As a child, I was obsessed with Anne Frank’s “The Diary of a Young Girl.” Like Anne, I wanted to grow up to be a writer; like her, I kept a diary (though less faithfully), which for a time I addressed, following her model, as Kitty; like her, I agonized over how little my mother understood me and longed to swoon in a boy’s arms. My obsession peaked at the age of eight with a visit to the Secret Annexe, in Amsterdam—the warren of rooms where the Frank family hid from the Nazis. I had imagined it countless times and had the floor plan memorized, but seeing it was a shock: it was so much smaller than I had pictured.
That may have been the moment I began to understand how great was the distance between Anne’s world and my own. As a girl from a family of survivors, coming of age in nineteen-eighties America, I felt the Holocaust as a tangible presence, simultaneously inescapable and unknowable. My grandparents, Jews from Lodz who fled east when the Nazis began their advance into Poland, had better luck than many: taken prisoner by the Soviets, they spent much of the war in a Siberian labor camp. Some of their family had already made it to Palestine, but most of those who remained behind were sent first to the Lodz ghetto and then to Auschwitz. My great-grandmother died there, but my great-aunt survived.
The enormity of the losses my relatives had suffered was palpable in the deep lines around their mouths, the tremors in their hands, the sighs they heaved every time the war years came up. Once, my great-aunt, who had Alzheimer’s disease by the time I came to know her, even grabbed my arm in search of the tattoo that she thought she would find there. But they didn’t often talk in detail about their experiences. When they did, the stories they told were confusing and full of gaps, and I’d complain at having to hear them. I was terrified of my relatives’ emotion and of the crushing responsibility it inflicted on me: the paradox of being charged with remembering something I hadn’t experienced.
Reading about the Holocaust was my way of trying to fulfill that obligation. But the gaps remained. I pored over the final pages of my edition of Anne’s diary, where the facts of what happened after the police raided the Secret Annexe were stated tersely: deportation to Westerbork, Auschwitz, and, finally, Bergen-Belsen. Searching for more, I came upon a book in which Hanneli Goslar, a childhood friend of Anne’s who was interned in another section of Bergen-Belsen, recalled having caught a glimpse of her, almost unrecognizable, through a fence. She returned a few days later with a package of food, but when she threw it over the fence another woman caught it and ran away as Anne screamed. The chatty, cheerful girl had become a person I couldn’t identify with at all: skeletal, desperate, scrabbling for food. She had gone to a place I couldn’t follow, not even in my imagination.
Mind you, there’s not a novel out there — from any time, in any language, geared to any reader — that’s immune to reasoned criticism. But the general shoddiness of juvenile fiction has bugged me ever since I learned to read. So has the tendency among adults to ignore flaws in the “best” juvenile fiction — and to not know or care that intelligent children are rolling their eyes and groaning, “Oh, come on, now.”
Moreover, adults who claim authority over what children and adolescents should read often stigmatize books that would benefit young readers.
• Consider A Wrinkle In Time, by Madeleine L’Engle: every adult’s favorite book for children. We’re supposed to believe that a five-year-old has such sophisticated reasoning powers or such a large vocabulary? That Aunt Beast speaks English? That an undefined concept called Love is a super-weapon that will vanquish It? We’re supposed to not notice that the tesseract isn’t explained scientifically, but requires a “leap of faith”? This is not science fiction: it’s simplistic religious allegory.
• The “Freddy” novels, by Walter R. Brooks, are grand fun, and a talking pig is somehow more plausible than an English-speaking space alien. However, the books’ moralistic tone conflicts with the author’s apparent belief that it’s OK to behave immorally if you’re one of the “good guys.”
• To Kill A Mockingbird, by Harper Lee, is a children’s book whether or not we like to admit it. Stylistically, much of it is excellent. But it’s inconsistent. One particular exchange made me writhe — even as a seventh-grader: “Did she die free?” asked Jem. “As the mountain air,” said Atticus.
Toward the end of the book, Jem and Atticus seem to agree that only eyewitness evidence — not mere circumstantial evidence — ought to be conclusive in capital cases. The author forgets that Tom Robinson was convicted on eyewitness evidence! It was circumstantial evidence that pointed to Robinson’s almost certain innocence.
• The Giving Tree, by Shel Silverstein, should be called The Rationalizing Boy. It revolted me: this guy pretending that he had a personal relationship with this tree, pretending to love it, then pretending that the tree was giving him permission to mutilate and kill it. I am horrified, to this day, by the message of that Godforsaken book.
• Laura Ingalls Wilder’s “Little House” novels are literary treasures. I still have the full collection in my house. But Association for Library Service to Children (ALSC) recently decided to remove the name of Laura Ingalls Wilder from its lifetime achievement award for children’s authors, because one of the books says, in so many words, “Ma hated Indians.” And Pa once wore blackface to entertain the children.
I have often written about my high regard for Indians. But, Ma hated them. There it is. Wilder explains why Ma hated Indians. I am not going to downgrade Wilder’s contribution to children’s literature because she chronicled that her mother hated Indians. It was an indispensable part of the story. Wilder doesn’t condemn her mother for it, because Wilder at least saw her mother’s viewpoint. Reading that Ma hated Indians, when I was seven, did not change my attitude toward them.
• When I read Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, at age eight, and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn a couple of years later, I was aware that certain words used in the book were socially unacceptable in modern America. Nobody had to tell me that slavery was wrong. I did not go out a-slaving because I read those books. Jim, the runaway slave, noses out Mary Jane Wilks as the noblest character in Huckleberry Finn. The book is anti-slavery, anti-racist. In Tom Sawyer, Tom asserts that black folks are smarter than whites in some ways. But these books are supposedly dangerous to children because they contain The Word.
My bottom line: I wish adults would apply as critical an eye to children’s fiction as their children do.
Betty Miles, a writer whose books for children and young adults addressed real-life issues like sexism, racism and censorship after she had thrown off the conventions of the 1950s to become a feminist, died on July 19 at her home in Shelburne, Vt. She was 90.
Her death was confirmed by her daughter Ellen Miles.
In many of her more than two dozen books, Ms. Miles aimed to entertain young people while also helping them navigate the complex realities of society.
“In my books I want to present characters who can serve as models — not because they are exceptionally brave or righteous, but precisely because they are ordinary kids dealing with everyday worries and embarrassments,” she wrote in the autobiography series “Something About the Author.”
Her protagonists often stood up to prejudice or narrow-mindedness, even when they were initially reluctant to do so.
Ms. Miles wrote that in the 1950s she had struggled at first with her desire to write, feeling “both presumptuous and guilty for attempting to be anything more than the good homemaker I was supposed to be.”
“I felt a kind of private shame for doing work I wasn’t supposed to be doing — and for not doing it well enough — while my energy was drained by the endless adjustments and arrangements of making time to do it at all,” she continued.
In time Ms. Miles overcame her conflicted feelings and became an ardent feminist. She later joined a group called Feminists on Children’s Media that pointed out sexist depictions of girls and boys in children’s literature.
She began publishing picture books in 1958 and produced her first novel, “The Real Me,” in 1974. It stemmed from her frustration at pervasive sexism. The book’s heroine, a teenager named Barbara Fisher, takes a stand after she is denied a newspaper route, barred from her school’s tennis team because she is a girl and forced to take instead a gym class called Slimnastics.
“Suddenly I began to notice how many things were unfair to girls, and how angry people got if you complained about it,” Barbara thinks to herself in one passage.