the best friends you’ll never have
If you’re at all interested in children’s literature, and have a special spot in your heart for children’s literature aimed at girls written in the ’80s and ’90s, then you’ve probably already read the interview with Lois Lowry on the New York website.
The Anastasia I grew up with, as pictured in a random eBay auction
The Anastasia books are getting rereleased, and as they normally do nowadays when they rerelease books, some changes are being made. The one that is the most odious to me is that the title of Anastasia, Ask Your Analyst is being changed to Anastasia Off Her Rocker, which sounds dumb to me. The publishers didn’t think that the original title would be appealing to kids now, but frankly, I don’t see how it was any more appealing back in my day–by then, they didn’t call psychiatrists/therapists/psychologists “analysts” anymore. Kids read the book because they loved Anastasia. But I digress.
On the one hand, I’m really excited to see the books in print again. I’m also excited at the prospect of Lois Lowry finishing the tenth Anastasia book she started after Anastasia Absolutely came out, and the publishers said Anastasia books weren’t selling well enough to keep publishing them. (Boo, publishers!) But on the other hand, it does raise some interesting questions, the first being–why do we have to edit books for the current generation? Sometimes I can understand it, like if there is content that is now offensive, like how the original scene in Mary Poppins where they went and visited peoples of the woirld was later revised to have them visit animals instead.
But things like exchanging Margaret’s pad belt for adhesive with wings rub me the wrong way. Yes, it confused me when I was younger, and when we got the Internet, it was probably one of the first things I looked up, since it had confused me so much. And I suppose that today’s kids’ parents are of a generation that never had to deal with sanitary pad belts, so kids can’t ask their parents. But to me, things like this help retain the flavor of the period the books were written in. Anastasia is an interesting case though, because she was based on Amy Carter and ended during the Clinton administration. So her period stretches for a fairly long time.
But that period has definitely passed. I feel like there is a huge difference in the way my generation lived as children without the Internet and how children now live. So many plots would be ruined by cell phones. I don’t even think that the Baby-Sitters Club would be possible now. There’d be no reason to have meetings, probably, and kids wouldn’t be allowed at 11, 12, 13 to go sit at the houses of people their parents don’t know. I think it’s telling that Scholastic switched from releasing edited paperback versions of the books to simply releasing them as ebooks as-is. I don’t think the market for the BSC is there for kids now, at least not enough to warrant the cost of editing, all-new cover art, and printing, but there is a market for people to buy them for nostalgia purposes, or for a handful of kids to want to download them to their iPad or Kindle after being introduced to them by their parents.
I’m definitely going to check out the Anastasia books for comparison purposes, even if it’s just to help encourage Lois Lowry’s publishers to have her complete that last book. Do you think publishers should update books for new generations, or do you prefer a period feel?
One of the many things I learned from the books is who Balanchine was. He is mentioned in Jessi’s Awful Secret:
There’s a look in ballet – dancers are thin, square-shouldered, and have a more-or-less oval face. I’ve heard that it started because the great choreographer George Balanchine wanted his corps de ballet (all the dancers who aren’t the stars) to look alike. Since his death, this has started to change. That’s what people say, anyway. It seems to be true.
Now, this basically blames Balanchine for a hell of a lot. Not only is it blaming Balanchine for image issues in ballet, but, especially since it is in Jessi’s voice, also carries implications of Balanchine only wanting women who look alike in terms of race as well to be in his corps. Also, while I’m not a ballet scholar–although I have studied ballet history and the work and influence of Balanchine in particular before–this does not even appear to be a true statement. In Lincoln Kirstein’s Program Notes, about Balanchine’s 1971 staging of Serenade, he writes: “If there is a star, perhaps it is the corps de ballet, which Balanchine, at the start of his American career, intended to strengthen past anonymity or any subordinate position” (Source).
This, of course, could still be interpreted as dancers still looking alike, while their work is elevated en masse. In Ballet 101: A Complete Guide to Learning and Loving the Ballet, Robert Greskovic writes:
In concept, “individuality in the corps” is something of an oxymoron. Or so it has been until more recent times, notably in the era of George Balanchine. The founder and guiding light of the New York City Ballet altered the concept of regimented uniformity of the corps de ballet. Balanchine’s vision of the corps de ballet definitely included the dimension of individuality. It allowed for personal distinction within its ranks. Answering criticism for his company’s lack of strict regularity in the dancing of his corps de ballet, Balanchine likened likened his preferred, individualized effects to those of an unclipped garden” (p. 167).
