February 20, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

Why “The Hired Girl” Won the 2016 O’Dell Award




Shortly before the highly anticipated 2016 Youth Media Award announcements on January 11, the 2016 Scott O’Dell Award for Historical Fiction quietly went to The Hired Girl (Candlewick) by Laura Amy Schlitz.

The win strikes a chord of redemption after the controversy that had sprung up over a passage in the book, igniting a wide-ranging discussion over whether it’s acceptable for a story’s protagonist to hold prejudices that are not fully resolved or put in context for young readers and how the expression of such ignorance impacts a title’s appropriateness for children.

The line in question concerns the main character, 14-year-old Joan Skraggs, a girl working odd jobs in early 20th-century America in an effort to escape her life on a rural farm. When a prospective employer asks if Joan is Jewish, this is her response:

I was as taken aback as if she’d asked me if I was an Indian. It seemed to me—I mean, it doesn’t now, but it did then—as though Jewish people were like Indians: people from long ago; people in books. I know there are Indians out West, but they’re civilized now, and wear ordinary clothes. In the same way, I guess I knew there were still Jews, but I never expected to meet any.

The coming-of-age novel, set in 1911 and written in a journal format, is “very much a book of our time, confronting Joan with questions about prejudice and religious faith and tolerance in ways that speak to readers today without trapping itself into anachronism or wishful thinking about the past,” says Roger Sutton, editor in chief of SLJ’s sister publication the Horn Book and chair of the 2016 O’Dell judging committee.  “The judges saw more than a bit of L. M. Montgomery’s Anne Shirley in good-hearted but impulsive Joan, and Schlitz shares Montgomery’s ability to keep our respect for her heroine even while we cringe at some of her more ill-advised actions.”

Some of the first condemnation of The Hired Girl came from Debbie Reese, a specialist in Native American studies, in a post on her blog, “American Indians in Children’s Literature,” saying that the fact that the passage constitutes a small part of the text should not insulate it from criticism. “It is ‘one line’ to some, but to Native people or anyone who pays attention to ways that Native people are depicted in children’s and young adult literature, those one lines add up to a very long list in which we are misrepresented.”

In his own review, though, SLJ’s Heavy Medal blogger Jonathan Hunt made it clear that while he understood what Reese saw as a problem, he didn’t necessarily agree. Declaring that the title remained in his “top three,” Hunt suggested that the passage may actually be more offensive to Jewish readers but defended it as a factor that demonstrates ignorance but an ignorance that the titular heroine is overcoming in the course of the story.

When Ann Carlson, librarian at the Oak Park-River Forest High School (IL) and one of the O’Dell judging committee members, was asked how the committee came to the decision, she echoed Hunt in part, commenting on the relatability of Joan. “With the energy of the innocent and as she struggles to understand the world around her, she develops her identity as a teenager and begins to shed her naïveté and prejudices. The committee thought that she was a product of her times,” notes Carlson.

SLJ’s A Fuse #8 Production blogger Elizabeth Bird acknowledged that the passage is problematic but argued for its inclusion on the grounds that it adds a layer of complexity to Joan’s character, challenging readers to understand that even sympathetic characters can hold views we don’t agree with. Bird writes: “Let’s say all passages of American Indians were removed (there’s more than one, you know). Let’s say mentions of American Indians were removed from all books for children written about this time period but only when those mentions were prejudiced. Let’s say all American Indians themselves were removed as well. See? Isn’t it so much easier to write historical fiction when you don’t have controversial topics to trip you up?”

A broader debatE

The controversy around The Hired Girl, though, is more than just the discussion of a single title. It comes at a time when more and more librarians, teachers, and critics are pointing out the continuing need for more diversity in children’s books and titles that are more thoughtful when representing cultures other than the author’s. In that context, The Hired Girl finds itself as just one (albeit high profile) title at the center of an industry-wide conversation.

The New York Times gave it a glowing review, and the book remains a comfortable best seller at Amazon. Schlitz herself has chosen not to address the controversy and did not respond to a request for comment for this story.

Deborah Stevenson, editor of the Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books and the third member of the O’Dell judging committee, summed up the feeling that inspired the trio to laud The Hired Girl. “We liked that Schlitz kept her heroine of her time. That’s less common than you might think. A lot of historical fiction is really disguised time travel, where somebody with contemporary sensibilities appears in an earlier period and wants to progressively make everything the way it is in our era. A book like that can be wonderfully readable in its way, but it distorts both history, by suggesting it was more like the present than it was, and the reading of history, by suggesting that
our own time’s views are the correct ones that everybody in the past should have been working toward.”

The Scott O’Dell Award, created by Scott O’Dell and Zena Sutherland in 1982 and now administered by Elizabeth Hall, carries with it a prize of $5,000 and goes annually to the author of a distinguished work of historical fiction for young people published by a U.S. publisher and set in the Americas. For more information about Scott O’Dell and the Scott O’Dell Award, visit Scottodell.com.

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  1. For those who want a more in-depth look at the Native content, my objections to that content, and the context for my objections, please read my post:

  2. Thanks for posting this. I love Deborah Stevenson’s observation that, “A lot of historical fiction is really disguised time travel.” What a perfect description.

  3. It’s a fair objection by Debbie Reese, but having read Enid Blyton books as a child before they were edited to suit more more modern sensitivities (ie: less of the N-word…) I knew that it was a product of it’s time.. and I looked at it as a historically interesting peculiarity, rather than something I would be influenced by.

    I’ve since gone on to make historical fiction for children and young adults: http://historicalheroes.co.uk/

  4. Herb Wilburn says:

    It seems to easy for us to ignore our own standards when criticizing books that have (to us) objectionable content. One of the first questions on any worthwhile reconsideration/challenge form is “have you read the entire book?”.
    Still some portions may really bother us, using today’s sensibilities and social norms, but we must consider books, especially historical fiction to be of it’s own time and setting. That’s one of the biggest benefits for our students and readers.
    It’s easy to make noise, or to make a career of making noise for that matter, but librarians need to maintain the evenhanded, learned judgement that marks our profession.

  5. Allison Gray says:

    In historic fiction think it is important to portray people’s perceptions of other people accurately, as they would have viewed them in that time. While we might wish everyone was enlightened, most clearly were not. We cannot judge them with today’s mores. I felt Joan was entirely authentic even while I cringed at many of the things she said. I believe that the audience for whom the novel is intended is intelligent enough to understand that Joan is a product of her times and that her views would certainly be considered offensive today.

  6. I cannot imagine how or why Jewish readers (such as myself) would object to The Hired Girl or its deserved win of the Scott O’Dell Award. Schlitz not only portrays the nuances of anti-Semitism (ranging from the central character’s initial ignorance to the Catholic Church’s institutionalized biases) but does a fine job of portraying Jewish life of the time. The upper-class biases of German Jews, better educated and assimilated, towards Eastern European ones, plus the efforts of those wealthier Jews to further assimilate through food choices, among other customs, all ring true. The emphases on education within that perceptively delineated family–along with Joan’s own characterization–add further luster to this great read. I would not be surprised to see this book among the nominees for a Jewish Book Council Award.

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  10. Heather Mackenzie says:

    I do understand Debbie Reese’s concerns. In fact, I cringed when I read the section in question. Yet, after thinking it over I came to two conclusions. First, this is exactly how a barely educated farm girl would react. Second, what a wonderful teaching moment. I could imagine myself teaching the book and taking a long time talking about prejudices back then, the impact, and what we are facing today.