In Which I Disagree Vehemently with the Newbery Committee

So I said I wasn’t going to bash books on this blog, and I’m not going to. Individually, that is. I made no promises about books as a group.

However, sometimes—as my dear and long-suffering friend Michelle well knows—a book makes me so viscerally angry that I have to tell everyone about it. If you were getting tired of me just liking books all the time, this is for you.

The title of the specific book that’s infuriating me right now doesn’t matter because there are a million others exactly like it, and I’m angry at all of them.

It’s a book about how horrible it is to be a girl.

It won a Newbery Honor, a medal that still is awarded by a mostly female panel.

Chew on those facts, o ye who believe we live in a post-misogynist world.

Also, it shouldn’t have won a Newbery Honor because it’s your basic paint-by-number—thanks for that phrase, Kristi—middle grade novel. The character has zero internal arc. She is exactly the same person at the end of the book as she is at the beginning. The book’s obvious flaws as literature bother me, but they are not what make me angry.

I know the Newbery Committee needs to read fast, so I forgive them. It took some stewing to work myself up into this blog post. And some thinking maybe I should just ignore it. And some deciding I couldn’t.

As I read, I thought about how glad I was that I hadn’t encountered this book as a child, when no doubt it would have put me in tears for days about the eternal unfairness of having been born female, as so many books did. Sorry, Mom and Dad. I was a sensitive child, born eerily attuned to the inequalities of gender.

As I read, I got really upset anyway. By getting married, had I in fact turned my life over to my husband? Would children erase any part of me that mattered?

I had to consciously pull myself out of that slump, remind myself that I have a pretty sweet deal in a husband who does all the cooking and has never once expected me to do his laundry. For that, I can thank the mother-in-law who raised him to be self-reliant.

I realized that the book felt like many a frustrating conversation with a second-wave colleague who just can’t believe my husband’s entire goal in life isn’t to actively oppress me.

The history of feminism is divided into waves, and most unfortunately, Second Wave Feminism is the only one the general public is familiar with, so here’s a very simplified sketch.

First Wave Feminism refers to Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton and the Pankhursts and the Vote. Second Wave Feminism refers to the movement of the 1960s and 1970s.

Third and Fourth Wave Feminism, which are what we’re on now depending on who you talk to, recognizes the gigantic “oops” of Second Wave Feminism.

Second Wave Feminism did a lot of great things. It was necessary. It threw a wrench into the male domination of everything. It had to happen. It also devalued everything women had done, been, or valued since time began. Everything female or feminine was abandoned as less worthy.

The price of liberation was self-hatred.

Maybe there wasn’t another way. But there is another way now, a healing way.

I am not disputing the facts of history at all. Being a woman has, for most of history, been a pretty bad deal. What I dispute is the idea that in order to be free, we have to hate who we are, we have to abandon all aspects of ourselves that are feminine, we have to become like men.

That is what’s presented in this book and in the far too many like it. The protagonist is positively proud of any feminine skill she isn’t good at. I kind of want to tell her that lots of people suck at knitting, myself included, and it’s really not that big of an accomplishment. She’s proud of tripping and getting dirty. Being clumsy isn’t that big of an accomplishment either, sweetheart. Neither is making a soggy apple pie.

What really bothers me about this book, though, is the way the protagonist positively reviles her mother and the family housekeeper—the only other women in the house—in favor of her male relatives.

Yeah, she has a housekeeper. Her life is way hard.

I was hoping throughout that there would be a turnaround, some realization that the older women in her life are valuable people who do valuable things, even if they aren’t the things she wants to do. I wanted to shout at her something along the lines of, “If they don’t cook, you don’t eat! If they don’t mend your clothes, you go naked!”

There is not one single positive female character in this book.

It would have made me cry as a little girl. It almost made me cry as a grown woman.

These are not the stories we need.

These stories will not heal the self-hatred that was the cost of our freedom.

As women, especially as female authors, we need to show love and compassion toward each other and toward our foremothers. We don’t need to lambast them in fiction for doing the best they could in the world they had to live in. Certainly we should be honest about the challenges and limitations of that world. But we should honor what they achieved within and despite that world, even if their only accomplishment was a happy life. That in itself is no small thing.

There’s nothing wrong with ruffles and pink. Nothing inherently demeaning about valuable life skills like knitting and cooking and managing a household. But the self-hatred continues to fester.

Little girls don’t need more books about how horrible it is to be a little girl. We have plenty.

Stop giving them awards, Newbery Committee.


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