Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Dystopian YA Book Review: Girl Who Owned A City by S.E. Hinton

The Girl Who Owned a City is the story of one American girl, determined to protect and care for her brother  after the sudden death of their parents.

A fast-spreading, ferocious plague sweeps across America and around the world, resulting in the death of every single person over the age of 12. The Girl Who Owned A City opens into the immediate aftermath of this sickness, in one small American suburb.

This young adult novel is at times reminiscent of William Golding's Lord of the Flies and George R. Stewart's dystopian classic, Earth Abides. It contains adult themes (though none sexual in nature), and challenges the reader to consider a world far removed from one's own. Though houses, schools, grocery stores and playgrounds remain undisturbed, society has altered irrevocably. Only the children remain, and thus, the children rule.

Forced to solve their own problems, Hinton's characters react and adapt in a variety of ways. Some resort to isolation and fear, while others reach out and rebuild community with their young neighbors. Hinton explores a variety of problems that would arise from this sudden shift in the patriarchy. What, for example, is to be come of the youngest children survivors? And, without structure and guidance from parents and school, how will children learn and grow into productive members of society?

Hinton stresses the importance of critical thinking, as well as creativity, optimism, teamwork and motivation to learn new skills and information. Without traditional mentors, these children are left to fend for themselves, and to find solutions to life-threatening problems.

Lisa, the story's main character, is focused on protecting her little brother and finding enough food and supplies to live (relatively) comfortably in their parents' home. With the ever-increasing threat of roving gangs of violent children looters, Lisa realizes that safety lies in numbers.

Last week, I finished reading The Girl Who Owned a City, amidst stories of a new Avian Flu and various
threats of global nuclear destruction. This was not my first time reading Hinton's novel.

My 7th grade literature class first introduced me to the dystopian genre, and I was hooked. The novel proved to be too provking - to parents, that is. My classmates and I were fascinated by Lisa's end-of-the-world plight, and shared our enthusiasm with our families. Some parents complained of suggested violence and an all-around grimness, and the school administration chose to BAN the novel, effective immediately.

But... we were only half-way through the book!

A happy twist of fate left me sick in bed the day the teacher collected our book. My classmates moved on to the next book on our reading list (which was Edgar Allan Poe -- ironic?). I flew through the second half of The Girl Who Owned A City, and was forever altered by it's message.

Should your child read this book?


But, you should, too.

This novel is appropriate for a mature young reader. Since it's a quick and exciting read, I recomend that a parent or teacher read this alongside the child, and TALK with younger readers about the themes and potentially upsetting scenes depicted.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

A Review of Professor Gargoyle (Tales from Lovecraft Middle School #1) by Charles Gilman

Check out the morphing monster cover illustration of Professor Gargoyle. This neat holographic facade left quite the impression when I unwrapped this newest release from Quirk Books.

I spent a few moments wiggling it back and forth, laughing at the creepy transformation.

It's alright. Judge this book by it's cover.

This first installment of the new Tales from Lovecraft Middle School series is marketed as a book for "middle-grade" readers, aged 10 and up. Fans of R.S. Stine's Goosebumps series are said to be in for a treat with this re-imagining of H.P. Lovecraft's twisted science fiction creations.

Quirk Books explains that the eerie, lenticular cover is composed of 12-16 animated frames. As the viewer's perspective shifts, so does the image.

Lovecraft Middle School is a state-of-the-art school in Massachusetts, complete with touch screen security built into the lockers. The green-certified school has an impressive list of attributes. This futuristic school is the talk of the town, and was built upon abandoned farmland that once gave refuge to countless animals... and perhaps something more sinister.

Thanks to a bit of redistricting, seventh-grader transfer Robert Arthur is one of Lovecraft's newest, and loneliest, students. Readers follow on Robert's heels as he witnesses a number of mysterious, creepy happenings and tries to avoid his bully (perhaps the most terrible beast of them all!).

Robert is not your average wimpy kid. His curiosity leads him into trouble with rats that bite, huge spiders, and a vortex in the library. Rather than sit around watching TV, Robert eagerly seeks adventures with his unnerving companions, be they rodents or teenage girls.

Knowledge, the acquisition and wielding of it, is the name of the game in Professor Gargoyle. Robert is challenged to see more than what meets the eye, and his curiosity leads him toward information that will help him save the school from dark forces that threaten. Students begin to disappear, and while parents don't suspect foul play, Robert steps forward as a leader ready to take a stand for what's right.

