Choosing Books for Today's WomenMary Louise Maples
Betty Dean Newman
How does a young person mature successfully? The question presents an old problem with no assured answers, but certainly one part of the answer must be appropriate role models. Role models can come from vicarious experiences as well as relationships with family, friends, and others. Obviously, vicarious role models are encountered in the literature that children and adolescents read. Fox (1993), for example, suggests that one way a woman constructs an image of herself at any age is through everything she reads from sexist advertisements to romance novels, and Purcell and Stewart (1990)conclude that the literature supports the idea that what children read affects the way they perceive themselves. D'Angelo states, "Adolescents who have the opportunity to read about strong, realistic characters are aided in their development of self" (p. 1).
In the past, it may have been safe to assume that a woman would move directly from a family unit consisting of her own birth family to a family unit consisting of her husband, herself, and their children. The number of announcements of engagements and marriages published weekly in the newspapers might encourage the belief that this situation is still the case. However, the statistics prove different. Current statistics paint a picture of a world where women need to be independent and self-reliant. Increasingly, women will spend at least part of their adulthood as a single person; and, when single person means single parent, the children who are at home while mom works need to be self-reliant as well. Being single for a period of time may be the result of alate marriage. In 1990 the average age of first marriage for females had increased from 20.6 years in 1970 to 23.9 years (Kantrowitz, 1992, p. 49). This change means a gap of approximately five years between high school and marriage and of a year or two between college and marriage. Although some young women remain with parents, others find jobs and live independently.
Divorce creates many single heads of households: the data indicate that in 1988the median length of a marriage was seven years. A more applicable statistic is that half of those who divorce have not remarried in five years (Statistical Abstracts, 1993, p. 101). A divorced woman is one who is more likely to become responsible for her own life, either by choice or by necessity. She may have children who now have more responsibility in the home. Baskerville (1992,p. 47) reports statistics for African Americans that indicate an even greater need for independence on the part of the female. Black brides are two years older than white ones when they first marry, and fewer blacks remarry after a divorce. Also, a young African-American woman is more likely to be left alone because of the higher mortality rate of black males. In 1992 there were almost eighteen-million female householders of all races who were divorced, never married, or whose spouse was absent (Statistical Abstracts, 1993, p.55). Even for those women who marry and stay married, independence is still essential. Dual-career families are expected to increase to 75% of married couples by the year 2000 (Cetron, 1994, p. 8), and the trend includes the likelihood that more married partners will work in separate cities (p. 3).
Considering the way women live and can expect to live today, adolescent females need to be presented with role models who successfully meet the challenges of taking care and supporting themselves and possibly others. They also need young female role models who know how to make responsible decisions during the absence of their parents. The patterns of life that young women will experience indicate a need for such qualities as independence, self-reliance, initiative,inner strength, and the abilities to make decisions and solve problems.
Teachers and librarians who help pre-adolescent and adolescent girls choose books should make it their responsibility to include books whose protagonists are strong, realistic female characters. Many studies of literature written for and about young people show that most have male protagonists. Stories abound in which the females must seek help for the solutions to problems rather than find the answers within themselves. Consequently, it is easy to hand a young woman a book that simply ignores her importance in the activities of life. Finding books with strong female characters is much harder.
However, when librarians or teachers need books for adolescent readers that portray young women as strong characters, some reliable choices are books written by Lynn Hall, Vera and Bill Cleaver, and Cynthia Voigt. The discussion that follows illustrates the treatment of female characters in their books.
Lynn Hall's stories usually depict a rural life, but the quest of the main character applies to young adults living in any area. In A Killing Freeze and Denison's Daughter, the heroines think independently to solve serious problems in their lives. The primary female characters in The Leaving and The Solitary become self-reliant as they leave their families to go out on their own.
Clarie Forrester, as narrator of A Killing Freeze, tells the reader immediately that her father has raised her to think clearly, directly, and independently. Motherless since shortly after her birth, Clarie is now in her junior year in high school. Although her father protects her and provides for her, he also gives her responsibility at home and in his store. As a result,Clarie reacts decisively when she finds their neighbor, Mrs. Amling, dead outside her home. It is Clarie who eventually determines the cause of death through her ability to think in innovative directions. Her abilities to accept responsibility, face problems, and devise solutions to the problems are qualities to be emulated.
In Denison's Daughter, Sandy is sixteen and not ready to think about a life separate from her family. She pursues a maturity of a different sort.Faced with the attentions of Lonnie, a much older and married man, Sandy examines her relationship with her own father. Showing an objectivity of thought unusual for her age, Sandy realizes that her desire for warmth and touch comes from a paternal absence of these qualities. Furthermore, Sandy seems to know intuitively the reasons for her father's behavior. Because of her awareness, she effects a change in the interaction between herself and her father while calmly refusing Lonnie's proposition. The reader can picture Sandy as she says, "You're just not my type, Lonnie," and then walks away with a smile.
Sandy's ultimate refusal of Lonnie is through her own decision. Hall keeps the parents out of the conflict except for the father's original expressed doubt.Sandy is a worthy model in that she does not need someone outside of herself to make an intelligent decision.
