Sunday, September 25, 2005

Girly books and leisured moms

Badger wrote a great post at Othermag about "bad," nasty, irreverent girl characters that's been making me think about girly books.

RW and I have been reading lots of girly chapter books to Mermaid Girl in the past year or so. None with the kind of subversive heroines Badger's talking about, though. We were reading the Betsy-Tacy books for a while this summer, and we were all into them, but they started to wear when Betsy hit high school and got all boy-crazy and the books got to be 300 pages long. RW and I were exhausted just reading a chapter a night.

So we've switched to the All-of-a-Kind Family series. Shorter, less teenage-y, and the chapters are just right for a bedtime story while brushing MG's hair. Our girl is fascinated by the family of 5 girls each two years apart, recognizes a lot of the Jewish customs, and likes hearing about all the long-ago (turn-of-the-last-century) stuff.

I'm fascinated too. It's been at least twenty years since I last read the books, and this time around I got curious about the author, Sydney Taylor, who modeled the series on her own family and the middle girl, Sarah, on herself as a child. Aha! I thought. Maybe I can write a children's biography of her! The books have been in print for 50 years, there must be some interest. And a biography has the sort of pre-set structure that even an indecisive and distractible writer like me (or "like I", I guess, but that sounds dumb) can deal with.

Being a librarian, I tried the super-sophisticated (not) research method of Googling "Sydney Taylor," and got tons of hits on the Sydney Taylor Book Award given each year for a children's book with Jewish content, but nothing on the woman herself.

When I poked around in some databases through the public library, I did find a few articles (can't link to them here b/c they're subscription, but if your library has the Gale Biography
Resource you can find them there). The good news is that Sydney Taylor sounds like she was a genuinely cool person. Aside from writing the series based on her childhood, she worked in theater and was a socialist and basically lived the kind of long, interesting life that would be fun to write about.

The bad news--for me, anyway--is that someone else, June Cummins, a big kidlit person, is already doing it. Her biography of Taylor, the first one ever, should be out in the next year or so.

Yup. That's me, one step behind the zeitgeist. I'll be first in line to read it, though.

The other thing that fascinates me about the books is the amount of free time the mom of the family appears to have, considering that she was a working-poor immigrant (the dad has a junk store and there are many references to the scarcity of money) with five kids ages 4 to 12, living on the Lower East Side of New York before the invention of time-saving conveniences like washer-dryers and Trader Joe's.

There are little references in the books like, "Bedtime came early for Mama's meant that Mama could have a few quiet hours for reading or knitting or even just chatting with Papa without being disturbed by her little ones." Not to whine, and I know we have lots of other things that the books' characters (not to mention many people now) don't have, but when RW and I stay up after MG's in bed, we're either cleaning the kitchen, making lunch, and/or folding laundry. We do indulge in the occasional weeknight DVD binge, but we're always wiped out the next morning. If we have to talk a lot about logistics, that cuts into our sleep time too.

Or this one, that made both of us laugh ruefully when I read it aloud: "After the lunch dishes had been washed, Mama had a few leisure hours, and unless it was raining, she and Gertie [the 4-year-old, the only child not yet in school] would go out together for a walk." A few leisure hours every afternoon! And then a few more when the five girls are in bed! It makes immigrant poverty on the Lower East Side sound pretty darned good to us.

Of course, I have to consider:
  • The girls are 4, 6, 8, 10, and 12 in the first book, so this is probably the first time in 12 years that Mama's had nobody in diapers and only one child at home during the day. The previous eleven years wouldn't have been so restful.
  • The book is autobiographical fiction written from the point of view of the middle daughter, who when you get right down to it had no idea what her mom did while she was at school or in bed. In real life, the mom might well have been scrubbing laundry for hours most afternoons while Gertie did her best to amuse herself, and darning clothes late into the night.
  • Also, it is fiction. It might be that actually the mom was doing piecework at home to supplement the family income, and Taylor just left that part out to make it rosier.
  • [Spoiler alert]: Since the girls get a new baby brother in the last chapter, we can gather that, unbeknownst to them (or the reader), Mama is pregnant for most of the book. So it makes sense that she might need to take it easy.
  • Though the family doesn't have much money, they must have been doing better than most: they have two bedrooms and a front room, as well as a small yard. If you ever get a chance to visit the Lower East Side Tenement Museum either in person or via their fantastic online virtual tour, you can see what conditions were like for most immigrants in the neighborhood at that time. Not so good, to say the least.
Still, based on the articles I found, Taylor had genuinely fond memories of her childhood, so even allowing for fictionalization it couldn't have been all drudgery and artificial flowers on the kitchen table. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn has a similar setting (though Brooklyn Irish rather than Lower East Side Jewish), and is far grimmer.

If we keep on at this rate, the series will see us into the winter, so I'll have plenty more chances to ponder the mystery of Mama's free time.


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