Monday, July 26, 2010

YA Through the Decades: Pre-1930s

by Jean Webster
New York : Grosset & Dunlap, 1912.

Jerusha is an orphan at the John Grier home, a teen who has worked for her room and board since graduating early from high school. When one of the orphanage trustees anonymously provides her with money for college, she has the opportunity of a lifetime. Her story is conveyed in the letters she sends her benefactor - whom she calls Daddy-Long-Legs after a glimpse of his tall shadow - as she grows to know the wide world beyond the orphanage.

This book was written in 1912, and I couldn't help but make comparisons to the story of another orphan, published only four years before. Like Anne Shirley, Jerusha is full of life and humor, quirky phrases, and sometimes swinging from emotional highs to the depths of despair. She never knew a family, and she wants to be an authoress. But there are substantial differences as well. The format is almost entirely letters, and the author often calls attention to the fact that this is a story - Jerusha, who quickly renames herself Judy, often makes comments like "if we were in a storybook" or "if we were story characters." Judy also talks more about what she's learning academically, discussing such subjects as languages, biology, and philosophy. She has rather more progressive politics than Anne, who, I daresay, would find some of Jerusha's educated opinions shocking (and Rachel Lynde would have found them downright blasphemous).

I kept thinking about audience as I read this book. While it's so innocent, I could see it being a middle-school-age young adult novel now, I think it was really intended for what I think of as a "young adult" age group when we're not talking about books and marketing. That is, the 18-25-year-old crowd, about the age of Judy herself over the course of the novel. Webster clearly intends her audience to be at least somewhat familiar with the books that Judy mentions, and I think she intends her readers to be somewhat more knowledgeable than Judy herself, who is rather naive in many ways. I wonder if this book has a somewhat limited audience today? I've been pondering that question, and I'm not sure I have the answer.

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