Hall offers an alternative to college and to marriage in The Leaving and in The Solitary. Roxanne, the principal character in The Leaving,graduates from high school and stays at home long enough to help her parents with the summer farming. The Leaving takes place in November after the winter storms have begun, illustrating the difficulty of the break between school and adult life. Roxanne mentally prepares herself to move from the community of Wadena to Des Moines and to find work. As the departure time nears, she anguishes over her decision. Hall gives insight into the feelings of the parents as the narration focuses on one character and then another.
Roxanne's preparations are described in scant detail. The reader knows that she has saved five hundred dollars and that she plans to find a room and a job immediately after her arrival in Des Moines. Somehow, her plan succeeds. She finds an affordable place to live, a job, and friends. She begins to date for the first time in her life and receives positive evaluations from her employer.The success that she experiences allows her to evaluate the life she truly wants from the standpoint of personal strength. She has learned that she is capable. After many months of struggling with the dilemma of city life versus country life, Roxanne decides that the farm is the place for her.
A young female reader will discover in Roxanne a very human role model. Leaving home for the first time and being unsure of a decision are common experiences for many young women; however, a young woman may or may not find the strength to try life by herself. Roxanne shows that it can be done. Hall seems to encourage her female readers to find what they really want and not settle for less.
Lynn Hall's The Solitary also portrays a high-school graduate starting out on her own. Although few young people are fortunate enough to have a farm left to them by their parents, Jane's example for those who read her story shows the preparation and the determination to make the dream come true.Family tragedy dictates that Jane must leave the farm at age five, but Jane always wants to return. During her last two years of high school, she studies and plans diligently to make her wish a reality. While other girls in her class participate in social activities, Jane acquires the knowledge to operate a rabbit farm. With single-minded purpose, she reads about rabbits, gardening,wood stoves, and anything else potentially helpful. She saves the money she earns from babysitting, mowing lawns, and other part-time jobs. She makes lists of what she needs and goes to garage sales.
Once on the farm, Jane must learn to deal with solitude, handle the problems that arise, and find a way to become self-supporting. She must, for example,learn to use a chain saw to cut wood for her stove. She also finds that simply selling the rabbit meat as she had planned will not sustain her. As she explores possibilities, she discovers she can earn money selling manure and pelts, selling some rabbits for pets, and producing and selling show-quality rabbits for hobbyists. She solves each problem as it come along, and her belief in herself grows accordingly.
The most important aspect of Jane as a role model is that she accomplishes her goal of living according to her own design. In the last few chapters there is evidence of happiness, satisfaction, and dignity. The details used to describe Jane's physical and mental metamorphosis makes it possible for readers to see how they might follow her path.
When Bill and Vera Cleaver explored the Appalachian region, they encountered proud, independent, people -- people with such a genuineness and zeal that Where the Lilies Bloom seems only a natural result. Mary Call,a fourteen-year-old girl wise beyond her years, is the desperate, resourceful central figure in a tale of a struggling, poverty-stricken family.
The death of the tenant-farmer father, Roy Luther, poses problems for the family as they try to preserve dignity and independence. Mary Call makes an inner vow, "I won't go down the way Roy Luther's gone." Irritated when she doesn't know and yearning to rise above ignorance, Mary Call discovers within herself the ability to devise a plan to keep the family together. Knowing that getting money is not easy in her meager surroundings,she begins the struggle of using what is available. Wild crafting, the gathering of herbs for sale, requires all of her being -- the knowledge, which she obtains from reading; the endurance, which she gains from a promise to her dying father; and the desire, which comes from an unbelievable inner strength.
Mary Call, even though she is not the oldest of the children, makes decisions that show wisdom. To prevent a possible separation of the family, she conceals her father's death from prying community folk who are overly concerned about her family's ignorance and poverty. She continues in her quest to remain independent regardless of the complaining and lack of understanding from her siblings. Her plan is bigger than everyday existence. She is a role model who has a far-reaching goal and she never wavers from it. Though Mary Call struggles in remote Appalachia, the Cleavers reveal strong character traits that are found in any setting.
Vera Cleaver continues to portray similar character traits in Sweetly Sings the Donkey. Lily Snow, also a fourteen-year-old mainstay in a struggling family, is a realist. Because her father, a junk dealer, is a dreamer and her mother lacks initiative or self-reliance, the family moves from one town to another. Lily compares her family to the junk her father sells. With each move,Lily develops an inner strength to build a better world that does not need to be repaired.
When the family inherits property in Florida and moves once again, the father becomes ill and his dreams become even more unrealistic. However, Lily sees things as they really are. Knowing that even a donkey does not sing sweetly without a true home, as she puts it, Lily vows to fight for a real home for her family.
She befriends two wilderness loners and uses ingenuity, skill, and determination to build a house and furniture. When her mother flees the seemingly unstable situation, Lily determines with even greater zeal to be the strong arm for a brighter future. She knows that she has what it takes to be a heroine. She declares that someone has beat her to the invention of the light bulb and the sewing machine, but no one has beat her to a plan for a wondrous personal future where the donkey's song may be sweet. No one has to tell her she is a role model for her family -- in her heart she knows.