What pleased me about this book is Gilman's suggestion that not all new things are good. Lovecraft Middle School was built upon old farm land, which was a refuge for all sorts of critters. The book's young hero uneasily observes the "newness" Lovecraft. His modern school drastically differs from the realm he discovers - far older, stranger and more dangerous than the school. The teachers encourage students to be thoughtful of what came before them, and how their actions affect those around them - for better and for worse.

Cuthulu is not a cuddly character, and I don't think Lovecraft meant for young children to enter his world without guidance. This simplified version of Lovecraft's imaginative science fiction realm is a quick read likely to hook young readers long enough to sell plenty of these eye-catching novels.

Book 2 of the Lovecraft Middle School Series,
to be released in January 2013.
If your young reader wants to be creeped out, these books should do the trick.

Behind this book is a team of creators, including comedian Doogie Horner, author Charles Gilman, illustrator Eugene Smith and cover photographer Jonathan Pushnik. A companion website, LovecraftMiddleSchool.com, is an online portal where young fans can sign up and explore the Lovecraft-esque world and learn more about the series.

I also recommend R.L. Stine's Goosebumps and American Chillers by Jonathan Rand. Kids looking for a rollicking adventure would be better off reading Swiss Family Robinson.

I acquired this book through Librarything.com's Early Reviewers program. Professor Gargoyle will be available at your local, independent book shop and library beginning September 25, 2012. $13.99, Quirk Books.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Little Miss America: Girls and Girlhood in the Little Maid and American Girl Novels

An undergraduate thesis written by Audrey Burck in 2009, under the tutelage of Dr. Kathleen Pfeiffer, of the Oakland University English Department. This was part of a wonderful independent study project focusing on 20th century series fiction for children.

The #'s represent footnotes that could not be included in this blog post. Please contact me if you would like to discuss this study or acquire a copy with complete citations (I recommend this!).

Little Miss America:
Girls and Girlhood in the Little Maid and American Girl Novels

The culture of girlhood in America is deeply infused with girls’ literature. One of the most popular lines of books and toys for girls of the twenty-first century is the American Girls Collection, a line of historically themed books, dolls, clothing, and accessories. Its continuing popularity among young girl consumers and their parents has ensured that American Girl’s influential role in the creation and definition of girls’ culture. However, plucky young heroines have served as role models of American adolescents for well over a century. Daring and clever, optimistic and imaginative, heroines like Lewis Carroll’s Alice and Carolyn Keene’s Nancy Drew have been idolized and celebrated by generations of young readers. American Girl may be one of today’s more influential and beloved brands, but its past and continuing success is possible thanks to its predecessors.
In 1913, Penn Publishing Company began to publish the historical fiction novels of Alice Turner Curtis. The Little Maid novels tell the stories of adolescent Colonial girls living up and down the East Coast during the Revolutionary War period. Curtis continued to write the Little Maid series over the next few decades, detailing the adventures of over twenty young American heroines living during the American Revolution.# The novels came at the beginning a boom in publishing, as the production of children’s literature and series fiction became a full-fledged industry. As the years wore on, however, Curtis’s novels fell into obscurity. In the mid-1990s, the small East Coast publishing company, Applewood Books, began to publish reproductions of the Little Maid novels. Today, the books feature a cover illustration from the first editions of Curtis’s novels. Each Little Maid book also contains a paper doll version of its heroine, as well as a second period outfit with which readers can play and act out the heroine’s adventures.
Pleasant Rowland had a similar idea when she created her line of historical fiction novels and their correlating dolls in the mid-1980s. Since its inception, the Pleasant Company (now owned by Mattel, Inc.) has grown to be a toy and series novel empire.  The American Girl Collection includes nine sets of books, each chronicling the early adolescence of a young girl during a various historical eras or events American history. The first of the five original dolls was Felicity Merriman, the “spunky” and “spritely” [sic] daughter of a Williamsburg merchant. # The bestselling six-book series about Felicity, written by Valerie Tripp, was one of the founding pieces of the American Girls Collection along with the Felicity doll and her accessories.
A comparison of the Little Maid novels and the American Girl novels presents an interesting dialogue on girlhood and the cultural identity of the ideal American girl. Each series has helped to define and redefine the concept of girlhood in America.  A critical reading and analysis of these series novels and their components suggests multiple interesting questions. How does each series define the ideal American girl, and her role in society? What are the shared and differing characteristics of their respective ideal American girls, and how are these characteristics presented to the reader?  Also, is the portrayal of girlhood an appropriate and realistic representation of the society’s expectations of adolescent girls? Alice Turner Curtis’s Little Maid historical fiction series presents readers with multiple young heroines who appropriately and happily fulfill the stereotypes of an ideal girl. The identity of Valerie Tripp’s heroine follows the formula laid by Curtis, and Felicity Merriman of the six-book  American Girl series is a combination of the ideal girl of the early twentieth century mixed with late twentieth century ideals of a more modern teenage girl. In each novel, the heroine’s identity is defined both by her own actions and the role forced upon her by society. In addition to staple heroine characteristics like obedience and an active imagination, Alice Turner Curtis’s Little Maid and Valerie Tripp’s American Girl novels depict consumerism, conformity, adherence to traditional family values, and an adventuresome independence as other facets of the ideal American girl’s identity. 

