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Sarah, Plain and Tall

by Patricia MacLachlan

HarperCollins, 1985

58 pages

For most of my childhood, my family attended a church that had a lending library. Among the books were novels about pioneer-era mail-order marriages, which I completely devoured. They were trite and fluffy reads, but through them I caught a glimpse of something serious: the reality of women’s social imprisonment (even in “the land of the free”) and the lengths to which some women would go to escape it.

I never lost my fascination with the interplay between marriage arrangements and women’s social status. As I got older, I sought out novels (Anthony Trollope and Louisa May Alcott were my favorites) and nonfiction on the subject, and I discussed it often with professors, fellow students, and friends from other cultures.

Through all that, however, I never got around to reading one of the most famous – and best – stories on the subject: Patricia MacLachlan’s Sarah, Plain and Tall.

But just last month, I was casting around for something to read for the blog and thought of it. It won the Newbery Medal when published, and several of my bookish friends had recommended it, so I decided to try it. It was perfect.

Sarah is narrated by young Anna (no age given, but probably a preteen), whose widowed pioneer father places a newspaper ad for a wife. It’s answered by the title character, a woman from Maine, who agrees to visit for one month to see if they’re all a good fit for one another.

Anna and her brother Caleb are very hopeful. They are desperate for a mother – someone to make a garden, cut their hair, and make good stew – and they know their father needs someone to make him sing and smile again. But when Sarah comes, they’re not sure she’ll stay. She desperately misses the sea and her extended family, and she’s uncertain that she belongs in this dramatically different environment.

This is a book for fairly young children – a first-grader could probably read it with little help – so I was pleasantly surprised at Sarah as a character and at the way the story resolves.

In her own words, Sarah is “strong” and “not mild-mannered.” She has come West because she wants to marry on her own terms and because she won’t play second fiddle to her brother’s new wife.

As it turns out, she also won’t play second fiddle to Anna’s father. Equality is her default, both in work and in relationship. She wears overalls (something Anna and Caleb have never seen a woman do), helps with plowing and carpentry, and learns to drive the wagon so she can go to town on her own. She never asks permission for something. Instead, she states confidently what she wants.

It’s clear that Anna’s mother never did these things, but it’s also clear that Anna’s father likes Sarah all the more for them. And so Sarah not only discovers that she belongs on the prairie – both she and Anna’s family discover that they all belong together.

That, to me, is what makes this book inspiring.

First and foremost, inspired girls love themselves for who they are. But it’s also good for inspired girls to know that they’re lovable. To hear the message, “There are people out there who value girls and women not in spite of, but because of, their courage, intelligence, independence, and creativity.”

Growing up, I struggled with extremely low self-esteem, anxiety, and depression because I felt rejected for who I was. I was incredibly smart and fiercely independent, and many people in my life – both adults and peers – told me (sometimes explictly, sometimes implicitly) that girls “weren’t supposed to be that way.”

I was saved from alienation, isolation, and perhaps even suicide by the few adults and peers (including the boy I eventually married) who saw my intelligence and independence as assets, who were enthusiastic about who I was and told me those qualities were my birthright.

Sarah, Plain and Tall is the kind of book that whispers to an isolated young girl that those people are out there for her. If she hasn’t met them yet, she will soon. It’s inspiration to hold on, knowing that she’ll find a place to belong without losing who she really is.

The Librarian of Basra: A True Story From Iraq

by Jeanette Winter

Harcourt, 2005

32 pages

Alia’s Mission: Saving the Books of Iraq

by Mark Alan Stamaty

Alfred A. Knopf, 2004

32 pages

When the United States, Britain, and George W. Bush’s “coalition of the willing” invaded Iraq in 2003, the human toll of the operation was the only thing more upsetting to me than the destruction and looting of museums, ancient landmarks, and cultural resources.

I knew that the loss of Iraq’s landmarks and artifacts was not just about the Iraqi people. It was about all of us, because we all trace our history back to the early civilizations represented by those irreplaceable treasures.

Since then, I’ve wondered what happened – what is happening – to Iraq’s cultural repository. How much was lost to the war, and did anyone ever manage to protect what was so important?

Not long ago, I discovered just a small part of the answer to that question when my local library held a book club event for children. The featured book was Jeanette Winter’s The Librarian of Basra.

