Reading Old Favorites in a Changing World

By Fern Hallman, M.Ln.

Who doesn’t love Judy Blume? In this 50th anniversary year of “Are You There, God? It’s me, Margaret.” the beloved author was apparently living her best life in Key West before the pandemic, tap dancing in bars and pedaling her bike to the bookstore that she operates. And how about since COVID? “The New York Times” has put together a clever piece that reimagines the works of famous authors during the lockdown. This one could be Blume’s new pandemic-related title.

Source: “The New York Times”

It’s said, right here in “The New York Times,” that Judy Blume knows all your secrets. She certainly knew mine, especially my personal conflicts concerning religion. I was confused about what I learned at the super-religious Jewish Day School I attended and more confused when my mom took us to McDonald’s for super un-kosher cheeseburgers and milkshakes on the way to Brownies at the First Presbyterian Church. But even weirder, how did Blume know about my mother’s inability to choose furniture for the living room? And how could she so aptly describe the overwhelming combination of embarrassment, apprehension, and excitement girls experienced when we were shown “the movie” about becoming a woman?

Rereading ”Are You There, God?” all these years later, I give it five stars for nostalgia, and two to three stars for relevance. But what do I know? Turns out there may be a movie adaptation on the way, produced by nostalgic director James Brooks.

By the time my niece and cousin were young teens, waiting to wear a bra or worrying if the straps were showing was no longer a thing. The books that spoke to them at that age were more in the realm of “The Hunger Games” and “Harry Potter.” Today’s teens are more likely to relate to grittier books, such as “The Hate U Give,” by Angie Thomas. This book tells the story of a girl who sees her best friend being shot and killed by police. It doesn’t reflect my experience, but it’s relatable for many who are experiencing this kind of thing now.

Many recent YA titles attempt to address the spectrum of modern teenage issues such as mental health, body issues, racial disparity, sexuality, and the immigrant experience. There have been many attempts to ban titles that portray realistic issues such as drug use, profanity, and rape. Judy Blume’s “Forever” was questioned for mentioning masturbation and birth control. Despite the concern they may cause, these books are critical to helping teens see themselves through fiction and make sense of difficult experiences.

In this day and age of “cancel culture,” some books and series that were once beloved are being examined in a new way.  A few years ago, after long and agonizing debate, the American Library Association changed the name of a prestigious award due to new thinking about beloved author Laura Ingalls Wilder. And one of my favorite authors, Sherman Alexie, is no longer considered a role model by many.

There have been several recent nonfiction books that examine our relationship with and nostalgia for certain well-known books and authors. These books (and hundreds of articles) illuminate the idea that context is important, and that values and our feelings about issues evolve over time. Seemingly innocuous Junie B. Jones has been challenged for encouraging disrespectful behavior, poor grammar, and the inclusion of a same-sex couple. Was she a nightmare child or a feminist icon? Dr. Seuss was probably insensitive to other races and cultures. Does that make some of the most popular children’s books in history inappropriate? Was Huckleberry Finn a racist, or was the author one?  These are all good questions. Does exposure to stereotypes in literature perpetuate prejudice? Many say that’s true, and others say it’s just political correctness. Here’s a list of titles from New York Public Library that addresses adult books critical of children’s favorites.

OK class, here are your assignments:

Reread your old favorites in a new light and decide for yourself whether they still speak to you. Maybe reading them again will reveal new aspects that you didn’t notice before.

When recommending books to patrons, it’s still OK to suggest oldies that stand the test of time and deal with universal themes. The books that were most important to you years ago remain valuable and relatable for current and future generations, but they will likely be interpreted and enjoyed in ways that never occurred to you.

Finally, a good librarian remains a great resource who can steer readers to past, present, and future books that will make them think, laugh, or cry. Maybe all three.

Fern has worked for Brodart as a Collection Development Librarian since 1990. She also did a stint as a reference librarian in the CNN newsroom and is married to a newspaper librarian. Click here for more.

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