Girls’ Literature and Girlhood in America: History and Historiography
The mere existence of the Little Maid and American Girl series, as well as the success of America’s girls’ literature industry as a whole, is largely due to the Industrial Revolution and the Great Depression. The children’s literature industry has been dominated by the popularity of series fiction for both girls and boys since the late nineteenth century, and continues to be one of the most lucrative genres of mass-market literature. Technological innovations of the Industrial Revolution led to the growth of America’s consumer culture as a whole, providing Americans young and old with more leisure time and extra money. Publishing houses leapt at the chance to produce formulaic and cheaply printed novels for their newest and most lucrative type of consumer: teenage girls in search of entertainment.
In the first few decades of the twentieth century, American girls in their early teenage years were a cultural novelty and anomaly. Not children, but not yet women, adolescent girls roughly between the ages of nine and fifteen found themselves to be a sub-group of much interest.  Girls’ culture scholar Ilana Nash discusses the many characteristics of early twentieth century America’s ideal girl and girlhood in American Sweethearts. This socially constructed identity of girls and girlhood was a mix of obedience and independence, innocence and spunk, purity and sexuality, cleverness and naiveté, and a fresh, pretty face.# Popular girls’ fiction of the times provided much-needed reassurance and guidance to its young and impressionable readers. In the years before World War I, the concept of the American teenager was relatively new and evolving. Stricter child labor laws, technological advancements, a reformed education system, and changing popular ideals culminated in a new sub-group of people who existed between childhood and adulthood.# With less time spent in factories and doing household chores, these newly recognized adolescents enthusiastically embraced the growing teenager consumer culture. As girls’ culture and literature scholar Peter Stoneley explains in Consumerism and American Girls’ Literature, novels for adolescent girls transitioned from a didactic and “preachy” tool for teaching lessons into a genre focused on entertaining their young audiences as well as teaching them.#  The perky and pretty modern girl of the twentieth century quickly became a cultural symbol used within the consumer culture, inducing nostalgia and optimism.
The all-American fictional heroines of these novels were far from realistic when compared to their real-life readers. “There is always a distinction to be made between the actual child and the ideological child, the child as embodiment or projection of adult needs and desires,” explains Stoneley.  “One of the main motives ascribed to the production of girls’ fiction was that it could help to create the very girl it was ostensibly about.”# Stoneley’s assertion that popular girls’ novels were written to be used as societal tools for molding American teenagers is supported by numerous examples within Curtis’s Little Maid novels of the early 1900s. Although the two series are separated by over fifty years, the American Girl novels of the 1980s also contain these same underlying motives.
The Little Maid and American Girl novels also function as windows into the past, through which readers practice interpreting history while still being entertained and emotionally connected to the story and its characters. Readers not only take in an adventure-filled story about wholesome heroines, but also consume the author’s intended perspectives about the heroine’s role in Colonial America’s society, as well as the American Revolution. By making history more approachable and personalized for young readers, the novels “[raise] questions about justice, morality, historical perspective, and the accuracy of the information presented in textbooks,” thus embedding educational information into an entertaining story that is meaningful to modern-day readers.# As tools of influence, these books have the ability to teach their young readers about the expectations society places on girls historically, as well as in present-day America.