Inspired by a New York Times article, this picture book tells the story of Alia Muhammad Baqr (sometimes spelled Baker), who was the Basra city librarian at the time of the war. After reading Winter’s book and researching Baqr further, I discovered a second book about her: Mark Alan Stamaty’s graphic novella Alia’s Mission.

Alia’s story is this. She was head of the busy public library in downtown Basra, where people came to read and discuss ideas. Following the 2003 invasion, rumors reached Basra that the British were coming to take the city. Afraid that fighting would destroy the library, Alia asked Basra’s mayor for permission to move the books. He not only said no, he turned the library into a military command post, making it an even likelier target.

That was the last straw for Alia. She secretly recruited her friend Anis, who owned a restaurant next door, and other concerned citizens to help her. They began smuggling books over the wall to Anis’s restaurant and down the street to Alia’s home. The British did take Basra, and the library did burn – but not before Alia and her friends had saved about 30,000 volumes.

Winter lays out this story in just a few sentences, accompanied by simple but richly colored illustrations. Her book is suitable for children of any age.

Stamaty goes into a bit more detail, in a version that is suitable for elementary ages. He fleshes out Alia’s motivation for saving the books, the contributions of the Ottoman Empire, the participation of Alia’s husband and Basra’s citizens. He also tells the end of the story: following a stroke caused by stress, Alia recovered and oversaw the construction of a new library.

There are so many inspirational elements to Alia’s story: her courage, her civil disobedience, her tenacity, her ability to galvanize others. But what I really loved – and what most inspired my daughter – was the fact that this is a story about books.

There’s a reason so many authoritarian regimes deny girls an education, censor or even burn certain books, or deny freedom of the press. Because books make people think. A non-reading, unthinking populace is easy to control. But readers, like the men and women who visited the Basra library, absorb ideas and talk about them. And thinking, idea-sharing people are dangerous people.

Books can also be important tools for becoming better versions of ourselves. Books and other written materials have longed help to spread ideas – whether religious, scientific, political, or artistic – that have saved lives, encouraged compassion, promoted peace, and shared beauty.

As Stamaty points out, that’s why Alia considered “her” books worth the risk of rescue. She had the vision to understand that Basra and its people are better off with their library intact. Especially for a girl living in a free, developed nation, where reading is a mundane activity, Alia’s story is an inspiring reminder of the importance of books and the lengths a courageous woman will go to preserve them.

 

 

Grandma’s Purple Flowers

by Adjoa J. Burrowes

Lee & Low Books, 2000

32 pages

I’ve written before about the special relationship I had with my maternal grandmother, and about how devastated I was when she died, just a few months before I graduated from college. I know I was blessed to have her as long as I did: my paternal grandmother died when I was a preteen, and many of my friends lost their own grandparents in elementary school or junior high.

I would wager that most young children lose at least one elderly relative or friend before they reach junior high. If not a grandparent, then perhaps a great-grandparent, beloved neighbor, or babysitter. And some children deal with a less expected kind of death, such as that of a parent, sibling, peer, or teacher.

Grief can be very challenging for young children. It’s often a brand-new experience, and they may not realize that it’s normal, have the words to describe it, or even be able to recognize it for what it is. So the right book can be an excellent tool for helping a child to identify and process feelings of grief in a healthy way.

Trolling through past postings, I realized that I’ve reviewed very few books about death and grief – fewer than 10, by my count. There are a couple of reasons for that. First, I haven’t encountered many books geared specifically toward helping girls deal with death and grief. Second, the ones I’ve found tended to be maudlin, poorly-written, mass-produced projects. Certainly not inspiring.

When I came across Adjoa J. Burrowes’ Grandma’s Purple Flowers, however, I knew I’d found a treasure. This inspiring picture book deals with grief subtly, gently, and realistically. It’s a wonderful option for young girls who are experiencing grief for the first time or have just lost a beloved grandmother.

The main character and narrator is an unnamed girl – probably about nine or ten years old – who walks through the park to visit her grandmother almost every day. The two tend a flower garden together, eat corn muffins and pecan pie, and talk about Grandma’s childhood in Mississippi.

