Elementary and secondary school librarians are truly awesome people. They don’t get nearly enough credit for what they do, primarily because they tend to play a more behind-the-scenes role. What they have the power to do, basically, is awaken young minds to the joys of literature–to make selections based on careful judgment of a student’s abilities and interests, selections that can really determine any child’s early attitude toward literature. I don’t want to diminish the role that parents play in all this–my own mother and father read to me regularly, and made sure that I had a healthy supply of challenging books at my disposal–but my lifelong love of books owes a lot to librarians.
The one I remember most vividly is the Casis Elementary School librarian, Ms. Moltz (doing a bit of homework I learn that her first name was Judy, but of course, like all children at Casis, I only ever knew her by her last name). She had an eternally calm and soothing voice, probably not the easiest thing to pull off when you’re dealing with hyperactive eight-year-olds all day. She judged the annual spelling bee, and though it broke my heart when she eliminated me (the word in question was “attractive”), somehow it was less painful coming from her. When she read books aloud every child was mesmerized. She helped organize the annual RIF (Reading is Fundamental) event, where every child in school had a chance to choose a free, brand-new book from a long table in the school cafeteria. Maybe it was an early sign of my geekiness, but RIF day was my favorite day of the year.
Most importantly, though, Ms. Moltz somehow knew exactly which books to give me. She was the one who introduced me to Judy Blume, to Maggie Marmelstein, to Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of Nimh, to Scott O’Dell, and to Beverly Cleary, whose stories of awkward children and adolescents dealing with everyday problems made a truly voracious reader out of me. Beezus, Ramona, Jean, Johnny, Mitch, Amy, Otis, Ellen–these were kids that anybody could relate to.
Which brings me, in a somewhat roundabout way, to the second subject of this post–the very sad practice of ”prettifying” beloved child characters, particularly female characters. Mary over at Feministing has an excellent post on the subject. Looking at one of the original Beezus and Ramona covers and the poster for the upcoming film, the differences are obvious: the book’s characters are real girls, while the girls in the poster look like fashion models. Mary writes:
“…when I think about Ramona, I think about her overworked parents who struggled with money, her house in Klikitat street in the rainy Pacific Northwest, her so familiar hatred of staying with the babysitter or at another kid’s house because of aforesaid working parents, and Beezus feeling horribly awkward and embarrassed about everything. This shiny, allergy-fighting pharmaceutical commercial-esque sunniness and Gomez’ airbrushed face seem to have no relation to the original characters.”
I don’t think there’s any point in a “the book’s always so much better than the movie” rant, or even a “stop murdering my favorite childhood characters with bad movies” rant, but what’s going on here actually feels a lot more insidious. Producers who cast Selena Gomez as the eternally awkward and embarrassed Beezus aren’t just taking creative license, they’re sending a message that less-than-perfect has no place in the world of young adult cinema. I have nothing against Selena Gomez herself, but they could at least give her face a less airbrushed look, or make her hair a little scraggly, maybe put her in clothes that look like hand-me-downs. They don’t have to glam her up so much, turning a character beloved for her awkwardness into an image that so few young girls can relate to.
Music, TV, and film are currently dominated by female ”role models” like Miley Cyrus, Paris Hilton, Britney Spears, Selena Gomez, and Vanessa Hudgens–all of whom, fictionally or in reality, have no pimples, perfect bodies, perfect hair, and ridiculous amounts of cash. Is it really so much to ask that cinematic adaptations of books with strong female characters embrace a little awkwardness and relatability? In a sea of frequently shallow, vapid, and over-sexualized female characters and celebrities, can’t we have just a few who wear ill-fitting clothes, have crooked teeth, and have to save their allowance every week just so they can buy a book? Lyra of The Golden Compass is described as a “wild child” who runs around in torn clothes and refuses to bathe–in the movie, of course, she looks like she just stepped out of a couture catalog. The producers of the Harry Potter films initially got bushy-haired, buck-toothed Hermione Granger right–but even she seems to have been glamorized in the most recent films. I’m racking my brain and am having trouble remembering a single female character translated to screen in recent years who didn’t look like a Noxzema model.
To potential casting directors, producers, and screenplay adaptors: please let these girls be awkward. Let them have skinned knees and freckles. Let them wear overalls instead of dresses. Above all, let them give hope and a sense of belonging to the huge number of girls out there who don’t fit the impossibly thin, smooth-skinned, gender-normative image that major production companies continue to sell.