I have very fond memories of being read to as a child. I can remember listening to The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, and The Hobbit at home and My Side of the Mountain and Trumpet of the Swan at school. My love of reading was instilled in me at a young age, and it has gotten me through some challenging times by providing me with new ideas, perspectives, adventures, and sometimes just an escape. I am grateful to my parents and teachers who demonstrated to me the joy that can be found in books.
When I was in the first grade, my teacher read Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing to our classroom of 6 and 7-year-olds. It is the first book in Judy Blume’s Fudge Series. The story is about a fourth-grade boy named Peter Hatcher, his friend Jimmy, his frenemy Sheila, and his family, especially his younger brother, Fudge. We all enjoyed it so much that we pressured our teacher to continue the series with us. I now have a first grader of my own, and I am so excited to share books from my childhood with her. So far, we have covered the entire Ramona series and the first three Harry Potter books. She received Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing for Christmas, and we flew right through it. She LOVED it. So much so that we immediately ordered the next installment and dove right in. The second book in the series is entitled, Otherwise Known as Sheila the Great. It takes place during the summer between fourth and fifth grade and is told from the perspective of Sheila Tubman. My daughter was thrilled that this one featured a female main character. At first, I shared her enthusiasm. By the end, I was horrified by how Blume chose to characterize the thoughts and interactions of young girls.
Throughout the book, Sheila is critical of other people’s bodies, particularly those of her friends and her older sister. To an extent, it is understandable for a child to merely be observant. There are many kinds of bodies in the world. It is perfectly natural to notice them. It is not acceptable, however, for judging bodies to be presented as a sleepover game. Why a children’s book author would ever think that was okay is beyond me. Sheila hosts a sleepover with a few local girls she has befriended during her summer vacation. One of the girls suggests making a slam book, which she explains is a fun way to find out what people think of you. Each of the four girls evaluates the other three in seven categories. The girls read their assessments privately, the idea being that will minimize any embarrassment. Sheila goes into the activity confidant and sure of herself. After reading her page, though, she feels angry and hurt. The other girls experience similar reactions. The more cringe-worthy adjectives used included: fat, dirty, weird, and abnormal.
Now, at this point in the book I was already frustrated by the amount of fat shaming going on in Sheila’s head. When we got to this part, I had to make a quick decision: skip over the section or discuss the implications of it with my daughter. I chose to put the book down for a moment and explain to her that the next part of the story may be upsetting, and that we would talk more about it after we read it. Afterwards, we went over how the “game” made everyone feel and how destructive the premise of it was. I was hopeful that after the hurt feelings were exposed, Blume would take the opportunity to incorporate a lesson, like “don’t be an asshole”, or something. Unfortunately, she did no such thing. They got into a screaming and throwing match, eventually dissolving into giggles. This not only ignores the repercussions of the game, it portrays the emotions of young girls as fickle.
Even though I think my daughter understood that the slam book was harmful, and its inclusion in the story facilitated a conversation with her about how pervasive girl on girl crime is, it left me feeling very uncomfortable. The next day, out of curiosity, I did some google research to see if anyone else was bothered by this part of the book. It turns out that I’m not alone in thinking that Otherwise Known as Sheila the Great was a terrible representation of adolescent girls and their friendship dynamics, but for every assenting opinion there was a review applauding Judy Blume for taking on the issue of girls learning to stick together rather than putting each other down. Cool, but that’s not what happened. There was no resolution. There were no apologies. And there were obviously no lessons learned, because a few pages later, the girls were policing how much pizza the others ate. In the next book in the series, Sheila criticizes the appearance of Peter’s ears. To his face.
I am very encouraged by the current movement aimed at women supporting other women. The best way to teach girls how to treat each other is to model positive interactions between women. I don’t feel like Judy Blume offered a good example of healthy female friendship to her readers. I realize the it was written in the seventies, but Otherwise Known as Sheila the Great is still on children’s bookshelves all over. So, parent to parent, feminist to feminist, this is a friendly warning that Sheila isn’t really that great.