Their relationship is full of ordinary gestures that make the book relatable and real. The narrator loves sitting on Grandma’s lap and counting her gold teeth; Grandma calls the narrator “Sweetie Pie,” rubs her back, and braids up the narrator’s hair when it comes undone.

That realism extends to Grandma’s aging process and the narrator’s reaction to her death. As the seasons advance, Grandma moves more and more slowly until she can barely answer the door. When she dies, the narrator wants to stay inside and mope for the rest of the winter (thankfully, her wise mother won’t allow it) and says simply, “Oh, how I miss Grandma! Walking through the park makes me sad.”

The story’s focus on seasons, especially autumn, subtly communicates that life is an endless cycle of birth and death. But the honest treatment of the narrator’s feelings, conveyed both through the text and through Burrowes’ mood-sensitive cut-paper illustrations, recognizes that death isn’t easy just because it’s normal.

When, at the end of the book, a new spring and the reappearance of Grandma’s flowers bring hope to the narrator, the resolution feels both organic and uplifting. The message to young girls is that it’s natural to miss and mourn someone they’ve loved, but they can find comfort and hope in memory and in the renewal of life around them.

It’s an inspiring way to approach death, grieving, and the process of healing.

 

 

 

Dead End in Norvelt

by Jack Gantos

Farrar Straus Giroux, 2011

341 pages

I have a thing for dark humor. I’m also a fan of period fiction (sometimes truly historical, sometimes not) and stories with a strong regional flavor. Give me a book, TV show, or movie that combines the two, and I’m in heaven.

So I’ve been itching to read Jack Gantos’ Dead End in Norvelt ever since I read the ALA Newbery committee’s description of the book. I finally got my hands on a copy, and it did not disappoint. Even better, I discovered that (although the main character is male), the book has a handful of terrific female characters that make this story a perfect fit for my Super Secondaries series.

Here’s the story: young Norvelt, PA, resident Jack Gantos is in deep trouble. He got caught playing with his father’s WWII souvenirs, and he cut down his mother’s prized corn. So instead of spending his summer playing baseball, watching movies at the drive-in, and hanging out with his friends, he’s grounded until further notice.

His only escape is Miss Volker, an elderly neighbor who does double duty as the town nurse and obituary writer. Jack’s mother has loaned him out to the old lady, whose severe arthritis is getting in the way of her work.

As Jack works for Miss Volker, he learns something about the fascinating history of his hometown and its residents, how grown-ups cope with harsh economic realities, and what it means to live – and die – well. As more and more of the town’s elderly residents do the latter, he also begins to ask some questions. Is Norvelt’s soaring death rate just a coincidence, or is someone bumping off the old ladies a bit before their time?

As you’ve probably guessed from the main character’s name, Dead End in Norvelt is semi-autobiographical. Norvelt, PA, is the author’s true hometown, one of dozens of New Deal settlements founded during the Depression for the relief of unemployed coal miners and their families. Most of the town history related in the book is real, and Gantos communicates it in an entertaining way.

But it’s not just the history that makes this story a winner (though it won the Scott O’Dell Award for Historical Fiction as well as the Newbery). Gantos’ wry style and strong voice are deeply engaging, and the macabre humor is side-splitting. And then, of course, there are the ladies: Dead End in Norvelt has three strong female characters to inspire girl readers.

First there’s Jack’s best friend Bunny, who is very small of stature but huge of personality. Her father is the town undertaker, and exposure to his profession has made Bunny the exact opposite of a shrinking violet. While Jack swoons in the autopsy room, Bunny goes in for a closer look. When arsonists plague Norvelt, she organizes a nighttime fire patrol. In short, she is one of the spunkiest, sassiest girls I’ve ever encountered in fiction. For girls who are athletic, fascinated by the weird side of life, dealing with physical limitations, or just loud and proud, she’s an excellent point of contact with the story.

Next there’s Jack’s mom, a big-hearted and capable woman. With Jack’s father frequently out of town on construction jobs, she often holds down the fort alone. And when insufficient income and other setbacks arise, her resourcefulness keeps the family afloat and provides for Norvelt’s elderly residents. She’s not perfect: her desire to protect Jack can make her fearful, but she always summons courage when it’s needed, as when she faces down an armed stranger in the family’s backyard. In a time when girls are still bombarded with messages to fit a mold for the sake of winning love and approval, she shows how to operate as part of a loving family and caring community without sacrificing identity or principles.