Now this, to me, does not sound like a guy who wants all of his ballerinas to have oval faces. The reason why I’m bringing all of this up is that in the September 22nd issue of The New Yorker, there’s a profile of Misty Copeland. This article provides insights into the issue of race in ballet that I think are helpful for understanding and looking critically at the way Jessi’s dancing is described, putting the whole “dancing major roles en pointe at age 11″ thing aside. Once again about Balanchine, Rivka Galchen, the author of the profile, writes:
The original dream of a uniquely American ballet was of a company that mixed whites and “Negroes”—the term used by George Balanchine, one of the co-founders of New York City Ballet. Balanchine had been influenced by working with Josephine Baker, the black American dancer who became a celebrity in France during the twenties. His vision was only occasionally realized: in his famous “Agon,” he choreographed a pas de deux for Diana Adams and Arthur Mitchell, a white woman and a black man. “Agon” was performed in 1957, to critical celebration, even though it could not be shown on television until 1968. Balanchine also made Maria Tallchief, who was of Osage heritage, an early star of the New York City Ballet. (For a time, he also made her his wife.)
I suppose that the point of this post was just to direct you guys to the profile, because it is very interesting. Also, I felt like clearing up some things about Balanchine, because Suzanne Weyn (a ghostwriter I usually like, since she wrote all of the juicy Stacey stories) created an image of Balanchine in my head as someone “who wanted his corps de ballet to look alike, but since his death ballet dancers are not as overly conscious about their looks and weight” (from the Complete Guide). An entire generation of girls, hating Balanchine. Poor guy.
If there’s one thing that the fandom seems to 100% agree on, it’s that Jessi’s handwriting is too damn hard to read. Many cheerfully admit that they skip the sections where she has handwritten something, or even say that they can’t read cursive at all. (I have actually had people my age–28–tell me to rewrite something in print so that they can read it.)
Now, cursive, and whether it’s worth teaching kids how to do it, with the ubiquity of computers and all, is a hot-button issue. Personally, I am glad that laptops in the classroom only really became a thing after I finished college, because the clackety-clack of 20 or so keyboards going simultaneously would have driven me crazy, plus it’s easier to think with a pen in your hand. Anyway, that is not what I’m writing about today. Back to Jessi and her poor, maligned handwriting.
My rereading of My Own Two Feet that I mentioned last week also resulted in several Wikipedia/Google k-holes about common handwriting systems in the United States. Beverly Cleary, having gone to school in the ’20s and ’30s, learned the Palmer Method. When you look up the Palmer Method, it looks a lot like Jessi’s writing.
Apparently Oakley was just very behind the times in their writing program, because by the ’50s, the Palmer method was on the way out, to be replaced by Zaner-Bloser, which is what I learned, and which has more in common with Mary Anne’s writing than Jessi’s.
Now, of course, if kids do learn cursive today, they learn D’Nealian, which is stupid and ugly. But let’s stop insulting Jessi’s handwriting. It is a part of American cultural heritage! And I have never understood the whole “hard-to-read” thing, anyway. Jessi’s handwriting 4 lyfe!
Lately, I’m finding that I’m less inclined to read BSC Snark than I used to be. I’ve never been the biggest fan of snark, and it’s never been the focus of my interest in discussing the BSC. But recently, I’ve found that the snark has taken a quite virtriolic turn, and often ends up reading like long personal attacks against Ann herself. I don’t find it amusing or pleasant to read, the way I do a funny snark by my personal favorite snarkers, 3-foot-6 and alula-auburn.
I do think that Ann could have done a better job in the series with, say, her portrayal of overweight people–Ethel Tines, Norman Hill–and she could have had a class of people in Stoneybrook besides “lawyers.” Reading Ann’s newer books, however, I think she has gotten a lot better with all of issues that people complain about in the books, and from the readalong I did of her earlier books, I’d say the BSC books are an improvement.
This also came to my mind this week because I recently reread, for the 100th or so time, Beverly Cleary’s two memoirs, which are favorites of mine. As I am wont to do, after I read them, I was googling around, and came across this article from People in 1988.
It included this quote, which stuck out to me:
Unlike many other writers, she has resisted the idea that children’s books should be politically relevant. “I write about people, not problems,” she says. She has, on occasion, been criticized for this, particularly by those who wonder why her books include no minority characters. “I write about middle-class America—which, in my experience, is pretty much the same no matter what one’s color may be,” she says. “I like to think that the children in my books are the color of the reader.”
