Women quite a bit on my Louisa May Alcott blog, if you want to read more.

Darwin said...


A fair point -- and aside from 50s era juvenile SF (which I'd imagine will hand on for quite a while simply because it's the first great flowering of the genre, even if not art for the ages in terms of quality) I wouldn't necessarily count on most of the '50s boys books I mentioned hanging around. The possible exception would be the Beverly Cleary books, which while not literary kid lit of the level of E. B. White or Kenneth Grahame are seem like they might have a fair degree of staying power as children's classics.

Darwin said...


Thanks, I'll have a look.

Enbrethiliel said...


Brandon and Susan: I totally agree with you that Amy isn't given fair treatment by Alcott and that she'd be the heroine in an Austen novel. But at least Amy is strong-willed enough to push Alcott into giving her a happy ending. Meg, on the other hand, was just wasted--and she meekly submitted.

Little Men was always my favourite: being a young tomboy, I read it first and grudgingly turned to Little Women when I realised I couldn't just keep rereading it. And of course I liked Demi the best, although Tommy and Dan were clearly Alcott's favourites. (I didn't learn until Jo's Boys how little she actually thought of Nat, and then it really disturbed me. Since we enter Plumfield with him, aren't we supposed to feel some sort of kinship with him? But alas, "Madam liked manly boys.")

And why does it seem that Frances Hogdson Burnett fans are divided into Team Sara and Team Mary? I was Team Sara growing up and could barely get through The Secret Garden the first time I tried to read it. Now that I'm older and wiser (or at least older), I realise Mary is the better heroine of the two. I still like Sara, but I don't know if A Little Princess would stand up to a reread. (And I noticed that Little Lord Faunterloy didn't even get a mention! Isn't that a "boys' book"?)

Mrs. Darwin, what do you think of J.M. Barrie's Peter Pan as a "boys' book"? I was just discussing it with another reader, who pointed out to me that all the males in the story are "boys" in some way, including Captain Hook and Mr. Darling, while all the females are "old" enough to want to be mothers and even lovers. I think one could read it as a child and not pick up on any of that--and it's fascinating, rather than disturbing, when you finally get to adulthood.

Brandon said...


The moment you said 'Team Sara' and 'Team Mary', I thought, well, at least they have a team; no one is ever on Team Cedric. So I found it funny when I got to the end of that paragraph.

Meg does seem to fizzle out, and take it with resignation. I suppose there's a realism to that; there probably have been more women like Meg than like Jo or Amy. But I think it's a little disappointing that she almost drops completely out of view. One gets the horrible picture of her doing almost nothing but making jelly and trying to keep on a budget for the rest of her life. Housewives have adventures, too, even if in different ways.

Banshee said...

But Alcott didn't like Meg's sort of adventures, so she couldn't picture it as anything but a depressing fate. So she didn't write it (lest she alienate some of her readers completely).

Given how much we know about Alcott's part of New England, there's probably a lot to be said about Meg's life.

Enbrethiliel said...


Brandon: Now I feel guilty that a friend (who would be captain of "Team Cedric" if she could find other members--LOL!) gave me a copy of Little Lord Faunterloy several months ago and I haven't cracked the cover yet. =/

I first started paying real attention to Meg after reading a bunch of "governess novels" (Jane Eyre and everything in its tradition) and realising, "Hey, Meg March was a governess, wasn't she?"

mrsdarwin said...

E, I recently read Little Lord Fauntelroy after finding it in a box of books my sister had passed along to the girls. I rather enjoyed it, myself, although my enjoyment was then and will be forever tainted by Robertson Davies' story Einstein and the Little Lord. Davies, who held young Fauntelroy in the utmost contempt as a young milksop, is devastatingly funny. His account, in this same story, of his travails with the piano is sheer gold, especially his send up of Dvorak's Humoresque, which I mangled countless times on my viola.

lissla lissar said...

I read Stranger in a Strange Land when I was fourteen and thought it was daring and intellectual. I now cordially want to strangle all the characters. The only Heinlein I still like is The Moon is a Harsh Mistress.

Boys books- Call it Courage, general Mark Twain, the science fiction pulps. Does H. P. Lovecraft count as boys or girls or just plain weird?

We love Anne around here. I wish there were a Canadian boys story equivalent. Maybe the Hatchet series, but that's not old enough yet to be a classic.

The Opinionated Homeschooler said...

Great Girl always preferred "boys' books," so we have quite the collection, most of which turn out to be far too violent for Middle Girl's more delicate sensibilities. Springing to mind at a glance over our shelves:

Twain, Kipling, Verne, Stevenson, Doyle, Pyle (Robin Hood, King Arthur), London, Alfred Church's Iliad, Odyssey, and Aeneid for Boys & Girls [but clearly for the former]), Stories of Charlemagne and the Peers of France), Baldwin (Story of Roland, Story of Siegried), Dana's Two Years Before the Mast, Kjelgaard's Big Red, Baker's Cast Up By the Sea, and of course Gulliver and Crusoe.

These are quickly becoming augmented by more girly books. Great Girl wasn't able to force her way through either the Little House series or Little Women, finding the lives of grown girls to be irredeemably dull.

Gail F said...

Re: Mary vs. Sara. I have read both books innumerable times! I love both for different reasons.

I did actually read Little Lord Fauntleroy and enjoy it, but only once.

No one has mentioned E. Nesbit. My goodness. The Treasure Seekers and The Woulbegoods are fantastic for boys or girls both. I read them out loud to both my daughter and son at least twice. The Railway Children is great, as is The Enchanted Castle and Five Children and It. She had some odd politics and religious beliefs, but they don't come into the really good books.

Plus Edward Eager -- Half Magic, Seven Day Magic, and five others. Great for both boys and girls.