For girls only

With love and irritation, a professor remembers the books she grew up with -- and away from.


Laura Green
October 17, 1997 9:33PM (UTC)

When I was growing up, the children's room of the local public library
featured a bookcase whose peeling label identified its contents as "Especially
for Girls." Standing in an out-of-the-way corner, the bookcase expressed a
conception of femininity that now seems quaint, if not actually sinister. The
books, most of them written before 1960 -- before I was born -- were unlikely to
raise the consciousness of young girls or halt their self-esteem in its
predictable pubescent plunge. The girls in these books worried about getting a
date for the prom or a good manicure; problems involved inconvenient baby-sitting
responsibilities or boys who didn't call. The acme of ambition was wearing a
boy's pin, ring or ID bracelet. Career opportunities were represented by "Mary
Ellis, Student Nurse" and Noel Streatfield's "Ballet Shoes." No one on the
"Especially for Girls" shelf ever grew up to be president, or even Martina
Navratilova.

Yet, despite their attachment to gender conventions, their
obsession with romance, their relentless celebration of large nuclear families in
small idyllic towns, I -- a childless, lesbian urbanite -- remember those books
with love. They're like your childhood best friend who grew up to be a suburban,
Republican orthodontist: You may have nothing in common now, but you can't quite
forget that when you were 8, you pledged mutual devotion forever, in blood
from pricked fingers.

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I was an unathletic, dreamy bookworm in a cold New
England college town, and for a few pre-adolescent years around 1970, "Especially
for Girls" invited me into a soothing fantasy universe whose problems and rituals
were both similar to those in the real world (which mostly involved being chosen
last for volleyball or owning the wrong kind of jeans) and as mysterious as the
customs of an unknown tribe. "Beany Malone sat in front of her dressing table
with its yellow plaid skirt, which she had made herself, and extracted bobby pins
from tight little snails of hair," began "Make a Wish for Me" (1956), and I, a 10-year-old in a home furnished in equal parts bargain basement and Danish
modern, was immediately hooked by the unfamiliar. What exactly did a girl do at a
dressing table? How could a table have a skirt? I couldn't picture those "tight
little snails," either: Home permanents were not part of my cosmetic universe,
and when I did encounter bobby pins a few years later, it would be in a long and
losing attempt to straighten my own curls into the smooth, Vidal Sassoon fall of
the '70s.

Social life was equally mysterious: Jane Purdy, the heroine of
"Fifteen" (1956), was forever slipping into and out of the imitation-leather
booths of "Nibley's soda fountain"; she sometimes arrived in her boyfriend's car,
which, to her relief, was neither a "jalopy" nor a "hot rod." When I got to be
Jane's age, spending late afternoons hunched against the wind in the park across
from the junior high, smoking cigarettes with kids who would probably have been
kicked out of Nibley's, the nostalgia I felt for Jane's movie-and-a-coke dates
was so intense it was as if they were something not that I had read about once,
but that I had actually experienced and lost.

The girlishness of these heroines could certainly be sickening. "Fifteen," for example, is devoted to Jane's pursuit of a new boy in town named Stan. Inexperienced and insecure, Jane
works to become the kind of girl she thinks boys like: She resolves to read the
sports section, in case Stan cares about sports, and to look up the word
"carburetor" so that she can talk to him about his new car. She keeps her hands
folded in her lap at the movies so that Stan will not think she is "the kind of
girl who expected to have her hand held just because she was sitting in the dark
with a boy"; she pretends to familiarity with Chinese food (pretty exotic,
apparently, in 1956) and a taste for coffee.

Jane succeeds: "Fifteen"
concludes, "Smiling to herself, Jane turned and walked toward the house. She was
Stan's girl. That was all that really mattered." Reading this now, I think,
not by a long shot; I want to shake her and demand, "You must have hopes,
wishes, dreams other than Stan Crandall." Beany Malone and her friends in "Make a
Wish for Me," meanwhile, devoted endless consideration to the question of whether
making out on dates ruins a girl's reputation, concluding that "Men always feel
the need to look up to a woman. It's always been up to the girl to set the pace."
Not much room, apparently, for the question of what the girls themselves might
need or find pleasurable.

