photo courtesy of Vassar College Library special collections
Does Rachel’s award-winning Hitty from 1930 still stand up in 2022? Yes and no.
Over the last year the American Library Association has been celebrating 100 years of the Newbery Award, which began its run in 1922. In 1930, Rachel Field was the first woman to receive the award with her charming book about a tiny wooden doll’s century of adventures, Hitty: Her First Hundred Years. I’m sharing here some fabulous photos of Rachel and Hitty – who was a real doll that Rachel and her illustrator bought in New York City – on their historic cross-country flight to California where Rachel would receive the Newbery. But is this book too dated to be read by today’s children?
Fans of Hitty – both book and doll – were an essential part of my 9-year journey to rediscover the life of Rachel Field, whose abandoned island home became mine in 1994. As I near the one-year anniversary of my own book about Rachel’s life story, The Field House, I’m moved to honor these two centennials – Hitty’s 100 years, which still entertains readers today, and 100 years of the Newbery Award. Both histories have snags. Some of the older Newbery winners are deemed inappropriate or offensive for contemporary readers. The ALA hosted a recent webinar about this very topic. What do we do with award-winning books from history that no longer meet our standards of social justice? How can the Newbery Award selection process repair its history of bias and exclusion? What about Hitty?
Re-reading Hitty’s story for the first time in a decade, I do find myself cringing at some of Rachel Field’s vocabulary and her treatments of non-white, non-privileged, or otherwise unfamiliar populations. Like many books of her time, Rachel’s Hitty caters to the predominantly white Christian populace who were her presumed readers.
On the other hand, during Hitty’s exciting adventures around world history from the early 1800s to 1930, the narration suggests an inclination towards tolerance. It helps that the book’s narrator is the doll, Hitty, whom we might forgive more easily than a human narrator for her ignorance. Hitty may be elitist and judgmental, but she bends towards open-heartedness. She grows. I can’t help liking her. Hitty finds the good in all manner of people and situations, and I like to think that if her next hundred years were recounted we’d see Hitty grow in depth and perspective, regretting the narrow-mindedness of her early years.
Hitty’s story can be instructive in many ways, in addition to being entertaining. There is a wealth of vivid description: the state of Maine, whaling ships, the evolution of fashion, transportation, and domestic life; and the timeless struggles of children navigating the pull between obedience and desire. In conjunction with education and discussion about the subtle and overt systems of racism and exclusion in literature, I believe we still have something to gain in reading Hitty’s story.
Robin Clifford Wood is a writer and writing teacher. She lives in central Maine with her husband and dogs, loves to be outdoors, and enjoys ever-expanding horizons through her grown children and their multi-species families.