For much of the 20th century, books for children encouraged girls to be weak, submissive, and fearful. This work discusses such traits, both blatantly and subtly reinforced, in many of the most popular works of the period. Quoting a variety of passages, Deborah O'Keefe illustrates the typical behaviour of fictional girls - most of whom were passive and immobile while other girls were actually invalids. They all engaged in approved girlish activities: deferred to elders, observed the proprieties, and, in the end, accepted conventional suitors. Even rare feisty tomboys like Jo in "Little Women" eventually gave up their dreams and their independence. This discussion is interlaced with moments from the author's own childhood that suggest how her developing self interacted with these stories. She and her contemporaries, trying to reconcile the conservative reading with the changing world around them, learned ambivalence rather than confidence. "Good Girl Messages" also includes a discussion of books read by boys, who were usually depicted as purposeful, daring, and dominating.
The final chapter reviews the enormous changes for the better in children's books, stories of girls who do not sell out, who are strong and resourceful as well as loving. O'Keefe thus dramatizes for a new generation traditional images it may not have experienced directly, and reminds an older generation of those images that may still be producing conflict and distress.
Deborah O'Keefe is the author of Good Girl Messages: How Young Women Were Misled by Their Favorite Books (Continuum, 2000); Readers in Wonderland: The Liberating Worlds of Fantasy Fiction from Dorothy to Harry Potter (Continuum 2003); and articles in the New York Times and other publications. She has degrees from Smith, Cornell, and Columbia, and has taught at Vassar College and at Manhattanville College. She lives in Chappaqua, New York.