Strawberry Girl by Lois Lenski is one of the classic Newbery Medal Winners. Awarded the medal in 1946, it speaks of a time that was more familiar and current than today. Today this rich novel opens the window into a time few can remember. This is one of many books Lenski wrote with an emphasis on regional stories allowing young readers to get a taste of how American children lived during the early part of the twentieth century.
Strawberry Girl is an interesting read. At first glance the title and the cover picture of a young girl carrying a fruit basket can mislead the reader to expect a cute little story of a young girl who loves strawberries. Conversely, the story is more about clashes and tribulations between farmers and cattlemen along with how they resolved violent conflict than it is picking strawberries.
Strawberry Girl depicts two families, the Boyer’s and the Slater’s. The Boyer’s move from North Carolina to Florida to raise strawberries, sweet potatoes and harvest oranges. The Slater’s are cattle people and have lived in central Florida for a long time. They do not believe in putting up fences and they let their cattle roam all over the county even if it means destroying their neighbor’s crops. The two families argue through out the entire book. The Slater family thinks the Boyer’s are “uppidity” because of the Boyer’s successful farming enterprises. The Slater’s routine is to sit back and do nothing to improve their way of life.
This way of thinking creates hostile actions and feelings between the two families. Violence and drunkenness escalate through out the story. This book may cross the line with many adults when the neighbors begin to kill each others animals in addition to the school teacher getting beat up by the Slater boys. This incident forced the school to close for weeks. Certainly a little discussion with young children may be desired to explain why these incidents happened.
Additionally, Lenski writes in a Florida backwoods dialect typical of the time period which might be too challenging for third and fourth graders to read. I think this story should be read aloud to get the full effect of what the southern dialogue sounded like. For example, talk like
“Ha, ha! Hain’t no dog! Hit’s a coon.” and “will git you yet, jest you wait.”
However, I don’t believe this book won the Newbery Award for its depiction of aggression. Times were hard in the early 1900’s and resolution of conflicts back then is not typical of today. Strawberry Girl explains the day to day activities of the Boyer family. A young reader can learn exactly how to grind sugar cane and pull it for fun afterwards. Also the book explains the details of Florida weather in the spring and summer. Additionally it goes into detail on how to raise strawberries in sandy soil. Part of the charm of this middle grade novel is in describing how the old Florida pioneers did it.
Strawberry Girl is a sharply written novel about harsh times. It accurately describes a true to life pioneer adventure.