Monday, November 2, 2015

Children's Classic Series: Sue Barton

9786432 9786347 578871  1653359

The Sue Barton nursing series, by Helen Dore Boylston

When I was a kid, I absolutely loved the Sue Barton books. They were already horribly dated even then; the first book in the series was published in 1936. That apparently only increased their mystique, because when Sue talks about the wonders of the old operating theater in the hospital where she trains, it is a room that harks back to the Civil War era or thereabouts--truly medicine in a different era. Even as a child I knew that neither medicine nor a nurse's training were like Sue experienced, but the stories remained, for some reason, utterly engaging.

Not that they made me want to become a nurse (though I know more than one woman who was influenced in career choice by Sue and by Cherry Ames, another nursing student whose books I never read but may yet). I think I was just fascinated by the historical setting (which of course wasn't "historical" when written) and possibly the sense of Sue as both grown-up and yet somehow easily related to by a kid.

That creates space for more thoughts on the age of protagonists in children's books. For the most part, we do expect the heroes and heroines of middle-grade fiction to be children themselves. Yet there are plenty of stories like these, including some being written today, that feature older protagonists. In some cases (think Harry Potter), the character begins a series as an 11-year-old and grows up. In other cases--as with Sue Barton or the more recent Boston Jane books by Jennifer L. Holm--the main character is at least on the cusp of adulthood when the series begins. Clearly it can be done, and I think it's not just the adults who enjoy the stories that trace and entire life.

But the move can be tricky, too, and in today's world such books often end up being more "YA" than "middle grade." Tamora Pierce's wonderful fantasies begin in many cases with children, but end with grown women, or mostly grown, who are making decisions and acting on them in adult ways, if you know what I mean. Yet because the series begin with books about 11-year-olds, they remain in the children's section at the library (Sue Barton gets married and bears several children, but does it, like Anne Shirley, without ever, apparently, having sex).

What are your thoughts on book series for kids that follow the main character on into adulthood? Which do you love now? What did you read as a kid that featured adult characters?

If that question doesn't do it for you, there is another whole area for thought about gender roles in classic children's books--maybe I'll ask that question tomorrow!

I have been re-reading the series by finding the books in the library, physical or digital (plus one that is on my shelf, picked up at some long-ago book sale). Neither the publisher nor the author really gives a hoot about my review, as the author died in 1987 and the books are out of print.


  1. I'm a Sue Barton fan too! Read the in the late seventies, and didn't know they were as dated as they are until much later....I liked best the books that were most tightly focused on the job of nursing, and less on Sue being a grownup.

    1. Ditto. Though now as an adult, it's interesting to read about her marriage and think about it in light of what 21 years of marriage has taught me! I just finished "Neighborhood Nurse" where her kids are young, and was totally hit by something I hadn't even remembered--that her 4-year-old son gets lost in the woods. To see why it had be hyperventilating a bit, see

  2. I haven't read the Sue Barton books, but pick up Donna Parker when I see them at flea markets. And if you go back a tad further the Grace Harlowe books.

    Sadly, a lot of second hand booksellers are pricing their books above what I want to pay for them. Used to be able to pick up books like this for $1 now I see them for anywhere between $7 and $15. :(

    1. Some of these classics are definitely expensive. Yet when we try to sell them for the friends of the library, we get offered such a pittance. You interested in Maud Hart Lovelace? We have a bunch of the Betsy-Tacy books in the originals from the 1930s and 40s, with the dust jackets. I'm half tempted to buy them myself, though I we never into that series all that much.

      I had to look up Grace Harlowe, but they look great! Never read Donna Parker, either. Sue Barton falls between those two, it looks like.


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