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 1995, 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.