Should delivering papers and playing tennis be for boys only?
Background: Author Betty Miles got her start as an editor of the Bank Street Readers, the long-running series of textbooks that was the first to depict racially diverse characters and urban settings in its reading primers.
Unsurprisingly, Miles’ later juvenile and YA fiction is of the genre that wears its progressive agenda on its sleeve. Her best known title is probably Maudie and Me and the Dirty Book, about middle-school students protesting against a biology book having been banned from their school library.
The Plot: 12 year old Barbara Fisher finds herself suddenly a part of the “Women’s Lib” movement when in the course of a week she is told that she can’t take over her older brother’s paper route (because she is a girl) and that gym class tennis is off-limits (because she is a girl).
Barbara opens by stating that she thinks a lot of books for girls her age are dumb and fake, and she’s going to tell a real story about girls her age:
My book is not going to tell about “growing up gracefully,” that’s for sure. And I will not write it in that way they call “bouncy” or “lighthearted” on the cover. My book will tell about the real story of me, Barbara Fisher. And it will be true.
The Fisher family’s first day of school is chaotic: Barbara’s father is off to his first day as the principal of a new progressive school where students don’t have to sit at desks or line up for activities; Barbara’s mother is returning to work as a newspaper reporter after a 15-year hiatus; Barbara’s older brother, Richard, is preoccupied with basketball-tryouts. Barbara is excited about her first day of junior high, but also obsessed with convincing her parents to allow her to get a pet dog.
Barbara and her friends love junior high, especially hippie English teacher Miss Peretti, until it comes time to sign up for PE class. While boys are given a wide range of team sports to choose from, the girls options are limited to aerobics, modern dance, and Slimnastics.
Barbara gets stuck with Slimnastics. She is subjected to further indignity when the gym teacher responds to her complaint by telling her
“In school we do many things we don’t want to do. That is part of education. And to look at you I can see that Slimnastics would be helpful. Your tummy sticks out.”
It had been at least 25 years since I last read this book, and the Slimnastics episodes were pretty much the only thing I remembered about it, specifically Barbara’s description of performing exercises to a record called “Go You Chicken Fat Go”, which sounds pretty made-up, right?
…sounds like a weird outtake from The Music Man!
(It should, because it is performed by Robert Preston and written by Meredith Wilson. I kind of feel okay about them making a gazillion dollars off of traumatizing Baby Boomers)
Richard makes the basketball team, leaving him in a bind when the paper’s circulation manager tells him that it is against their policy to hire papergirls, despite the fact that Barbara has been filling in for him without complaint from the customers.
This is how Barbara finds herself thrust into the fight for women’s rights on two fronts: she and her friends start circulating a petition to change the PE program at school, while she solicits recommendations from her customers to try and change the newspaper’s hiring policy.
Barbara is determined to agitate for change without help from her parents, despite their connections to the newspaper and the school district, although her mother gets involved in crusade of her own.
Tired of covering endless luncheons and fashion shows (seriously, this town holds nine fashion shows a week), Mrs. Fisher writes an editorial calling the women of the community to volunteer service, instead of spending all of their time clubbing about and eating lunch.
Her opinions are met with a largely hostile response, and Barbara is both proud of and embarrassed by her mother’s newfound fame.
While Barbara and her friends do win some of the changes they seek, they also learn the art of compromise. Barbara reminds us that her story is not going to get wrapped up in a neat happy ending in which her parents surprise her with the pet dog of her dreams (“this is called realism”), but they do make some significant gains.
Barbara is disappointed when she doesn’t even get to plead her case to the newspaper’s circulation manager: instead the Governor signs a bill prohibiting sex discrimination in hiring paper delivery persons, and he gets all the credit.
Barbara and her friends do make some progress with their school’s PE department. After Barbara writes an essay on the subject for her hippie English class, she is invited to speak at a school assembly on the subject. While Barbara is ready for a fight, even against adults (!), she learns that some of the younger PE staff is ready to update the program, and co-ed tennis and volleyball will be on the schedule for the next semester, as well opening modern dance to boys.
It’s a start.
In the epilogue, Barbara shares the exciting news that she has been elected editor of the school paper for the 7th grade. However, her parents still won’t let her get a dog.
Barbara is an appealingly flawed heroine: while she is obviously on the right side of history, she is frequently on the receiving end of criticism, both constructive and otherwise, for wanting to make changes that will benefit herself, without having to do any convincing for fear that people will think she’s “a nut” (“You’d better get used to it if you’re going to keep on speaking you mind” advises Miss Peretti, of whom one gets the sense of having been there, done that).
There is also a good subplot in which Barbara is secretly thrilled to befriend Arlene, the sole Black student at school. Barbara pats herself on the back for being so progressive, until Arlene tells her to check herself because she wants to be her friend, not her Cool Black Friend That Proves Something.
Sign It Was Written In 1974:
“I used to think there was something sort of embarrassing about women’s liberation. People were always making jokes about women burning their bras, and expecting you to laugh. The only bra I had was called “Little Miss Beginner,” and I was certainly not going to burn it.”
Slimnastics Is Basically The Worst Department:
“Girls! You may not think exercise is important now, but someday soon you’ll be wanting to look your very best for that special boyfriend. How are you even going to attract his attention if you don’t look attractive? Remember a girl’s best asset is a slim figure ad a straight posture. No one loves a fatty, girls.”