What We Don’t Talk About When We Talk About Banning YA Books

The clashes between  my mother and a librarian over access to potentially objectionable books sound impossibly quaint now. My mother’s observation to me that the books in the children’s section weren’t challenging enough was a directive to explore the adult section of the Manhattan Beach Public Library.  I sneaked  past the circulation desk to avoid the disapproving Mrs. Brown and slithered into the W-Zs of adult fiction. The authors’ names on the spines were unfamiliar, but “Wodehouse” on a top shelf caught my eye and I pulled out one of the misadventures of Bertie Wooster, complete with gaspers,  cocktails, and morning-after cures.  I was allowed to check it out, but then I hadn’t handed over The Portrait of Dorian Grey.  Another time Mrs. Brown refused to let me have a book from the adult section until she spoke with my mother, who coolly confirmed that I had her permission. Mrs. Brown pulled a sour face while the transaction was completed.

I have no idea what Mrs. Brown would have made of the new policy of the Hamilton East Public Library in Indianapolis to relocate sexually explicit YA books to which parents have objections to the adult section. In this weekend’s Wall Street Journal,  Daniel Lee looked at this “culture-war skirmish,” which John Green, the beloved Indianapolis writer whose acclaimed YA novels  Looking for Alaska and The Fault Is in Our Stars were targeted, denounced  the move as “political theater of the lowest and most embarrassing order.”

Green’s novels, which feature young characters struggling with class conflict, dysfunctional families, terminal illness, and chronic depression, who also chain-smoke, experiment with sex, binge-drink and drive,  Lee suggested, would not have resonated with Booth Tarkington’s Penrod, whose Hoosier boyhood in the early twentieth century was unmarked by any trauma more devastating than surviving cotillions.  Penrod, says Lee, “knew which bathroom to use.”    He continues:

Yes, some young people today are in terrible situations.  But it seems profoundly pessimistic—and ideologically loaded—to think most kids don’t live lives much like Penrod’s and worse, that they lack parents who are eager and competent to help when trouble comes.

Unfortunately, coverage of book bannings in public schools and libraries often contain glib comparisons, which score points at the expense of oversimplifying the difficulty of judging the contents of the books in contention.  Lee’s description of Penrod suggests he didn’t read Tarkington very carefully or he might have noticed that this once classic American novel about boyhood contains any number of awkward situations similar to Tom Sawyer or Peck’s Bad Boy that don’t involve precocious sexual activity.

The cotillion episode, which Lee considered anodyne, is a good example of Penrod acting on impulse for purely selfish reasons.  The day of the cotillion he discovers a basket of expired medicines, dentifrices, hair oil, condiments gone off, etc. in the stable put out for the trash.  After he and his friend Sam set up a drug store to fill prescriptions, Sam mixes up some “small pox medicine” using the contents of the basket and part of a bottle of licorice water to make it look palatable.  Penrod’s dog Duke the tester can’t keep it down and the boys dream of administering a dose to Professor Bartlett, which would lead to the cotillion’s cancellation.  Instead their frenemy Maurice Levy saunters by.  Penrod resorts to a desperate measure to take out Maurice, so he, with two left feet, can squire the adored Marjorie Jones and hand off his partner Baby Rennsdale to Sam, whose fair lady has had to send regrets.  Maurice is invited to drink as much licorice water as he can in one pull and the bottle of small pox medicine is substituted for the real one.   He swallows it all, has a smoke, and heads home without exhibiting any ill effects to change for cotillion.

Left unsupervised to an extent unimaginable today, eleven-year-old Penrod has acted on enough ideas like this one to have earned the reputation as the worst boy in town.  His family worries that he is headed for the penitentiary.  The ladies in town tut-tut about the ineffectual Schofields when his  mother and sister aren’t present.  Certain families forbid their sons to associate with him.  His peers, on the other hand, take vicarious pleasure in his antics, like talking back to the teacher and managing to elude punishment temporarily with the claim he was exhausted from comforting his distraught aunt, who has taken refuge from her drunken, abusive husband with the Schofields.   A tall tale  inspired by the silent film he watched when he should have been in Sunday school.

