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NWSA Journal 15.1 (2003) 169-172

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Good Girl Messages: How Young Women Were Misled by Their Favorite Books by Deborah O'Keefe. New York: Continuum International, 2000, 212 pp., $26.95 hardcover.
Declarations of Independence: Empowered Girls in Young Adult Literature, 1990-2001 by Joanne Brown and Nancy St. Clair. Lanham, MD: The Scarecrow Press, 2002, 193 pp., $32.50 hardcover.

Though quick to note the ideological intent of most adult fiction, mature readers tend not to think about the ideologies informing most books for young people. In fact, many adults purchase books for the young people in their lives based solely on nostalgic familiarity. Peruse the children and young adult section of your nearest bookstore and you will find a wealth of time-honored classics stacked with or near the endless rows of more contemporary choices. The status of texts like Anne of Green Gables, Ivanhoe, Little Women, and The Secret Garden does not appear to have eroded over the years. Be it fond remembrance, a determination to pass along books perceived as "good literature," or an attempt to preserve particular traditions, it is assumed by many adults that the books which linger so affectionately in the shadowy memories of their own youth should be passed on to new generations under the mistaken belief that they are benign and, perhaps, even virtuous. Here are three authors who would strongly disagree.

While authors of two very different texts, O'Keefe and Brown and St. Clair do share a desire to question the images of young women as portrayed in much of the classic literature. All three authors concern themselves with issues of power and identity that gloss the pages of reading material marketed to youth, and they ask adult readers to question the heavy-handed way gender roles are manipulated and determined in texts that youth read. Good Girl Messages and Declarations of Independence compliment each other in that O'Keefe deftly outlines how traditional fiction for girls encourages them to be suffering, passive, bystanders of life, while Brown and St. Clair offer up new texts that dismantle such stereotypes. Determined to break the "Reader, I married him" paradigm, all three writers make a compelling argument for the psychological and societal dangers generated when young women (and men) read only texts portraying women as "pale and pious heroines" while espousing notions that only men are powerful and fearless adventurers (O'Keefe 15).

None of the authors is blind to the paradoxes found in several of the traditional texts they examine. For sure, Jo in Little Women has enlightened moments when she insists there must be more to life for women than marriage, yet, in the end, wed she does. Angie of Maureen Daly's 1940s classic [End Page 169] Seventeenth Summer is unable to come out from under the cultural roles imposed on her, but does seem to vaguely understand that ultimately she is the one who must make the hard decisions about her own life. A case may even be made for the mystery series character, Nancy Drew, adventurous while keeping her feminine sensibilities intact, though as O'Keefe points out, Nancy is all about plot with little development of character (116). Despite the brief moments when these young women are allowed into the light, there are additional pages of obedience, self-doubt, and helplessness that besiege them, and that, contend all three authors, is what damages women in sometimes irreparable ways.

O'Keefe focuses her critique on books written mostly before the 1950s. In a somewhat self-reflective style, she notes how the static, withdrawn, literary dolls of her own youth affected who she became as an adult. She notes that these texts were either American or British and, because of when they were written, contained very few characters that were not white and middle class. Beyond the introductory chapter, O'Keefe divides her book into chapters that are mostly defined by girls in various relationships. There is one chapter...


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