Saige by Jessie Haas
I have been into children’s books again lately. After hearing a lot of criticism about the 2013 American Girl of the Year, Saige, I decided to read her book for myself. I checked it out of the local library and read it, and I have to say, I was sort of pleasantly surprised. Still, I have my reservations about Saige.
The Good: I think that, through Saige, Jessie Haas and American Girl are inspiring young girls to be passionate and are teaching the idea that every person can make a difference. Saige decides to try and raise money to hire a part-time art teacher when her school district makes budget cuts. I like that. I think that it is a good reminder (and message for young girls) that the arts are important. Haas reminds parents (who I certainly hope read their daughters’ books) that children who are exposed to art (music, visual art, etc.) are more likely to get good grades and succeed in life. I, as an artist, hate that art is being cut from schools. That a large company like American Girl would devote a whole year to protesting that through their Girl of the Year is kind of cool.
Another good message is that practice is important if you want to be good at something. Saige’s best friend, Tessa, has just come back from a summer-long music camp where she learned that she will have to practice 1,000 hours before she will be a true maestro. Tessa makes up her own practice schedule and diligently works at it. At the end of the story, her work has paid off and her vocal performance is significantly improved. I imagine that if a book character had talked about that when I was a kid, maybe I would have practiced the piano more often, making those four years of piano lessons worthwhile (then again, probably not). However, when Saige is having trouble getting her horse, Picasso, to do the parade walk she needs to do for the big festival, it works out for her even though she didn’t practice as much as she should have. I think that sort of sends mixed signals.
Another good part of the book is that Saige has to navigate her best friend making another best friend and making new friends. That grief is one that most young girls know and I would hope that reading about Saige experiencing it would help young girls.
So, there are a few good morals to be found in the book. Now, about the bad…
The Bad: The thing that I used to love about American Girl books (Molly, Felicity, Kirsten, etc.) is that the girls were more or less ordinary. Molly was a wild child and her adventures had a tendency to get her and her friends in trouble, but she wasn’t some super-talented musician or anything like that. These girls were not superheroes, models, or superstars. They were just girls with stories to tell.
The girls in Saige are not just girls. Every character in this book is a prodigy at something. Tessa has a voice like a superstar, Saige can paint like a real artist, and Gabi can train a horse she has never met before to do complex tricks in a couple of hours. These girls are supposed to be nine. Does that sound like any nine-year-old you’ve met recently? I mean, at nine years old, I was convinced I wanted to be a writer and I would spend hours writing (mostly bad) stories in notebook after notebook, but I also wanted to be a nun (yes, really) and a computer scientist and possibly a rock star. We’re talking about fourth graders.
I hate to say it, because I really did like the book, but if I was a mom and my nine-year-old daughter had self-esteem issues (and every nine year old girl has self-esteem issues these days), I would not want her reading this book. The message is that everyone has to be extraordinary at something; everyone has to be a prodigy. Even the mean girl in the book, Dylan, gets to be a super awesome musician. There is no one ordinary in this story. Molly, my favorite American Girl, would never have been able to be friends with these girls—and I don’t think I’d want my kid to be friends with them either. Saige makes a conscious effort to be nice, but Tessa and Dylan are pretty stuck up about their talent. Gabi is the best of the four in my opinion, being shy and not overwhelmingly braggy about her talents. Plus, she has to ask her aunt for help when training Picasso.
In a world where children are being overrun by co-curriculars (the new term for extra-curriculars), filling up all their free time trying to fill a resume (because no one tells you until you graduate college that a real resume is only allowed to be one page long and only one of the things you did will fit), I think that a book like Saige sends the wrong message. Kids shouldn’t be expected to be prodigies or to be able to do things that grown adults, who have more practice, education, and experience, can do. Kids should be allowed to be kids.
And, given that the Girl of the Year this year is a ballet dancer (with a super awesome studio!), I’m betting that tradition is continuing this year.
So, in conclusion, I’ll give Saige 3 stars for adults, but 2 stars for the kids it is meant for. I’d rather have my 9 year old kid reading Saige than, say, Twilight, or The Hunger Games, but it’s still not something I would recommend parents. Read the original American Girl books and then find something that will build your daughter’s self image far better than Saige will. I’ve seen what middle school is like these days— chances are, your daughter will need all the self-worth boosters she can get.
Kaitlyn’s Star Guide:
0 stars: Don’t read it. A waste of your time. Worse than Twilight.
1 star: Read only if you’re very tired and desperate for something to read. Will probably rot your brain if you read it too much.
2 stars: Good for what it is or not my taste.
3 stars: Decent book and worth reading, but not earth-shaking, much less earth-shattering.
4 stars: Really good, definitely something I will re-read sometime. Earth Shaking.
5 stars: Earth Shattering. Every single human being should read this. It should be required for citizenship of the world. Seriously. Why aren’t you reading it yet? LIFE CHANGING.