Alice Turner Curtis’s Little Maid Series
After falling into obscurity, the Little Maid novels written by Alice Turner Curtis are being reprinted, slowly, by Applewood Press. First published by Penn Publishing in the early 1900s, Curtis’s fictional depictions of life for adolescent girls during the American Revolution were advertised in the New York Times and sold alongside other popular girls’ series novels. In this golden era of children’s literature publishing, books were a vehicle for presenting society’s expectations for the younger generations. The girls’ literature culture was synonymous with the girls’ culture as a whole. Girls swapped novels, and word of mouth served as a better advocate than any sort of advertising organized by publishing companies.  Teenage girls were at the center of the booming children’s literature industry, and publishers took notice of their new consumer audience. In a 1938 study of what the children of the mid-thirties were reading, Albert Kilburn Ridout discussed the popularity of adventure-based series novels featuring the modern girl of the twenty-first century. “The girls seem to have taken to them of late,” he wrote. “Those books which were written for girls were full of a saccharine quality which proved nauseous to many a real-girl reader.”# Curtis’s heroines provided readers with heroines that were courageous and independent, but also obedient and docile.
The heroines of the Little Maid novels live up to their moniker. With silky ringlets of deep chestnut or golden hair to set off their bright and sparkling eyes, these angelic little girls easily fit the societal expectations for a pretty teenage girl. They are also rather pliable children. A Little Maid of Old Philadelphia’s Ruthie Pennell is eleven years old, and a “willful and unruly child.”# Over the course of the story, Ruth transitions from a dirty and unkempt child playing the garden, to a poised young lady. Clandestinely, Ruth also plays a pivotal role in the American Revolution by warning the rebel leader Lafayette of the British Army’s General Howe’s approach and plot to capture the Frenchman. “’She came running up the hill calling your name, sir,” explains one of Lafayette’s soldiers, “a little girl with yellow hair and blue eyes.”# Ruth is traced back to her home, where Lafayette arrives to thank the girl for her “loyal service to America,” astonishing the girl’s father, aunt, and friends.# Humble until the end, literally, Ruth’s story ends with a conversation with her friend Winifred. “And now you have done him a great service,” Winifred says in amazement. “All the girls say that you hare a real heroine.” Ruth smiles, and responds, “I guess they don’t know much about heroines.”# Ruth believes that she is a heroine not thanks to her actions in helping the war effort, but simply because Lafayette had kissed her hand. Much like Ruthie, Curtis’s other heroines undergo a transition from a wild little girl to a proper young lady during their adventures and assistance in the American Revolution.
Life lessons and gender roles also take a central role in Curtis’s Little Maid novels as a way to teach readers about girlhood and the world. In A Little Maid of Old New York, the text repeatedly offers readers advice. Annette’s mother, a middle-class proponent of the Revolution, explains to her daughter that “a wrong act surely brings its own punishment,” and that the heroine’s rudeness to a British soldier would come to haunt her.# Annette quickly decides that “in the future she would never, never forget to be polite, no matter what might happen.”# The heroines of Curtis’s other novels also learn lessons in the appropriate behaviors becoming of a lady. Often, the heroine’s best friend and foil is used as a vessel through which these lessons can travel while avoiding an overwhelmingly didactic tone. Annette’s orphaned friend, Nancy, learns about the world through her discussions with Annette. “There are always two kinds [of Americans],” explains Annette. “Good Americans are patriots, and bad Americans are traitors.”# Nancy readily accepts Annette’s simple explanation as fact, and without any dissent in the novels, the reader is expected to adopt this same view.
A little woman and mother in training is the chose societal role for the heroines of Curtis’s books. Not once does a heroine express an interest in going to school to obtain an education. They are mostly preoccupied with learning to do handiwork, playing with their dolls, and showcasing their favorite possessions to their friends and family. “’When the frost comes you shall learn to knit, Anne; and if we be in good fortune you shall do a sampler,’” explains the heroine’s guardian and aunt in A Little Maid of Provincetown. This image of happy domesticity placates Anne, who is “comforted and somewhat consoled by all these pleasant plans for her future happiness.”# The Little Maid series is rife with the heroine’s personal goals and expectations, as well. “To have Amanda speak well of her dear father, to know that Brownie [the cow] was safe in the barn, to possess a white kitten of her own, and, above all, to be knitting herself a pair of scarlet stockings made Anne feel that the world was a very kind and friendly place.”# The other Little Maid novels spend ample time detailing the outfits and accessories of each heroine, as well as her needlepoint projects and household chores. Each of these scenes works to further the societal expectations of a young girl who strives to become an ideal woman.
Whether it is intentional or not, Curtis showcases the underlying complexities of Colonial America in her Little Maid novels. Running parallel to themes of winsome and adventuresome girls and American exceptionalism are various political and social perspectives of this time in American history. In A Little Maid of Old New York, first published in 1921, readers catch glimpses of the hierarchy upheld by slaves and servants when Lottie, the African-American servant of the heroine’s household, refers to a slave from a neighbor’s household as “dat wuthless nigger.”#Curtis experiments with her version of slave diction throughout the book, and the style would have been quickly recognized as a slave-oriented way of speaking by her impressionable 1920s girl readers. Each of Curtis’s novels provide in-depth and varied perspectives of colonial life and the intricacies of Revolutionary America’s society that are subtly discussed at some points, and openly didactic and expository at others.
Curtis’s novels show an intelligent understanding of America in the Revolutionary era, and its myriad of events, issues, and perspectives. The new editions of the Little Maid novels, currently being published by Applewood Books, strive to attract new readers who have been indoctrinated by the American Girl empire of books and toys. It remains to be seen whether or not this attempt at building upon the marketing techniques of American Girl will work. There are stark differences between the two series, and they will not go unnoticed by readers. Although the general expectations of a historical fiction heroine have not changed drastically, the marketing expectations of young consumers and their parents are very different from the teenage consuming culture of the early twentieth century.

