- Reading and Writing Girls: New Contributions to Feminist Scholarship on Children’s and Young Adult Literature by Women
Feminist critics have long been concerned with the influence that literature has upon young female readers. In 1792, Mary Wollstonecraft, in A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, suggested a remedy for the corruptions of sentimental literature:
The best method, I believe, that can be adopted to correct a fondness for novels is to ridicule them: not indiscriminately, for then it would have little effect; but, if a judicious person, with some turn for humour, would read several to a young girl, and point out both by tones, and apt comparisons with pathetic incidents and heroic characters in history, how foolishly and ridiculously they caricatured human nature, just opinions might be substituted instead of romantic sentiments.1
It would be some time before Simone de Beauvoir in Le Deuxième Sexe (1949; The Second Sex, 1952) and Betty Friedan in The Feminine Mystique (1963) took up Wollstonecraft’s suggestion, critiquing literature for its role in perpetuating female subordination. This review essay examines the ways in which four recent works of feminist criticism of children’s and young [End Page 463] adult literature are animated by this concern and by the interest in finding texts that offer alternative constructions of gender. The scholarship discussed here represents valuable, new contributions to existing bodies of research. Beverly Lyon Clark’s fascinating The Afterlife of “Little Women” traces the reception of this ur-text in the field, showing the rise and fall of the novel’s reputation and its revaluation by feminist critics in the 1970s— part of a broader project of reclamation of women writers as represented by the scholarship of Nina Auerbach, Mitzi Myers, and other pioneers in the field.2 Emily Hamilton-Honey’s Turning the Pages of American Girlhood: The Evolution of Girls’ Series Fiction, 1865–1930 also usefully adds to a rich vein of scholarship focusing on girls’ series books, the analysis of which has been critically important in understanding how femininity has been represented in texts that, while they may not be highly regarded critically, have been widely read. Similarly, Sara K. Day’s Reading Like a Girl: Narrative Intimacy in Contemporary American Young Adult Literature focuses on popular contemporary novels for girls. Her work draws on reader-response theory, which rejects New Critical insistence that static meaning inheres in the text and seeks to account for the role of the reader in interpretation. Day’s innovative scholarship combines two versions of reader-response as she analyzes both the ways that the novels she reads construct ideal readers and the ways in which readers take up and resist those constructions. The final text discussed in this essay, Henrietta Rix Wood’s Praising Girls: The Rhetoric of Young Women 1895–1930, is quite different from the others. Indeed, it might be seen as outside this review’s scope, as it is not about children’s literature at all but instead about the rhetoric of young women’s writing; however, the field of children’s literature has long been interdisciplinary. The book overlaps both with girls’ and children’s studies, and like these fields, it is concerned with the agency of those who are often denied it. Moreover, Wood’s study extends into areas—particularly those of race and class—that the others do not and provides some meticulously researched examples of how the study of the culture of girls can be expanded into areas hitherto virtually unexplored.