If Penrod’s reputation was affected by his friendship with the Black brothers, Herman and Verman, who live in the nearby alley, Tarkington didn’t come out and say so.  What strikes us now are the ambiguities of the power dynamics between the white boy and two “darkies.”  Verman suffers from ankyloglossia and his words have to be translated by his older brother Herman.  Herman is missing a forefinger, because his little brother chopped it off with an axe when told to as a joke. The boys’ father is in jail term for stabbing a man with a pitchfork.  Penrod finds  Herman and Verman so fascinating that he immediately proposes to Sam they could be the star attractions of a show.

Equally troubling  is the Rupe Collins episode.  An older white boy from the wrong side of town comes around to play, which means he bullies and tortures Penrod and Sam.  Verman whacks Rupe with a board to make him stop and gets called the N-word.  Herman tells Rupe to lay off his brothers and his friends, setting off a terrific fight, in which the rules of fair play are suspended, while Penrod and Sam watch on the sidelines. Verman opens hostilities by striking Rupe with a rake because in “his simple, direct, African way, he wished to kill his enemy…and to kill him as soon as possible.”  The brawl comes to an end when Herman grabs a scythe and threatens to cut out Rupe’s gizzard and eat it.  It was probably trash talk, but Penrod and Sam are too shaken by the brothers’ “unctuous merriment” after their victory to say thank you.

Tarkington’s Penrod can’t be characterized as a book written back in the good old days when children were still innocent a hundred years ago.  Daniel Lee’s assertion in the Wall Street Journal that in the novel still reflects the circumstances of many children’s lives today was an oversimplification supporting the comforting illusion that classic books are alternatives to contemporary problem YA novels which hold up a mirror to contemporary teenagers” lives.  However excessive realism is defined, the line where it crosses over to the exploitative is always being redrawn in contemporary discussions. But the analysis will be more productive the more carefully the books in question are studied.

Yes, critical race theory is integral to George M. Johnson’s manifesto-memoir All Boys Aren’t Blue. The author’s search for a meaningful, fulfilled sex life as a gay man is too, but that account, which is not overly graphic, occupies far fewer pages than you might expect, given the book’s notoriety.   What the book’s critics neglect to say (probably because they haven’t read it), is that it’s also a warm, loving tribute to the Black family that had his back while he was growing up painfully conscious of being different and unsure where he belonged.  The book is worth reading just for the portrait of his Nana, with whom he was very close, or his memories of jumping Double Dutch with the girls, to mention just two passages.  Don’t damn a book without giving the author a chance and don’t praise it without a detailed sense of how the strengths and weaknesses may be intertwined.  Regardless of when a book was written, it is probably more complex than its reputation.

Fashion and Beauty in Barbie Novels from the early 1960s

Look for vintage clothes for Barbie from the1960s and you’ll find more ensembles that can fit in the closets in her dream house.  Search for reviews of the pioneering novels about the girl who is the living doll and you’ll come up price and identification guides plus some cover designs for the thirteen novels Random House issued between 1962 and 1965.

Cynthia Lawrence and Bette Lou Maybee collaborated on the majority of the volumes, but they seem to have left few traces behind, except for entries in the copyright records and a single box in the Random House archive at Columbia University.  A romantic explanation for the gaps in the record would be that these novels were written for money under assumed names by people who did not want to connected with them in the future, should their careers take off.   A more earthbound one is that they found employment elsewhere in publishing or in another industry altogether.  A really satisfying and completely unproven possibility is that one of them had been a Stratemeyer Syndicate writer in the Nancy Drew mill.