And finally there’s Miss Volker, a fiery, sharp-witted old lady who teaches Jack to think both for and outside himself. She is one of Norvelt’s original residents, a deep admirer of Eleanor Roosevelt (for whom the town is named), and dedicated to educating and caring for Norvelt’s citizens. In addition to the town obituaries, which she pens as wider historical lessons, she writes a “This Day in History” column where she encourages readers to question and look beyond the victors’ narratives that make up most textbook versions of history. Politically progressive, outspoken, and tenacious, she teaches Jack and readers that women’s voices are an essential part of the social conversation. She is also a healthy model of single womanhood – encouragement that women needn’t marry or have children to find fulfillment in life, career, and relationships.

Dead End in Norvelt is an excellent read any way you slice it, a hilarious and touching coming-of-age story with plenty to engage both boys and girls. But with these three ladies as part of the story, it becomes inspirational as well.

Read about the further adventures of Jack and Miss Volker in From Norvelt to Nowhere, published in 2013.

Up a Road Slowly

200px-Up_a_Road_Slowly_coverUp a Road Slowly

by Irene Hunt

Follett, 1966

192 pages

Irene Hunt’s Up a Road Slowly is a problem book.

I can’t remember where I first heard about it, but I do remember being told that it’s a great book for girls. By the time I finished reading it, however, I wasn’t sure – and even as I write, I’m feeling the tug of indecision.

Don’t get me wrong: I loved the book. I read it in long sittings, reluctant to put it down. And when my daughter is a bit older, I’ll recommend it to her. So why the uncertainty? Well, keep reading, and we’ll explore it together.

Up a Road Slowly follows Julie Trelling from age seven, when her mother dies and she is sent to live with her Aunt Cordelia, to age 17, when she graduates as valedictorian of her high school class. There’s not much plot, to be honest. The book is more about people: Julie, the folks she loves, and how her relationships with them influence her growth.

My favorite thing about the story is the sheer variety of female characters. They are traditional and unconventional, smart and brainless, cool-headed and mentally unstable. Moreover, the central female characters – Aunt Cordelia, Julie, her sister Laura, and her stepmother Alicia – all find fulfillment because each deliberately chooses the path that is right for her. In other words, Hunt doesn’t try to fit every girl into the same box. Her book is a healthy reminder that there are many valid roles for a woman to fill: scholar (Alicia and Julie), professional (Cordelia), homemaker (Laura), and more. The point is not to value one role above the others but to choose, to make sure that you are filling your role intentionally and because it is the right one for you.

I also love Hunt’s realism. For a classic, the book offers nuanced and fairly progressive treatments of sticky issues such as alcoholism, mental illness, and sexuality. Julie’s alcoholic Uncle Haskell, for instance, is a layered character whose behavior has complex origins – he’s not just a morally bankrupt drunk. And her schoolmate Carlotta, who becomes pregnant by the manipulative Brett Kingsman, is not just a tainted slut – she’s an impressionable girl who is unfairly used and discarded, and Julie both recognizes the injustice of her fate and the importance of maintaining an open heart toward her old friend.

So what’s the problem? There are a couple, actually. First, the book’s attitude toward romantic love bothers me. There are steady messages that strong, successful women will not find fulfillment unless they fall in love and/or marry. Alicia, despite having an established career as a respected teacher, equates being uncoupled with “insecurity” and calls it “frightening”; Cordelia says, “A woman is never completely developed until she has loved a man.” Worse, Julie adopts this philosophy wholeheartedly: once she reaches adolescence, she is fundamentally unhappy and ill-at-ease until paired off with a boy.

Second, I’m not entirely keen on Danny Trevort, Julie’s longtime friend and eventual lover. He’s obviously supposed to be Julie’s ideal match, a boy who deserves her because he is kind and good and appreciative of her talents. But he has a very proprietary and, at times, condescending attitude toward her. When she’s drifting in the wrong direction, he tends to try and bully her back onto the right track (there’s one unsettling instance where she resists this behavior, and he tells her baldly to “Shut up”).

The issue of romantic love in general, and Julie’s relationship with Danny in particular, are central to the book, so these problematic elements form a strong counterweight to the empowering messages found elsewhere in the story. Hence my hesitation. As I was mulling things over, however, I realized that Up a Road Slowly would be worth a review because it makes an excellent case study.

