One-Minute Book Reviews

March 10, 2007

Do Christian Themes Kill Your Chances of Winning a Newbery Medal? Laura Amy Schlitz’s ‘A Drowned Maiden’s Hair’

A gripping neo-Gothic novel snubbed by the American Library Association

A Drowned Maiden’s Hair: A Melodrama. By Laura Amy Schlitz. Candlewick, 389 pp., $15.99. Ages 10 & up. [See further discussion of these ages below.]

By Janice Harayda

Do Christian themes kill your chances of winning top honors from American Library Association? You might think so after reading two also-rans for the 2007 Newbery Medal for the “most distinguished” work of children’s literature, Kate DiCamillo’s The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane and Laura Amy Schlitz’s A Drowned Maiden’s Hair.

The winner, The Higher Power of Lucky, has many virtues discussed in a Feb. 19 review on this site, particularly its vibrant descriptions of the Mojave Desert and engaging illustrations by Matt Phelan. But Susan Patron’s underdeveloped plot helps to make her novel at best a B/B-minus book.

DiCamillo’s Christian allegory, The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane, doesn’t have that problem. Neither does A Drowned Maiden’s Hair, a gripping neo-Gothic first novel that has more complex themes and shows a stronger command of language and storytelling than the winner.

Then why did Schitz’s novel get shut out of the medals? Consider the plot: In 1909 a high-spirited 11-year-old named Maud Flynn rejoices when she learns she is to be adopted by a trio of unmarried sisters who promise her treats like “ready-made dresses” and bacon instead the gritty oatmeal served at the Barbary Asylum for Orphans.

But Maud grows uneasy when she learns that the women are fake spiritualists who expect her to take part in séances intended to con the rich widow Eleanor Lambert into thinking that she’s hearing from her dead daughter. A sister named Hyacinth tells Maud: “Any minister worth his salt would tell her she would see her daughter in heaven. But Eleanor Lambert doesn’t want to see her daughter in heaven. She wants her now.” Hyacinth adds that Mrs. Lambert “wants to resurrect the dead – which is impossible.”

Anyone who has read The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane may see a theme emerging: While DiCamillo’s novel implicitly affirms the possibility of resurrection, Schlitz’s explicitly denies it. And A Drowned Maiden’s Hair goes further by casting the superintendent of the Barbary Asylum as a religious hypocrite who treats children cruelly while displaying a picture of Jesus and the words: “Suffer the Little Children to Come Unto Me.” The ALA might have snubbed DiCamillo’s novel for fear of appearing to promote Christianity (although many librarians have no trouble recommending The Chronicles of Narnia, also regarded as a Chrisitan allegory). But Schlitz doesn’t promote it. Has even a historically appropriate mention of religious hypocrisy become taboo? Must authors shun any mention of Christianity to win an ALA award? Books about other faiths don’t seem to face the same obstacles. A Caldecott Honor citation went in 2006 to Zen Shorts, a picture book about Buddhism.

A Drowned Maiden’s Hair isn’t flawless. From a literary standpoint, Schlitz makes two big mistakes. Children may not notice one because the story is so suspenseful: Schlitz tells her story from Maud’s point of view but sometimes credits her heroine with ideas that are unrealistic for her. At the orphanage Maud led a life so sheltered that she can’t remember ever having gone outside at night. But she soon encourages one of her new caretakers to wear her hair in a pompadour because it’s “stylish.” How would she know? Maud also reflects that the books at the orphanage were “mostly moral tales.” This is an accurate but adult characterization of what she would have been reading. The problem becomes clear when you compare A Drowned Maiden’s Hair with another novel about a distant era, Little House on the Prairie, which works so beautifully, in part, because Laura Ingalls Wilder never makes such slips: She tells you only what Laura, her young heroine, would have seen or thought. Children love the book partly because they understand – even if they can’t express it — that it shows the world from their point of view.

The second mistake Schlitz makes is that she has Maud’s older brother, Samm’l, adopted by other parents, appear early in the book and promise to send for her after he gets his own farm, though Maud never sees or hears from him again after that. Parents, I ask you: If you promise your child something like this, will your child forget it? No, and the readers of this book aren’t going to forget it, either. Schlitz seems to have inserted a scene involving the brother either because she wanted to add background about Maud without larding the novel with exposition or because she is setting up a sequel. Either way, it’s a cheat.

None of this spoils the pleasure of reading the novel. Schlitz has spent much of her life working as a professional storyteller. And as befits that background, she grabs your attention with a terrific beginning and sustains a level of suspense as high as you are likely to find in any children’s novel of 2006. And A Drowned Maiden’s Hair does more than tell a captivating story. It asks children to consider large questions such as: What does it mean to be “good”? To what degree are you responsible for your own actions if adults require you to act a certain way? Can material comforts – like pretty clothes and ice-cream sodas – bring happiness? And, yes, is there life after death?

“People throw the word ‘classic’ about rather a lot,” Megan Cox Gordon wrote in the Wall Street Journal, ‘but A Drowned Maiden’s Hair genuinely deserves to become one.” Fortunately, when librarians have snubbed worthy books, such as Tuck Everlasting, children usually have the last word.

Best line: The first: “On the morning of the best day of her life, Maud Flynn was in the outhouse, singing ‘The Battle Hymn of the Republic.’”

Worst line: Maud’s comment: “Pompadours are stylish. And a pompadour would make your face look taller.”

Age level: The moral questions raised by this novel justify the “ages 10 and up” recommendation from the publisher. But the story would fascinate many younger children, too (and has no sex or “bad words” that would rule it out in some homes). One way to think of A Drowned Maiden’s Hair is that it’s a good book for children who loved the period details of “Little House” series (typically recommended for ages 6–9) but recently have outgrown it and are ready for a story that is more challenging.

Published: October 2006

Furthermore: Schlitz also wrote the biography The Hero Schliemann: The Dreamer Who Dug for Troy (Candlewick, 2006, ages 9-12), illustrated by Robert Byrd. [Note: I haven’t read The Hero Schliemann. Can any parents, teachers, or librarians comment on the book for visitors who might like to know more about Schlitz’s work? Jan]

Links: www.candlewick.com

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

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