The works of Cynthia Voigt provide young readers with many primary female characters who are both independent and courageous. For girls who like to romanticize past centuries, Voigt has written Jackaroo and On Fortune's Wheel. The female protagonist in each novel is a girl of individuality, intelligence, and determination.
Gwyn, the innkeeper's daughter in Jackaroo, engineers her survival in a snowstorm and saves a young lord along with herself. She becomes Jackaroo, a mysterious bandit and hero in the manner of Robin Hood. Gwyn's granddaughter,Birle, stops a disguised boat thief who turns out to be Orien, a young earl.Birle accompanies Orien into strange territory where they are enslaved. It is Birle who plans and carries out their escape in On Fortune's Wheel.
Voigt's strongest women can be found in the Tillerman series: these women are Dicey, her grandmother Ab, and her friend Mina. Mina, who first appears inDicey's Song, is one of the few people who befriends Dicey. Mina's inner strength is obvious as she successfully defends Dicey's writing to their seventh-grade English teacher.
Voigt tells Mina's story in Come a Stranger. Mina wants to become a ballerina and wins a scholarship to a prestigious dance camp. Once there,however, she discovers that she is the only African American. Through her experiences at camp and with her black friends at home, Mina eventually develops her individual philosophy about differences among people, a philosophy that is the basis for a maturity of behavior shown in her relationships. She initiates a friendship with Dicey and invites the Tillermans to her father's all-black church. She maintains a platonic friendship with Tamer Shipp, a visiting minister, even though she has fallen in love with him; and she hides the love and becomes a sincere friend of his family.
A last glimpse of Mina comes in Seventeen Against the Dealer. In a conversation with Dicey, Mina reveals her plans to become a lawyer and later rejects a boyfriend who would interfere with her goal. Mina has learned to trust her own instincts and abilities.
Perhaps Voigt's most appealing character is Dicey Tillerman. The reader can follow Dicey from the age of thirteen, when, in Homecoming, she and her younger siblings are abandoned, to the age of twenty-one, when they appear inSeventeen Against the Dealer. From the beginning of the story, Dicey exerts her independence in solving the dilemma of abandonment. She concerns herself with keeping her family alive and together. The family journeys on foot from Connecticut and eventually arrives at their grandmother's home in Crisfield, Maryland. Although the four children generally consider James to be the smart one, Dicey makes the plans and solves the problems. She assumes responsibility for the family's finances and for their physical health and safety. She maintains the family's moral strength and mental attitude as well.
Dicey recognizes the dangers that arise along the way and relies on her own instincts and abilities to overcome them. One such situation occurs at Cousin Eunice's, a place where the children think they will find refuge but do not. As Dicey thinks about their situation, she realizes that the four are about to be separated if they do not leave. A second example of Dicey's recognition of danger and skill in avoiding it takes place when the children get themselves into another perilous situation by stopping to earn money working for a farmer.Dicey senses the evil intent of the farmer and bravely carries out her escape plan.
In many ways, Dicey is a very independent person who follows her own thinking.She decides that college is not for her after attending for two years. And her relationships with her friends Jeff and Mina are almost always on Dicey's terms. However, although she is independent, she rarely isolates herself from the needs of her family. Voigt shows Dicey's emotional strength when she finds out that her mother is in a mental hospital and later when she sits by her dying mother's bed. She believes in her sister Maybeth and stands by her when Maybeth's teachers claim that she cannot learn. To deal with the situation,Dicey takes a job at a small grocery store in order to contribute to the financial stability of the family and to pay for Maybeth's piano lessons.
Dicey is unique. She is certainly not a stereotypical adolescent girl. Her dream to become a boat builder, her postponement of marriage to Jeff, and her reluctance to accept help from others -- all are evidence of her individuality.In a sea of literature in which female characters are either absent, secondary,or dependent, Dicey is an alternative and excellent role model.
The female protagonists brought to life by Lynn Hall, Bill and Vera Cleaver, and Cynthia Voigt provide appropriate role models for adolescent readers. The successful maturation of the characters in the novels mentioned presents excellent examples of independent, self-reliant young females. Such characters display traits that are desirable in human relationships and necessary in order for individuals to attain a sense of fulfillment and self-worth.
Because there is no definitive plan for helping young people learn how to solve problems, develop inner strengths, and successfully make the transition from childhood to adulthood, the benefits of reading about characters who have done so become even more compelling. Parents, teachers, and librarians need to be familier with quality novels about adolescents, particularly independent females, as they attempt to recommend worthy role models.
D'Angelo, D. A. The Female Character in Middle School Fiction: Do Contemporary Adolescent Characters Reflect Realistic Developmental Role Models? Paper presented at the 79th Annual Convention, National Council of Teachers of English, Baltimore, Maryland, November, 1989.
Faculty members in the School of Education at Athens State College in Alabama, Mary Louise Maples teaches language arts methods courses, and Betty Dean Newman instructs students in reading and children's literature.