Valerie Tripp’s American Girl Series
Pleasant Rowland’s idea of coupling high-quality dolls with formulaic, historically accurate stories found a happy intersection between education and play. The American Girl heroines exhibited the characteristics of a traditional heroine: independent and courageous, intelligent and virtuous. Rowland set out to create a line of dolls and books that would promote good values and contend against stereotypical and sexualized dolls, like Barbie. “Our product was subtle,” explained Rowland in an interview. “There was a lot of depth that would not be immediately recognizable in a retail environment.”# The six short novels chronicling Felicity Merriman’s adolescence in Colonial Williamsburg, written by Valerie Tripp, contain elements that are found in all of the novels encompassed by the American Girls Collection. Each set of books consists of a high-spirited and courageous young girl whose story includes a special doll, a unique necklace, unusual aspirations, a best friend who serves as the heroine’s timid and ostracized foil, and elderly guardian figure in addition to her parent(s), a pet to care for, and a great challenge to overcome by the end of each six-book saga.
Felicity Merriman is happiness personified. Her curly red hair and freckles set her apart from the ideal golden-haired angel or dark-eyed beauty. Along with her russet locks come the characteristics of a stereotypical redhead. Quick to temper, quick to act, Felicity is stubborn and spirited. She is also loving and loyal to her friends and family, and exemplifies the ideals of the American Revolution. She loves her independence, and strives to be true to herself while still submitting to the expectations of her parents, and society.
The expectations of a young Colonial girl are clearly laid out for readers in the American Girl novels. Nine-year-old Felicity explains that she would like to go to college, “and read Greek and Latin and philosophy and geography, just as the gentlemen do.” Her mother has other ideas. “Girls should be educated,” she explains to her daughter.# Mrs. Merriman does harbor high hopes for her eldest daughter, but they fall within society’s expectations of a respectable gentlewoman and her appropriate gender roles. “Caring for a family is a responsibility and a pleasure. It will be your most important task, and one that you must learn to do well,” she explains. “A notable housewife runs her household smoothly, so that everyone in it is happy and healthy. Her life is private and quiet. She is content doing things for her family.” #  Felicity is sent to etiquette school soon after, and it is there that she learns to write prettily, complete a needlepoint sampler, and host a proper tea. These lessons on womanhood serve as her formal education, and Felicity is less than impressed. “I would much rather spend my time out of doors,” she thinks. “I would rather be horseback riding, or playing, or digging in my garden.”# Still, Felicity maintains the ideal optimistic outlook, requisite of an ideal heroine.
Felicity is optimistic and fixated on living her life to the fullest, as well as on the good things sure to come to her in the future. She is capable of making decisions independently from the expectations of society, yet follows her heart more often than her head. She steals, or rather ‘liberates’ the abused pony belonging to mean old Jiggy Nye, the tanner. Later in the story, she befriends this same man, who she finds lying sick and alone in debtors’ prison. The kindness she shows toward Penny the abused horse, and then its former master saves these two lives. In helping so, she also secures them as life-long and trustworthy friends indebted to her for the compassion she bestows upon them.
The focus on material possessions is not a flaw of the American Girl novels, but rather a necessity. In the works of both Tripp and Curtis, which were written nearly a century apart from one another, the inclusion of details regarding fashion, furnishings, and other personal items greatly contribute to the viability and depth of the stories. Although she lives in a world of plenty as a young consumer-in-training, Tripp’s Felicity Merriman is not as fixated upon her possessions as the heroines of Alice Turner Curtis’s Little Maid heroines. However, the six Felicity Merriman novels are an average length of sixty pages, with the text printed in a large font and accompanied by dozens of illustrations. The 1990s reprints of Curtis’s novels exceed 180 pages, and contain far fewer illustrations. Tripp’s shorter formula books leave less room for the inclusion of details.
Unlike the Little Maid novels, Tripp evades the subject of slavery and other more complicated historical perspectives of the American Revolution and Colonial America.  The Merriman household possesses one servant, Rose, who cooks and helps Mrs. Merriman with other household chores. This liberates Felicity, leaving her able to attend etiquette lessons and have many small adventures. Mr. Merriman employs Marcus, “the man who helps Mr. Merriman at home and at the store.”# At the end of the series, Marcus, who readers are led to believe is a freed African American man, joins Mr. Merriman in helping to deliver supplies to the Patriot army.# Tripp’s readers see Rose and Marcus through the eyes of inquisitive nine-year-old Felicity, yet the stereotypical curiosity of our ideal heroine never leads to a discussion of slavery and rights.
The plots of many of the Felicity novels are about dealing with the every-day, universal issues of peer pressure and life as an adolescent girl. In Felicity’s Surprise, themes of competition, envy, and manipulation combine with passive aggressive actions and intimidation tactics.#  In addition to dealing with bullying, the young heroine also learns how to stay true to herself while being open to the expectations put upon her. “Felicity still loved to run and play out of doors. She was still quite often too lively to be ladylike,” explains the novel’s unidentified narrator. “But at lessons, Felicity tried to keep her voice low and her back straight and her teacup balanced. She remembered to laugh softly and ask polite questions. She began to enjoy being on her best behavior at tea.”# Felicity’s transition from child to young lady is similar to that of the Little Maid heroines in that she begins the series as a little girl focused upon her dolls and playing out-of-doors. By the end of the sixth book, Felicity has blossomed into a pretty and responsible young lady who is capable of maintaining a home (with the guidance of her mother), and is ready to make her debut in Williamsburg society.
“The American Girls Collection” encompasses a line of specialty dolls created to coordinate with their respective series of historical fiction novels for young adolescent girls. The Pleasant Company was founded by Pleasant Rowland in 1984# (purchased by Mattel, Inc., in 1998#), and has experienced many great successes. Rather than align with toy stores, the American Girl Collection (headquartered in Middleton, Wisconsin) became a mail-order catalog sensation. At eighteen inches tall and sporting shiny long hair and beautifully detailed clothes and accessories, the American Girl dolls that premiered in the mid-1980s were easily distinguishable from their main competitors (Cabbage Patch Kids, Barbie, etc.). By 1993, the $85 dolls and their accoutrements were the centerpiece of the Pleasant Company’s over $90 million in sales. # In 2008, of Mattel’s four core brands, the American Girls Collection was the only to increase in profits with gross sales exceeding $460 million.# In the past year, miniature American Girl dolls have begun to be stocked in Barnes and Noble stores alongside their respective novels. The increased presence of American Girl products in the public eye will surely lead to even greater successes for Pleasant Company and Mattel, Inc.