But dated and even dangerous as their morals may
seem, many of these books still circulate in the children's room of your local
library, and they still hold a place in my heart. Partly, this longevity
testifies to the fact that being a girl hasn't, in fact, changed as much
as we might think or hope it has since 1956. I sometimes want to shake some of my
young women students as much as I want to shake Jane Purdy -- they are no less,
and probably more, boy-crazy, sex-obsessed and self-doubting. But more
positively, despite
their devotion to the girl-meets-boy plot, these books offer
a narrative of self-discovery and familial support that I still find moving.
Jane, for example, who starts out believing that she "means well, but always
manages to do the wrong thing," develops the confidence to assert that "she would
be Jane Purdy and nobody else ... Maybe if she continued to be herself, Stan
would like her again. And if he didn't, there was nothing she could do about it."
(She is, of course, immediately rewarded with Stan's ID bracelet.)

In the Beany
Malone books, loving families and supportive friends routinely steal the stage
from Beany's unpredictable, on-and-off boyfriend. In "Make a Wish for Me," Beany
risks high-school popularity to befriend new-in-town bad-girl Dulcie, who
confesses emotionally, "You're the first girl that ever -- ever offered to give
me a hand." Beany's family rallies round when she gets stood up for the "Heart
Hop": Her brother ropes in the boy next door as her date; her sister gives her a
manicure and lends her a formal dress, her stepmother a fur cape. The world
outside might be cold -- the Malones, who lived somewhere in the Midwest, were
always driving through slush and snow -- but the family circle was warm and safe.

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It was also, of course, a limited and homogeneous circle: white, Christian,
middle class, suburban and weirdly matriarchal. Boys existed only as objects of
desire; men as largely offstage fathers. Class conflict made frequent appearances
-- girls from the "wrong side of the tracks," like Dulcie, caused our heroines a
lot of trouble -- but racial and religious diversity were non-existent.

The
first cracks in this smooth surface, appearing in the early 1960s, kept the
gender balance the same, merely supplying feistier heroines: Louise Fitzhugh's
notebook-wielding, determined "Harriet the Spy" (1964); E. L. Konigsburg's
Claudia, in "From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler" (1967), who
runs away to Manhattan with her little brother to live in the Metropolitan
Museum. Then the heat of the 1960s -- the Vietnam War, the sexual revolution,
Civil Rights, environmentalism -- began to make itself felt even through the
cool, whitewashed stone walls of the children's room. The protagonist of Nat
Hentoff's "I'm Really Dragged, But Nothing Gets Me Down" (1967) has to decide
whether to resist the Vietnam War draft. Paul Zindel, in "My Darling, My
Hamburger" (1969), considers teenage pregnancy and abortion from the point of view
of both the girl and the boy involved. The young African-American hero of
Virginia Hamilton's "M.C. Higgins, the Great" (1974) struggles to protect his
Ohio Hills home from the menace of strip mining. Suddenly, the boys, too, had
stories to tell, and authors willing to tell them; the heyday of the
girl-oriented "family story" was over.

Nobody knows exactly when the
"Especially for Girls" bookcase began or when it was dismantled. The librarian of
my childhood, long since retired, thinks it was the work of a librarian trying to
"create interest" in some slow-moving books: a Miss McHugh, her first name lost
to posterity, who worked at the library for 40 years. But I always think of
Judy Blume's notorious "Are You There, God? It's Me, Margaret" (1970), a girl
book itself, as spelling the real end of the fantasy world Miss McHugh's shelves
enshrined. Blume's characters expressed their worries about boys, bras and
menstruation in blunter, more direct language than Jane Purdy or Beany Malone
could have imagined. Short and to the point, Blume's books were the first
paperbacks I remember in the children's room: inexpensive to purchase, easy to
read.

Beverly Cleary and Lenora Mattingly Weber had brought their readers into a
safe, cozy world; Louise Fitzhugh and E. L. Konigsburg into a quirky, literary
one. "Are You There, God?" transported its reader nowhere; it was as though Blume
was speaking directly from the fifth-grade classrooms where her books passed
covertly (their candor causing teachers and parents unease) from girl to girl.
Blume evoked the very world from which I thought books were supposed to take you
away. Soon I fled to the main library, where for a while I lost myself in the
adult library's equivalent of "especially for girls" -- the gothic mysteries of
Victoria Holt and Phyllis Whitney -- before discovering the more respectable but
equally girl-filled world of Victorian fiction (where I have remained ever
since).

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I'm sometimes tempted to blame my childhood reading for encouraging
stereotypically feminine traits such as passivity, introversion and dependence.
Yet I remain mostly grateful to the mysterious Miss McHugh for introducing me to
the joys of fantasy, and for the belief that girls and books are meant for each
other.


Laura Green

Laura Green is an assistant professor of English at Yale University.

MORE FROM Laura Green



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