Whoever Lawrence and Maybee were, the world of difference between their presentation of the iconic character and in the later publications such as the 12-volume Barbie and Friends Book Club (Grolier, 1998-1999, pictured at the end) seems to have passed unnoticed.  In comparison to those later titles  promoting the well-established hydra-headed money-making brand, the short stories and novels of Lawrence and Maybee function something like a courtesy book for early sixties girlhood, a successor and competitor with the Nancy Drew mysteries.   Barbie is clearly a real girl and her connection to the doll is really not developed or exploited, although it is impossible to forget it.

“The Size 10 Dress” in the first volume, Here’s Barbie, is cringe-making. “Big Bertha,” a size 14 blonde damned to wear slimming shirtwaists, goes on a diet, determined to become like Barbie so she won’t sit at home any more.  Barbie encourages her to step out and join in, knowing that Bertha’s father is too busy and clueless to guide her in the womanly arts, but finds it embarrassing at being copied down to her lipstick color.  Bertha breaks down when the home-economics teacher won’t let her model the dress  identical to the one Barbie made, but she takes to heart Barbie’s advice “I’m just an ordinary girl, no better or worse than you or any other girl!  But I’m me.  And you should be yourself too.  When you try to become me, you’re just half a person and you make me less than myself.”  With Barbie’s coaching, a new hair cut, and the power of accessorizing, the new Bertha steps out on the stage with Barbie at the school fashion show.

The play in the same volume, “The Easter Hat,” shows Barbie the candy-striper volunteering in the local rest home, with a tip of the hat to the classic Hollywood film with Judy Garland and Fred Astaire.  One of the residents, who had been a Broadway star in her youth, gives Barbie the Easter bonnet she wore when her husband proposed to wear in the Easter Parade.   Barbie denies herself the joy of buying a smart new chapeau with her own money to show off on Sunday and instead organizes a surprise parade at the facility, where she and Ken bring up the rear in vintage costume, much to the delight of the ladies.

Barbie’s New York Summer is a whirl-wind account of her Teen Magazine internship, during which she effortlessly picks up the fundamentals of modelling and of fashion journalism.  In the evenings, she is driven to the Village in the red Jaguar of the adoring Latin trust-fund baby Pablo, who does his best to replace the faithful, steady All-American future lawyer, Ken in her affections. He’s a powerful temptation, who wouldn’t have any trouble being a playwright and keeping her in filmy frocks, matching pumps, gloves and tiny evening bags that Grace Kelly might wear.  (It’s surely no coincidence that Mattel has issued Grace Kelly dolls from Alfred Hitchcock’s films To Catch a Thief and Rear Window in their Barbie line).  The chic editor who bears no resemblance to Miranda Priestly in The Devil Wears Prada, offers her a permanent position before she graduates from high school.  But in the end, Barbie’s head isn’t turned because she realizes that she loves and misses her life in Willows too much to leave home for the big city–she still has a lot of growing up to do and that process might take her down other paths before she returns to the industry she has come to love.   The editor thinks that Barbie has made the right choice and reassures her that the job will be there when she is ready.  And so will Pablo, which is just too good to be true.

It’s easy, for example, to find evidence of a fixation on thinness in the three books–the adjective “slim” is always a compliment and the most attractive characters, like Barbie’s mother and her Latin lover Pablo, conform to that body type. “The Size 10 Dress” concludes with a chart in which to record the reader’s measurements and more.  Overall the co-authors indirectly emphasize inner beauty as more important as outer, show that kindness to others is more satisfying than indulging personal pleasures, and suggest that listening to ambition without checking in with the heart and head may not lead the way to the best path forward.  Barbie Millicent Roberts in these books may be blonde, pretty and well-dressed enough to turn heads wherever she goes, but she is not a terrible role model, being  a thoughtful, intelligent, empathetic teenager instead of an airhead clotheshorse.   Of course she is too nice to be believable, when she should by all rights be the queen of mean girls.    Where on the scale of role models will the Barbie(s) in Greta Gerwig’s hot pink star-studded extravaganza fall?