I think that recent events, such as Ferguson, have really brought to the forefront for people who may have been otherwise unaware that the experience of being middle class and white in America is not going to be universal for everyone who would be considered “middle class.” But Beverly Cleary is of a different generation, where it was a family scandal that she married a Catholic, and her first book came out four years before Brown vs. Board of Education.
Now, of course, I don’t think you could continuously publish books without non-white characters without getting some pretty heavy criticism. When I was younger, however, I don’t recall there being controversies like the one that erupted over Girls‘ all-white NYC. I got a comment on my most recent Link Roundup post from tintin lachance, who shared a quote from this article with me (titled, coincidentally, “Where’s Ramona Quimby, Black and Pretty?”):
When I worked in publishing back in the early ’90s, I had a friend who brought me along to sort publisher book donations at a well-known author’s NYC apartment. On our way, my friend told me that the author, who had quietly and modestly started an admirable literacy foundation, had also broken the color barrier in series book covers. She had had to fight to get a black main character on the cover of a book, against marketing resistance fearing the book wouldn’t sell to the series’ great white readership. She won the battle, and that book sold more copies than any of its prior series-mates. This is anecdotal, but I have no reason to doubt its veracity.
While this is, as it says in the article, anecdotal, I have to agree with tintin that it sounds like they’re referring to Ann and Jessi’s Secret Language. I also can’t think of another children’s book series from my childhood of a similar size to the BSC that had a black main character except for Saddle Club‘s Carole, who, as I remember, was not black in the earlier books.
My point with these two quotes it that Beverly Cleary is of our grandmother’s generation. Ann was born in 1955, which makes her the same age as Cleary’s twins. She is also a couple of years younger than my own mother, and I was born a month before Kristy’s Great Idea came out. So generationally, we’re dealing with grandmother/mother/current generation of people who are having kids and beginning our reign of dominating the discourse. I think we have to remember that the BSC books were written between 28 and 14 years ago, and some things are going to be out of date. It is the same as when you talk to your parents, and they say something that you find offensive. Should you start a dialogue about it? Yes. Will the result perhaps be, “Well, that’s what I’ve always said, so I’m just going to keep saying it”? Maybe. Society is evolving constantly, and while I think we should always read critically, I don’t think we should expect writers of the past to have the same views as writers of the present.
I think it’s important to look at the books in their context of their time period. If Ann wrote something egregious in Family Tree or any of her other newer books, then yes, let’s criticize the hell out of it. But for snarks of BSC books, I’d like a return to fun and lightheartedness, and less what comes off as hatred for Ann.
Now, of course, what Ann has against people who chew gum and watch TV, I’ll never know.
From the beginning, the tagline of this site has been “The best friends you’ll never have.” This is a tongue-in-cheek way of revealing a kind of sad truth about myself, which is that apart from a brief spell in sixth grade, I didn’t really have friends until I was in ninth grade. I think that my childhood experience matches up pretty well with the typical INTJ experience. I loved to spend my time reading, writing, and creating, and had little use for other children. I couldn’t find other kids on the same wavelength.
Instead, I read a lot, and I read a LOT of BSC. So that’s where the tagline comes from.
I fantasized about having a big group of friends. But looking back, I’m wondering that if I were a middle school student, and I was invited to join the BSC–would I?
On the one hand, obviously I would. I had no friends. It would have been a dream come true for me to have had people to hang out with, eat lunch with, partner up on group projects with, who would have chosen me for their team in gym class even though I sucked at sports. Just think how much worse Mallory’s “Spaz Girl” experience would have been if she hadn’t had the BSC to support her. That’s what my middle school experience was like.
On the other hand, as I mentioned, I’m an INTJ. I need lots of time for my own weird projects (like this blog and the wiki!). The BSC was a huge demand on the time of the sitters. Also, one thing I found out later is that, at least for me, baby-sitting is a hard job, and nowhere near as enjoyable as I thought it would be. Parents who limit television-watching make it extremely difficult for sitters, because then it’s ALL the kids want to do. But I digress.
I mean, obviously, with my situation in middle school, an automatic group of friends who would stick by me would have made a huge difference in my life. But all that baby-sitting… Eh. Who am I kidding? I would have joined in a heartbeat.
I haven’t done any of the BSC projects I’d planned for this summer. I couldn’t even get this week’s blog posts up on time. The wiki will have to wait for when I have a work lull, I suppose.