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New Books: The Hired Girl

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The Hired Girl
By Laura Amy Schlitz
But I think the most important thing those books gave me was a kind of faith. My books promised me that life wasn’t just made up of workaday tasks and prosaic things. The world is bigger and more colorful and more important than that.

Age level: Middle grades

If you set a book in 1911 with a feisty heroine who yearns for more books, a kind-hearted Jewish family, and an adorable pet cat, there is a good chance that I am going to love it. So maybe it’s no surprise that I am here recommending The Hired Girl—but since the book won both the2016 Scott O’Dell Award for Historical Fiction and the 2016 National Jewish Book Award for Children’s and Young Adult Literature, I am apparently not the only person who loved it.

Fourteen-year-old Joan Skraggs’s life on her family’s farm is miserable drudgery, but it’s not until her father burns her beloved books in a fit of rage that Joan decides to run away. She takes the train to Baltimore, where she manages to luck into a job as a hired girl for the wealthy and kind Rosenbach family. Joan is fascinated by the Jewish family’’s life and traditions—all her knowledge of Jews comes from reading Ivanhoe—and by their fancy city house, which is nothing like the hardscrabble farm where she grew up. The work of a hired girl is hard, but Joan is a hard worker—and while she dreams of books and develops a crush on the family’s charming youngest son, she determinedly tackles the work she was hired to do. After all, with six dollars a week, she can buy books and more books—and maybe eventually find her way back to school.

This books feels like a worthy successor to books like Anne of Green Gables or Little Women—or any book about girl becoming a woman and learning to be comfortable with who she really is. Joan has that half-naive, half-arrogant, all-clumsy charm that seems to come with getting your knowledge of the world through reading instead of through experience, and her development over the course of the novel is completely believable. She’s a great, complicated, nuanced human being of a character. And, of course, I have a soft spot for books that depict Jewish life realistically, which I think this book does particularly well.

This one deserves a spot on your library list.