Emma Sheridan is eleven and knows exactly what she wants to be when she grows up: a lawyer, just like her father. Her little brother Willie is only seven, and he’s also got his future mapped out. He’s going to be a tap dancer. Unfortunately for both of them, their father has other ideas. A successful Black lawyer, Mr. Sheridan doesn’t want any son of his going down the socio-economic ladder, especially not if it entails a return to the kind of work Black people had to do when they had no other options. As for Emma’s desire to be a lawyer, nothing could be more ridiculous than a woman lawyer. Mrs. Sheridan doesn’t have anything against her son dancing, but she’s equally adamant that Emma should be a wife and mother. Emma is furious and hurt that her parents scorn her ambitions. She hears about a Children’s Army and joins up, coincidentally meeting up there with three other girls from her exclusive private school. The Children’s Army intervenes in families where children are abused and neglected. As Emma and her classmates begin to discuss their own situations, they realize that the main source of their anger with their parents is neither abuse nor neglect, but a failure to recognize them as individuals rather than extensions of their parents. At the same time, Willie has taken his own future into his hands by auditioning for and landing a part in a Broadway show. Emma backs Willie up at home, gradually forcing their ineffectual mother to also support him. Mr. Sheridan caves in and allows Willie to take the part. But Emma herself still does not receive any support for her goals in life, and she gradually finds the Children’s Army does not treat girls equally to boys, and will not help in situations of emotional abuse such as she suffers. Finally, in talking with her classmates, she understands that she has to change herself. Taking inspiration from the women’s liberation movement, the girls form a consciousness raising group, and they set out to plan new ways of reacting to their parents and the limitations that are imposed on them.
This book was not published by Harper & Row. The exact cause of the split is unclear, but Fitzhugh’s agent took it to Farrar, Straus and Giroux, which published it in late 1974. The first review, an advance notice in Publisher’s Weekly, was negative (quoted in Cook). This was the only review Fitzhugh lived to see. A review in School Library Journal was also negative: the reviewer felt the children and situations were “unconvincing.” Another critic, writing for the New York Times, thought it was the adults who lacked realism, but was generally positive. According to the book’s Amazon.com entry, there were positive reviews in the Boston Globe and other publications. The book is still in print and still being read. Although it is undeniably didactic, as Perry Nodelman points out, “the book is saved from mere point-making by Fitzhugh’s refusal to be content with easy answers.”
The book has had a strange second life as the basis for a Broadway musical called “The Tap Dance Kid.” As the title indicates, it is Willie whose story is at the centre of the action, and the book’s most important lesson–that children need to love themselves when adults cannot–is lost by the addition of a happy ending. There is no Children’s Army in the play, and the racial story is muted. For example, in the book the family has a white maid, while in the musical she is West Indian. The play allows the father to soften and the rest of the family to soften towards him, while the book maintains an absolute impasse between Emma and her parents, particularly her father. The musical’s advertising gives an indication of just how far the Broadway version is from Fitzhugh’s original vision. (footnote)
Cook, Karen. “Regarding Harriet: Louise Comes in From the Cold.” Village Voice April 11, 1995: 12ff.
Hubbard, Andrey R. Review of Nobody’s Family is Going to Change. School Library Journal January 1975: 53.
Whedon, Julie. Review of Nobody’s Family is Going to Change. New York Times December 1, 1974: 408.
Nodelman, Perry. “Louise Fitzhugh.” Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 52: American Writers for Children Since 1960: Fiction. (Detroit: Gale, 1986): 133-142.
Blackwell, Charles. The Tap Dance Kid. Music by Henry Krieger. Lyrics by Robert Lorick. (New York: Samuel French, 1988).
The Tap Dance Kid commercial. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_KUrRT1VbL4