After all, it’s good to have a plan for dealing with books like this: beautifully written, potentially inspiring stories that nevertheless carry some problematic baggage. Many classics, particularly those written pre-1900, fall into this category. Crack one open, and you’re likely to find inspiration right along side paternalism, racial and gender stereotypes, colonialism, or worse.

My suggestion? First, match the book to the girl. The younger or less mature the girl, the less problematic content the book should have. Then be ready to talk. As she reads, or after she’s finished the book, ask her what she thinks of it. Ask specific but open-ended questions about problematic passages: “What do you think of the way Danny talks to Julie when he’s angry? What makes you a ‘complete’ person?”

It’s not a question of whether a girl will encounter oppressive messages in life – it’s a question of when. Train her to recognize those messages for what they are, and to question them, and you train her for empowerment. Books like Up a Road Slowly can be a part of that process. Because, ultimately, a thinking girl is an inspired one.

Flora and Ulysses

Flora & Ulysses: The Illuminated Adventures

by Kate DiCamillo; ill. by K.G. Campbell

Candlewick Press, 2013

233 pages

Finding inspiration in the sublime or the exceptional is fairly easy: the girl who bravely battles the wilderness, cancer, or a super-villain is an obvious candidate to inspire the next generation of women.

The problem is, most girls don’t live that kind of life. So while books about extraordinary people and situations are important, so are books that celebrate the ordinary or even oddball. That’s where most girls are going to find a point of identification and, by extension, of inspiration.

Which brings us to Kate DiCamillo’s Flora & Ulysses: The Illuminated Adventures, illustrated by K.G. Campbell.

Preteen Flora Belle Buckman is a character many girls can easily identify with. She lives in an ordinary middle-class home in an ordinary middle-class neighborhood. Her clothes, her bedroom, her dad’s car, her street – they all look like anything or anyone you’d encounter in your own home or city.

Flora also faces challenges many girls can easily identify with – the kinds of problems that are a part of many ordinary people’s lives. Her parents are divorced, she and her mom don’t quite connect, and she misses her dad, whom she sees only on weekends. She copes by escaping into her favorite hobby and by detaching herself from her peers and family. She calls herself a “natural-born cynic” and takes “Do not hope; instead, observe” as her motto.

Flora’s life becomes suddenly un-ordinary, however, when Ulysses the squirrel appears. Flora rescues the rodent after he suffers a run-in with neighbor Tootie Tickham’s vacuum cleaner. The accident endows him with superpowers: super strength, the ability to fly, and the ability to compose poetry (though he has to type it, since he does not receive the power of speech).

Being devoted fans of comics, Flora and her dad know that every superhero must have an arch-nemesis – and they quickly figure out that Ulysses’ is none other than Flora’s mother. With the help of Tootie, her great-nephew William Spiver, and Mr. Buckman’s neighbor Dr. Meescham (who tends to speak in wise but enigmatic axioms), father and daughter set out to save Ulysses from his climactic encounter with the enemy.

If all this sounds a bit oddball, it is – deliciously so. Flora & Ulysses is the geek’s version of Judy Blume’s middle-grade problem novels. The characters are all a little wonky, comics and superhero references are everywhere, the kids are incredibly smart, and there’s a touch of magical realism to boot.

Overlaying it all is DiCamillo’s classic wry humor and barely self-conscious lyric phrasing. Campbell’s beautifully-shaded, animation-style pencil illustrations are the perfect accompaniment.

Being a geek myself, I would have loved this book even if there were nothing inspiring about it, but of course it is inspiring, or I wouldn’t be writing about it here.

Flora’s friendship with Ulysses calls out all the best in her. It opens her heart, commands her courage, and pushes her intelligence to its limits. It also leads her to call out the best in others: she gives Tootie a chance to be decisive and brave, her father a chance to reforge their bond, Dr. Meescham a chance to nurture others, and William Spiver the chance to belong. By book’s end, she’s even pulled her own denial-steeped mother back to reality.

