Last year I was in a children’s literature class in library school, and one of our assignments was to reread a childhood favorite and write about the experience of rereading it as an adult with a critical eye to its strengths and weaknesses as a book for contemporary kids. In other words, how would you feel about suggesting this book to a kid in the children’s section of a public library or a school library today? Almost against my better judgement, I picked the Canadian classic Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery. It was a strange experience: nostalgic, comforting yet painful, and troubling at the same time.
It seems Canadian sacrilege to evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of Anne of Green Gables. I ADORED this book when I first read it around age ten and it affected me deeply. (Hence my hesitation about picking it for the assignment). My diary entries for years after reading it were written in a tween approximation of late nineteenth-century language in an effort to mimic Anne’s world. I wanted to LIVE where Anne lived, which was not unusual for the kind of dreamy kid I was (and adult I am, let’s be honest).
Upon re-reading it, I found that same affection and comfort returning, although there are aspects that now make me uncomfortable—which I was expecting, to be honest. What was surprising, however, was that I could also pinpoint strengths that I could not see before.
Anne’s appeal as an eager, smart, accident-prone, imaginative girl to identify with still held strong sway with me. There’s something so beautifully open and honest about her character and her vulnerability and the fierce way that she loves people and things. Other characters such as Rachel Lynde, the good-natured gossip, Marilla, the prickly reserved older woman, and Mathew, the painfully shy bachelor, also still held their charm. I felt the believability and lovability of the characters the same way as when I first read this book and developed such a strong emotional connection with Anne’s story. As an adult I can intellectually recognize the great skill of Montgomery’s characterization; she really makes the characters feel alive.
Intellectual recognition doesn’t mean that Anne of Green Gables does not still have an emotional effect on me: never in my life will the scene when Mathew dies not move me to tears. The moments of Anne’s joy, laughter, and sorrow are also very powerful to me, and were even more so when I was young. This emotional force and vivid characterization, I think, are the book’s main strengths. They’re strengths just as much for today’s kids as they were for me and children throughout the twentieth century.
I don’t remember seeing Anne Of Green Gables as episodic when I read (and reread) it as a kid, but I can recognize that neat structure now, and appreciate its value for structuring the book in digestible, self-contained chunks; this would especially work well for reading the book aloud to kids in a library context or at home. It’s almost like every chapter is a little short story! I can also now grasp the gravity of the social ills that Montgomery takes on in her depiction of Anne—who was really an emotionally and possibly physically abused girl—and for addressing them in an accessible way in a novel that is nevertheless a tale of childhood innocence.
Other elements that stand out to me now do not fare so well with my present political beliefs, though. For one thing, the fundamentalist Christian perspective struck me, and I would worry about recommending the book to young people of different faiths (or no faith) because there is certainly a missionary angle in the novel that being Christian is the only right way to be. There is also a strong narrative voice that tells us Anne being a “heathen” when she arrives at the Cuthberts is something that needs to be fixed. I think I’d worry even about giving the book to a Christian kid for that reason, as it might reinforce the nasty fundamentalist idea that Christianity is the one true religion. I hadn’t thought of it in years, but rereading the book reminded me that as a child Anne of Green Gables did leave me with a feeling that I “should” be a Christian and that it was wrong that I was not, which is seriously screwed up. And I was a white kid with Christian background (my grandparents) but not being raised with any religion.
Speaking of the term “heathen,” another aspect of the book that might be a weakness is the dated language (Montgomery wrote the novel in the late 1800s, after all). I found myself wondering how, as a fifth grader, I had dealt with the multitude of unfamiliar words, such as “fortnight” and “behoove.” Maybe, though, my enthrallment with the novel despite the language barrier is a testament to children’s ability to decode complex texts and to use context to understand meaning even if all the vocabulary is not familiar. I find it pretty cool that I was able to read this book written in English that’s quite different from contemporary English when I was only ten years old!
The last thing that really struck me in terms of weaknesses is quite a disturbing omission: namely, the utter lack of races and ethnicities other than white Christian European settlers (except for the negative depiction of the Jewish peddler who sells Anne the hair dye that turns her hair green). Namely, where are Indigenous people? I mean, this is something that could be said for most of Canadian literature, but especially for a novel written over a hundred years ago, it’s a huge exclusion that serves only to naturalize European settlers in the colonial state of Canada. For all its radical condemnation of the ill treatment of orphans and its (proto?)feminist feisty protagonist, Anne of Green Gables is certainly problematic in certain ways.
I was left at the end of my assignment feeling the complexities of what might have seemed like a simple idea—giving this book to young people—and which I suppose was the point (thanks, library school teachers!). In what context and to which specific kind of kid would I suggest Anne of Green Gables? Should I even suggest it at all? Do its strengths outweigh its weaknesses? When is appropriate to give a kid a book that, to me, needs some critical thinking skills to go with it? And if I was to suggest Anne of Green Gables to a kid, what tools would I want to give them and/or a parent to talk about and deal with the concerns I have with it? Maybe you can help me with these questions, readers!