The majority of novels written for twentieth and twenty-first century girls contain an ideal heroine and a happy ending. Role model heroines are expected to promote good values, make sound choices, and display a wide range of traditional personality traits. These ideal characters often manage to be independent, yet conforming; forward-thinking, yet old-fashioned – paradoxical and flawless idols which their admiring young readers could not possibly emulate successfully. The Little Maid and American Girl novels each perpetuate these expectations and stereotypes in their own ways.
The heroines of these historical fiction series novels are meant to speak to their readers and suggest an identity for the generic, accepted adolescent girl in America. Alice Turner Curtis dubbed her heroine the Little Maid of Colonial America, alluding to a pleasant time when girls were small and pretty. In some novels, they also gain other nicknames, like Annette’s title of “Miss America” by a British general.# It is understood that the characteristics of these pleasant heroines are the same that are expected of the novels’ readers. The Pleasant Company has concocted a similar overarching identity to be upheld by their young readers. The phrase “American girl” has become a brand name and status symbol for millions of teenage consumers. The lessons and ideals found within Tripp’s six-book series about Felicity Merriman are strikingly similar to those found in Alice Turner Curtis’s novels, even though Tripp began writing about seventy years after the first Little Maid novel was published. Now, in the twenty-first century, the early twentieth century socially constructed identity of the ideal American girl continues to thrive and circulate with each new generation of girls.