This all happens through means that are kooky rather than heroic, but perhaps the quirkiness is what helps make the messages unforgettable. Flora & Ulysses tells girls that changing things for the better – whether in their own lives or the lives of others – is not just for superstars, the popular, or the beautiful. However “outside” they may think themselves, there are people waiting to welcome them in and befriend them. Hope is for everyone. And extraordinary opportunities to become an even better version of themselves are waiting right in their own backyards.

Which all means that, for ordinary girls facing ordinary problems, Flora is a heroine for the books.

 

Lord of the Rings

by J.R.R. Tolkien

Allen & Unwin, 1954-55

I don’t just talk about Lord of the Rings, I gush. J.R.R. Tolkien’s epic fantasy about the fictional realm of Middle Earth is one of my desert-island books, a work of art that comes closer to my own personal definition of literary perfection than does any other book I’ve read. (See? Gushing. I told you.)

My infatuation with this incredible story has nothing to do with the book’s genre, or even with the specific plot, though I like both quite well. It’s more about the craft: the fully-realized universe, the luxurious descriptions, the way Tolkien somehow holds onto subtlety as he dances around the edges of allegory and archetype.

It’s also about the characters: their backstories, their secrets, their choices, their surprising depths. There’s Gandalf the wizard, whose true identity and role in the drama are half-veiled even to himself, and who continually surprises his companions with his humor, compassion, and power. There’s Aragorn, the secret heir to an ancient line of kings, who is both intimidating and endearing, a peerless warrior and a gifted healer. Or Sam, whose rough appearance and speech hide a deep appreciation for beauty and a profoundly loyal, courageous, and noble heart.

And then there are the women. LoTR is predominantly male, to the point that there are really only two significant female characters in the entire 1,000-plus-page epic. But what characters they are! Of all the Super Secondaries I can imagine profiling, these two lead the pack.

First there’s Eowyn, niece and adopted daughter of King Theoden of Rohan, the nation of Gondor’s chief ally in the fight against the dark wizard Sauron. Strong and valiant, she yearns for battle, but cultural norms keep her trapped at home. So she disguises herself as a man and rides with her countrymen to war, where she plays a key role in the climactic battle against Sauron’s forces.

Critically wounded and disillusioned by violence, she finally returns to wholeness through the wise care of Gondor’s Healer and the gentle Lord Faramir (himself wounded in the war). She decides to become a healer herself and, after marrying Faramir, becomes co-ruler of one of Gondor’s provinces.

On the surface, Eowyn’s inspirational value may seem dubious. After all, she gives up her warrior ambitions, marries her Prince Charming, and settles down to a happy princess life. Except that it’s not quite that simple.

In the LoTR universe, war is not an occupation but a tool, waged only for a time and at greatest need. The ultimate good is lasting peace and active participation in it. So Eowyn’s trajectory matches that of the book’s two great leaders, Gandalf and Aragorn, who both become men of peace after Sauron’s defeat. Her choice to become a healer is a sign of great wisdom; and because of it, she maintains an active and important role in the restoration of Middle Earth.

Galadriel the elf-queen is the other strong female character in Tolkien’s saga. Along with her husband Celeborn, she rules the hidden forest sanctuary of Lothlorien. She is the most powerful and one of the oldest of her people in Middle Earth, and it is her magic that maintains Lothlorien as a refuge from and center of resistance to Sauron’s destruction and power.

Her story is harder to follow than Eowyn’s, especially for those who aren’t familiar with The Silmarillion, a separate book that outlines Middle Earth’s beginnings. But for very astute readers, the clues are there to follow. Galadriel is so powerful that even the demi-gods fear her; they test her loyalty even as they use her as an ally. She is the only character who can read Sauron’s mind and see into the future. And even objects that bear her magic have the ability to repel Sauron’s darkness and ancient evil.

She is, quite simply, one of the most inspiring female characters I’ve ever encountered. Tolkien is abundantly clear that the fight against Sauron would have failed without her – when the story ends, she ranks with the greatest champions of Middle Earth.

Even without Eowyn and Galadriel, Lord of the Rings is inspiring. It has a unique blend of humanity and earthiness coupled with epic themes of good vs. evil, monumental sacrifice, loyalty, and love. And there is simply no one else who can write like Tolkien. His love for his work oozes out of every word.

But these two strong women – their fearlessness, their power, their dedication, and their amazing accomplishments – mean that girls can find inspiration just for them in the pages of one of English literature’s greatest classics.

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