Sunday, July 24, 2016

Reading Through History: The Wonderful Year by Nancy Barnes (1946)

Ellen's father has been ill recently, and the doctor has recommended some time away to regain his strength and mental health. Therefore, Ellen and her parents move west from Kansas to Colorado to start a ranch. Ellen has many wonderful and new experiences: sleeping in a tent while the house is being built, learning to ride a bicycle, getting lost in unfamiliar territory, and most important of all, developing a friendship with a much-older neighbor boy named Ronnie who happily humors Ellen's youthfulness and treats her as a pal and an equal. Through the day-to-day trials of planting and growing fruit and laying down roots in a new place, Ellen's entire family changes for the better and they finish their wonderful year with a fresh new outlook on life.

For any contemporary reader, the one element of this book that will immediately stand out is the friendship between Ellen and Ronnie. Our culture is so conditioned to believe that males are predators that the thought of an eleven-year-old girl palling around with a teenage boy instantly makes us uncomfortable, even when there is nothing in the text to suggest inappropriateness. Personally, I'm glad to see a purely platonic and fully wholesome relationship like this in a children's book. It's becoming more and more difficult to find books for tweens that don't incorporate crushes and romance in some way, so those of us who wish to avoid introducing a lot of those themes to our children have to seek out these older gems that take a more age-appropriate and innocent approach to boy-girl friendships. There truly isn't anything strange about Ronnie's connection to Ellen, and unless someone teaches them to read too much into it, kids won't think anything of it at all.

The other issue many reviewers seem to comment on is sexism. There is a lot in this book about rigidly defined gender roles. Ellen constantly thinks about the behaviors she needs to exhibit to be a worthy companion to Ronnie, and he comments now and then on how beautiful she will be someday. I tend to take these things with a grain of salt, especially with books like this one that were written in the 1940s and set even before that, and I think, as is mentioned in the review of this book from Semicolon, these old-fashioned ideals make great conversation starters for discussing the book with kids.

I enjoyed The Wonderful Year very much. It is similar in style to the Betsy-Tacy books, and in subject matter to books like Miracles on Maple Hill, Strawberry Girl, and The Open Gate. I look forward to sharing it with my girls when they reach the target age range.

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