NPR's "Morning Edition" ran a segment this morning on what a groundbreaking work of young adult fiction Harriet the Spy was when it debuted in 1964. According to NPR correspondent Neva Grant, heroine Harriet M. Welsch was considered controversial because "Harriet saw too much, said too much. She even had to see a psychiatrist." Some schools banned the book, explains Grant, and some critics hated it, but readers, especially those who felt that they were outside the mainstream, appreciated that Harriet loved herself, disheveled hair and all. (You can get some more Harriet love in last Friday's Fine Lines column). Readers like Kathleen Horning, now a librarian in Wisconsin, liked the fact that Harriet was a tomboy who, unlike many 50s and 60s heroines, didn't have to go through a girlified redemption by the end of the book. In fact, as Grant reports, like Harriet, Horning was a "tomboy who didn't want to reform." Later on, Horning realized she was a lesbian.
"We felt like outsiders," said Horning, but "[Harriet taught us] we could be ourselves and survive." That message was an important one to young readers, and parenting blog Babble points out that Harriet paved the way for "beloved, fiesty girls" like Ramona Quimby, Eloise, Olivia, and Junie B. Jones. (But don't call them "tomboys." Apparently that term has term has been proclaimed sexist by a professor at Sarah Lawrence). The thing is, Babble writer Hannah Tennant-Moore then claims that "There remain few correspondingly gender-bending role models for boys. While it's become much more acceptable for girls to do traditionally masculine activities like play sports and crack smart aleck jokes, it remains largely taboo for young boys to play house, dress up, or quietly play with dolls."
I have to disagree with her. What about all the Roald Dahl heroes? I don't remember Charlie Bucket as a stereotypically wise-cracking main character. He loved his grandparents, wanted to help his mother, and was almost painfully earnest. What about James and his Giant Peach? Can you think of any other "gender bending" male young adult mainstays?
Earlier: The Long Secret: CSI: Puberty