Works Cited
Alm, Richard S. “The Development of Literature for Adolescents.” School Review 64.4 (Apr.
    1956): 172-177.
Curtis, Alice Turner. A Little Maid of Massachusetts Colony. Bedford, MA.: Applewood Books,
Curtis, Alice Turner. A Little Maid of Old Connecticut. Bedford, MA.: Applewood Books, 1996.
Curtis, Alice Turner. A Little Maid of Old New York. Bedford, MA: Applewood Books, 1996.
Curtis, Alice Turner. A Little Maid of Old Philadelphia. Bedford, MA: Applewood Books, 1996.
Curtis, Alice Turner. A Little Maid of Provincetown. Bedford, MA.: Applewood Books, 1997.
Curtis, Alice Turner. A Little Maid of Virginia. Bedford, MA: Applewood Books, 1998.
Inness, Sherrie A., ed. Delinquents and Debutantes: Twentieth-Century American Girls’
    Cultures. New York: New York University Press, 1998.
Levstik, Linda S. “Chapter 1.” Fact and Fiction: Literature Across the Curriculum. Bernice E.
    Cullinan, ed. Newark, DE: International Reading Association, 1993.
Nash, Ilana. American Sweethearts: Teenage Girls in Twentieth-Century Popular Culture.
    Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2006.
Rehak, Melanie. Girl Sleuth: Nancy Drew and the Women Who Created Her. Boston: Houghton
    Mifflin Harcourt, 2006.
Ridout, Albert Kilburn. “Juvenile Judgments.” English Journal 27.1 (Jan. 1938): 38-43.
Stoneley, Peter. Consumerism and American Girls’ Literature, 1890-1940. Cambridge:
    Cambridge University Press, 2003.
Tripp, Valerie. Changes for Felicity: A Winter Story. Middleton, WI: Pleasant Company
    Publications Incorporated, 1992.
Tripp, Valerie. Felicity Learns a Lesson: A School Story. Middleton, WI: Pleasant Company
    Publications Incorporated, 1991.
Tripp, Valerie. Felicity Saves the Day: A Summer Story. Middleton, WI: Pleasant Company
    Publications Incorporated, 1992.
Tripp, Valerie. Felicity’s Surprise: A Christmas Story. Middleton, WI: Pleasant Company    
    Publications Incorporated, 1991.
Tripp, Valerie. Happy Birthday, Felicity!: A Springtime Story. Middleton, WI: Pleasant Company
    Publications Incorporated, 1992.
Tripp, Valerie. Meet Felicity: An American Girl. Middleton, WI: Pleasant Company Publications
    Incorporated, 1991.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Book Review: Kat, Incorrigible

Kat, Incorrigible
by Stephanie Burgis
Release Date: April 5, 2011
Advanced Reader Copy obtained through the LibraryThing.com Early Reviewers program.

This historical novel for children (ages 9 - 12) has a creative, enjoyable plot and a heroine who leaps from the page in a flurry of exuberance. Burgis's strong young heroine is full of spirit, with the same engaging personality so admired by fans of Jane Austen, J.K. Rowling and L.M. Montgomery. She's a 21st century re-imagining of a girl growing up in Georgian England.

Kat is just like every other girl growing up in early 1800s London... sort of. Strong-willed, independent and not afraid of a good adventure, Kat, Incorrigible is a modern-day fairy tale with a heroine who revolts against gender roles and stereotypes. She means well, but this doesn't keep Kat from getting into numerous scrapes. Throughout the novel, Kat struggles to be seen as an equal by the two people who matter most to her: her older sisters. She's seen as a child, but finds herself in increasingly adult situations. As Kat is an observer at heart, she relishes these opportunities to see without being seen. As Kat collects valuable tidbits of knowledge she begins to learn about her late mother's magical past. Readers are in for a great romp through high society in turn-of-the-century England, with all of its quirks and characters.

