Friday, December 3, 2010

Children's Classics

Author Mitali Perkins has asked, "When it comes to race, ethnicity, gender, and class, what stands the test of time?"

I did not get to read the first book in the series, Emily of Deep Valley, until just this week. The library had a copy of the original printing from 1950 in storage. Kind of distressing, because I really enjoyed it. I hope they get a new copy, because I do think this is a timeless classic.

And this is coming from someone who has tried the Betsy-Tacy books and not particularly enjoyed them. I mean, they weren't throw-the-book-across-the-room bad or anything. I can appreciate them; I think they're well-crafted. But I started at least two or three of them and didn't finish any. I just lost interest.


Race - Tangent: I actually spoke to one of my students about this today. I heard a group of them talking about a fight (don't they always?) and one of them referred to "that black kid." And I'm just like... no. Not cool. So I called that student over and quietly said, "David, I'd like to ask you not to refer to people by their race. It makes me very uncomfortable, and I don't like it." So of course he tries to explain to me why it's NOT racist, and how none of his black friends have complained about it. And I said, "I'm not talking about them - I'm talking about ME. I know that I would be unhappy if people always referred to me as 'that white teacher.' It makes ME uncomfortable, so I'm asking you to stop." And (hurray!) I have a good relationship with this student he was okay with that.

Now, I know this student wasn't being ugly in what he said. But I know that it's easy to confuse not-intentionally-racist with just-not-thinking. And that it's important to think before speaking. Anyway.

One thing I noticed was Deep Valley's lack of racial diversity, aside from the Syrians. I wondered - a little - if race as well as nationality made them targets; I don't think so. The sticking points seemed to be their non-standard English and accents, and their foreign names & customs. But at the same time, LOOKING so different kind of makes it that much more obvious.

Ethnicity - this, I felt, was more the issue. One thing I haven't seen anyone mention in the reviews Ms. Perkins linked was how smoothly and seamlessly Kalil becomes Charley. That caught me off guard.

Gender - I thought this book had a LOT to say about gender. There was the grandfather's complete obliviousness to the possibility of post-secondary education for women. I believe it's written particularly well, because it's understandable even though I think - I hope - it's completely foreign.

I really appreciated the exploration of different types of romantic love. I liked that while Emily had multiple love interests - first of all, she isn't demonized for it - and second, they're not presented to the reader as competing. I'm putting this badly, because in one way they were competing with each other; it's the "Team Edward/Team Jacob" thing I find tiresome.

Emily has a LOT of agency. I really appreciated that. She has her own problems, she faces them, and she DOES something about them. I liked that a whole bunch.

Of course, she also does a lot of waiting-around-for-the-boy. There's still some of that around - goodness knows I see it with my students - but I don't think it's so pervasive.

And finally - I did not see class as a significant theme in this book. I would love to hear others' thoughts on the matter.

I did enjoy the specific details - the "new-fangled" fountain pen, for example - but I wondered how much of that was because the book was published in 1950. I don't remember quite the same level of detail in books by Montgomery or Alcott.