Judy Blume’s Blubber (1974)
Jean Little’s One to Grow On (1969)
Sheila Greenwald’s It All Began with Jane Eyre (1980)
Louise Fitzhugh’s Harriet the Spy (1964)

Previous shelf-discovery posts I’ve made have focussed on historical fiction (here, here and here) and post-apocalyptic fiction, mysteries (here) and fantasies, but the majority of my childhood reading was rooted in family and school dramas, like Judy Blume’s novels, and, later, romances, like L.M. Montgomery’s The Blue Castle.

Because the library collections that I relied most heavily upon were in small towns and villages, and their collections were not very well funded, it wasn’t unusual for books from the ’50s to appear on the New Table; I read a lot of Thornton W. Burgess animal stories, and heaps of Freddie the Pig and Beverley Cleary. Don’t get me wrong: I loved them. But I do think I had rather old-fashioned taste for a kid reader.

Fortunately, though, my parents both read a lot and even when my mother was struggling to keep food on the table, she squeaked out a few dollars to help my bookshelves swell. (Quite likely where I began to hone the skill of stealing from the grocery budget to buy books.) So I had copies of many of my favourite, more contemporary, reads close at hand.

Without a doubt, I would have declared that Judy Blume was one of my favourite writers and Blubber (1974) is the most battered of her books. Those of hers that received the least attention were the ones about ::whispers:: boys (Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing and Superfudge) and I never even wanted to own them.

I wanted my main characters to be able to choose not to wear a skirt. Something, indeed, that was still an issue as a lot of the books I was reading still operated under the premise that a real woman would never wear slacks. In Samantha’s Secret Room, Sam causes a fuss by wanting to wear pants when she goes on a class boat trip, whereas her grandmother sees this as shameful. (Ironically, Sam is so ashamed by the fuss she kicks up about not being ashamed to wear slacks in public that she ends up missing the trip anyhow.)

Bullying remains an issue in schools today and Blubber‘s look at it is not After-School-Special-ish; the situations are still relevant, the dialogue realistic and the characters behave credibly. Adult characters run the gamut of being engaged to being disinterested, but they operate on the margins and the bulk of the story resides with the kids.

The majority of the book is written in scenes, which offers an immediacy, to which I responded eagerly as a child and adult reader, but the novel does offer a glimpse into Jill’s consciousness so that we can see her reflect on the choices she’s making. (Like the adult characters, sometimes the decisions young people make in this book are carefully thought through and valid; other times the reasoning only goes so far and emotions hold sway, so that characters of all ages find themselves short of ideal behaviour.)

The characters in Jean Little’s One to Grow On (1969) behave more predictably. But, of course that wasn’t a problem for me and, even in this relatively traditional tale there was an attempt to have Janie be the daring and disobedient daughter (who refuses to go to Sunday School, but of course she does go). Janie will do anything she can to please and gain approval, even if it involves telling outright lies that she hopes to set right before she’s caught in them, and “good girls everywhere” still struggle with that one. I think more sheltered readers will still find something to relate to in this simple story of a girl growing into her young self but it definitely has a rather old-fashioned feel to it.

This is evident, too, in the list of books that Janie’s godmother has available to her: “Eleanor Estes’ The Moffats, Rosemary Sutcliff’s Warrior Scarlet, Mary Stolz’s The Noon Day Friends, Mabel Robinson’s Bright Island, Frances Hodgson Burnett’s A Little Princess, Rumor Godden’s Miss Happiness and Miss Flower, T. S. Eliot’s Book of Practical Cats, and The Oxford Book of Poetry for Children. There were others she did not. She hugged herself, anticipating the fun before her.” (108-9)

In another instance of When Reading Connects, Jill refers, in Blubber, to Harriet in Louise Fitzhugh’s Harriet the Spy (1964). It’s interesting that, even only ten years later, Blume had recognized the monumental importance of the realism with which Fitzhugh injected her novel. It certainly changed the landscape of children’s writing, although I didn’t recognize that at the time.

Harriet, to date, has been the most surprising re-read for my Shelf Discovery reading. Of course I remember enjoying this book and I played Harriet the Spy a *lot* growing up. But I was quite surprised by the complexity of the story and the characterization and the variety of relational dynamics explored in the novel. I remember not being as fond of The Long Secret at the time and I wonder if that’s because, as Harriet aged in the sequel, the story matured beyond me. I definitely missed a lot of it, even though I did re-read it, fairly regularly, as a child.

There are also similarities to Harriet in Sheila Greenwald’s It All Began with Jane Eyre (1980).  Franny writes in her journal: “I will make it my business to unearth the events that must be quietly erupting in my family…. I will unearth them, explode them, observe them, and record them. I will go at least two steps further than any girl I’ve read about lately.” (20) How Harriet of her.

I bought this slim volume through the school’s bookclub long before a copy of the Bronte novel graced my shelves. I thought it was the height of romance to read in the closet with a flashlight which shows how much of the real Jane Eyre I absorbed through this seeming tribute novel. I don’t even think I registered the names of Thornfield Hall or Netherfield (Franny read Pride and Prejudice too), but I did relate to Franny’s bookishness.

“She didn’t ‘glue’ herself to pages. She didn’t read to get stuck. She read to live, to love, to feel. She had been Jane Eyre.” (10) For Franny, the line between real in fiction and real in life is unclear. “She had never had a thing about anybody her own age. Mr. Rochester, Mr. Crawford, Mr. Fitzwilliam Darcy in Pride and Prejudice, Mr. Traxell the pharmacist; but Alan Nungazer? She lost her appetite.” (72) I was in my teens before I read the Brontes and Austen; I definitely learned more about losing my appetite over a boy from Sheila Greenwald and Franny.

In short, my childhood reading was largely relational, from school bullying to best friends, also including — more often than not — the characters’ relationship with reading. More about reading relationally next Saturday as my Shelf Discovery Challenge reading continues.