Kat, Incorrigible was originally published in the UK as A Most Improper Magick in August of 2010. The next novel in the series isn't far away! Kat, Incorrigible, Renegade Magic's tentative US release date is April 2012. The third installment should hit shelves some time in early 2013.

Fun Fact: Stephanie Burgis now lives in England, but she spent much of her life in East Lansing, Michigan - my hometown!

Wednesday, December 1, 2010


2010 was the year of book-acquiring.

Although I don't think I could list all of the books which made their way into my collection over the past 12 months, I am excited to ramble a bit about to in particular:

It began with a review copy of The Child Thief, passed along to me through work. It came my way because my co-workers know I'm a Peter Pan and J.M. Barrie enthusiast. Reimaginging Barrie's children's classic has become popular in the last five years. Brom's over-the-top gothic style and striking pieces of art easily set his adaptation apart from the rest. I imagine he's done JMB proud.

Plucker is still rather foreign to me. Until I saw it, freshly wrapped and waiting to be shelved, I didn't think much of Brom. In fact, I didn't know a thing about this fascinating American author and illustrator. The dude is simply amazing! He has a most unusual style, which I'll admit seems primitive upon first inspection. Take a few moments and troll about the internet. Find some of his pieces - they're everywhere.

Drink it in.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Materialism in the American Girl Books

I'm in the midst of a massive project, which I think I've already mentioned in one of the very few posts in this poor, overlooked blog. Sorry about that.

The American Girl Collection is a marvel of the 1980s/1990s. It combined history, fun, and dolls - and reaped the fiscal benefits. In the last decade, as popularity has increased, so have criticisms of the material focus of the books. Fortunately for me, this gives me at least a bit of scholarly work to consider while working with the colonial-era books about Felicity.

While the project is much broader, I'm pondering the coral necklace. I know little about this small historical detail mentioned in both Meet Felicity and A Little Maid of Provincetown (by Alice Turner Curtis, 1913). The young heroine in each book sports a favorite necklace made of red coral, which I assume to be similar to the one pictured in this post.

Girls' culture Sherrie A. Inness lightly criticizes Pleasant Company for what may appear, to some, to be shameless marketing and advertising within the novels. Undoubtedly, their doll and accessory sales profit from the inclusion of such things like Felicity's necklace and other accessories in the books. However, the mark of a good children's historical fiction novel is the inclusion of those small details which help the reader to not only imagine the setting and characters vividly, but make connections between the book and their own life. Additionally, Curtis's little heroine also treasures her own coral necklace, and this comes with no seemingly subversive marketing schemes.

Anyway, I'm still puzzling through this for a mini-essay due in a few weeks, to my overseer/mentor professor. Just thought I'd puzzle it out a bit here, to prove to the blog and any nonexistent readers that I am, in fact, alive and writing.

Many thanks to the lovely website The Village Green Clothier, where I obtained the above photo of a coral bead reproduction necklace.

Wednesday, December 31, 2008

The Little Maid Series, by Alice Turner Curtis

It's not often that a series of books for young adolescent girls makes it off the ground. Very few reach the level of success achieved by Nancy Drew and the American Girl books. As part of a project, I've been devouring an early historical fiction series for girls aged 7 to 12 - the Little Maid books.

First published in the 1910s, the Little Maid series is a bit of an anomaly, to me. The publishing boom of girls series fiction novels came years after Alice Turner Curtis's books dealing with young girls living during the American Revolution. Unlike the collectible books of Betsy Tacy, the Bobbsey Twins, or Cherry Ames, these stories have fallen out of the public eye. Tracking them down was a challenge in and of itself.

I'm currently in possession of A Little Maid of Province Town, A Little Maid of Massachusetts Colony, and A Little Maid of Old Connecticut. They're charming little books, republished in the 1990s by Applewood Books, which include "turn of the century" paper dolls to cut from the inside flaps. The writing is basic, and the plot twists obvious (and unlikely). Each heroine, a young girl with strong morals and a maturity beyond her years, plays an important role in the Revolution.

So far, so good. I plan to acquire more of these novels, and work with them throughout the semester. Alibris.com has been invaluable, as these aren't the sorts of books you find the local Barnes and Noble.