Girls play with dolls. Boys play with trucks. Girls are made from sugar and spice, and everything nice. Boys are made from snips and snails, and puppy-dogs' tails. Girls are the cornerstones of the home and boys are the breadwinners. Whether consciously or not, we absorb these stereotypes from the society around us and accept our limitations and gender roles. Fortunately, children’s literature pushes the envelope of conventional mores in Dobry by Monica Shannon, winner of the 1935 Newbery Medal and Caddie Woodlawn by Carol Ryrie Brink, winner of the 1936 Newbery Medal.
Dobry is set in a peasant village in Bulgaria (primarily known to me as home to Viktor Krum). Dobry is a young boy whose future is embedded in the farmland of his fathers. For his mother, Roda, their farmland represents generations of hard work and history that have cultivated life-giving crops. She cannot understand why Dobry would foolishly reject her wishes and the land he was raised on and put his heart and soul into becoming an artist. However, Dobry does not reject his birthplace, but makes it his muse to inspire his art. He captures the storks, cows, trees, snowdrifts, mountains, and people of his village in oils, charcoal, and clay. The conflict between Dobry and his mother is diffused by his storytelling grandfather who expresses the theme of the novel when he says to Roda “. . . people are not all the same, any more than the vegetables, fruits, trees, animals are all the same. . . Both have different needs . . . Dobry needs to draw, to paint, and Dobry is going to be a great man just as his father said he would be” (108). Using the folk wisdom of the Bulgarian people, Dobry’s grandfather is able to help Roda come to terms with the different path that Dobry has chosen, and eventually she gives her blessing and savings to send Dobry to study art is Sofia.
Caddie Woodlawn is set in frontier Wisconsin and tells the mostly true story of Carol Ryrie Brink’s grandmother, Caddie Woodhouse. Caddie Woodlawn is a rambunctious flame-haired girl whose greatest pleasures in life are adventures with her two brothers in the great outdoors, which include visiting the local Indians, berry picking, and tricking her tattle-telling sister, Hetty. Unlike her “ladylike” sisters, Hetty and Clara, Hetty is given free-reign to run wild. After her sister Mary died and Caddie herself was frail and sickly, Caddie’s father decided to experiment with Caddie and help her gain her health back by running the woods with her brothers. This atypical education gives Caddie the strength to get herself into many scrapes and dangerous situations, but it also gives her the tools to handle conflicts successfully. When the adults and children around her huddle in the dark when they hear a rumor about an Indian massacre, a group of trouble-makers decide to take matters into their own hands and attack the Indians first. Caddie saves the day by warning her friend, Indian John, and avoiding bloodshed. By allowing Caddie to “act like a boy,” she is able to save her neighbors from doing harm to themselves and others. This is her father’s goal in giving Caddie her freedom. He wants her to grow up into a “woman with a wise and understanding heart, healthy in body and honest in mind.” His open-minded approach stems from his upbringing in England as the child of a seamstress and the disowned son of an English lord. As the child of a man who had to reinvent himself, he understands the value of choosing one’s own path. Caddie Woodlawn stands out as an iconic character in children’s literature that represents what real girl power is about, and has inspired generations of girls and boys to look beyond sugar and spice and snips and snails.