Thursday 25 June 2015

Building A Girl Out Of Books

Well, this is a big subject right now what with articles in the actual paper by YA stars like Louise O’Neill but I’m ignoring the pressure; this was always going to be taking my life in my hands somewhat. But I have a daughter who’s about to turn ten and I’m aware there are hard times a-comin’, so I’ve been thinking a lot lately about books which meant a lot to me around that age.

I would classify helpful-in-being-a-girl books in three broad ways.

One – the books which are just about being a person. Lots of these are great precisely because they are about courage or honesty or kindness or creativity and really gender is immaterial. I would like my daughter to know that there are lots of great ways and things to be which have nothing to do with being a girl. And yes, it’s nice as a girl when it happens to be a girl Getting Things Done, whether it’s Mary Lennox or Claudia Kincaid or Kizzy Lovell or Rosemary Brown. But any kid can also learn from Harry Potter or Charlie Bucket or Indigo Casson or, for that matter, Smokey the Cow Horse.

A kind of subsect of these ones are the very many books out there whose central friendship is between a boy and a girl and which treat this as completely normal. I don’t think I ever even noticed that Ramona Quimby’s best friend is a boy – Howie – as far as I recall the first time anyone makes a thing out of it is in Ramona Forever, the second-to-last book, and it’s an adult, Howie's annoying Uncle Hobart. Of course to be truthful the last book, Ramona’s World, sees Ramona go out and find herself a girl best friend but usually I ignore that because I didn’t read this book till I was an adult so as far as I’m concerned it’s not canon. 
Susie Day does this too. I don’t want to spoiler up this post but her first Pea book, the Book of Best Friends, is all about it: gender is plopped down for us all to take a look at but basically the tone is, yep, it’s there, and who cares when there are much more interesting things to think about. 

Then there are the books where it is an issue, and a character has to be brave to have a friendship across gender lines – whether they happen to be a boy, like lonesome Jess in Bridge to Terabithia, or a girl like Rusty in Back Home who nearly gets expelled just for having a word with a lad in the street, but who is fairly defiant about it, ending up shinning down three floors of scaffolding to meet him in a wood in the middle of the night. Both heroes who understand that having a proper friend is worth catching a bit of flak from morons.

Okay. Two – the books that rile you up on sexism, whether they mean to or not. I write this as somebody who was an absolutely raging feminist as an eight/nine/ten year old and I have to give full credit to (I think) the first person to make me aware of an issue worth getting this angry over – I’m looking at you, Enid.

Ah, George Kirrin. Who bests boys constantly in battles of boyishness – heck, the girl can throw a lasso – and yet gets told off by the virtually-never-wrong Julian for taking it all too far and not helping Anne with the washing up (I'd like to see Julian explain himself to Miley Cyrus). I don’t know quite what Enid Blyton was up to in her stories that feature boys – she didn’t even really assign any power to those traditional girl roles, unlike Arthur Ransome, who, besides writing the rollicking all-girl Amazon crew, was fairly clear on the fact that John might be the Swallows’ captain but Susan is the one who tells everyone what to do.

There were also the books which are explicitly about battling sexism, like Nobody’s Family Is Going To Change, by Louise Fitzhugh – all about a girl who wants to be a lawyer, her little brother who wants to be a dancer, and their parents who essentially think they’ve got their ambitions the wrong way round. This, together with Blyton and the more old-fashioned books on my shelf, pointed out to me what I might have missed otherwise till I was older: that some people think girls are so different from boys that they ought to be doing different things, most of the time. This is a hard lesson to learn about the world, but books are a pretty good place to learn it.

I believe though I’m not a fantasy expert that this debate over gender continues there today, with fierce advocates gunning for girls’ rights against knuckle-dragging authorial morons (sorry, was that not conciliatory?) – Alanna of Trebond was, again, a big character for me and I’ve got all four books lined up on my wardrobe floor waiting for summer holidays when I’m going to hand them reverently over to my daughter. Because she needs to read about a girl so determined to follow her own path that she spends eight years disguised as a boy tougher than all the other boys, comes out as a woman and makes everyone accept it and then just carries on duffing up men, sleeping with the ones she fancies and saving the world.

And then there is Three, the category into which I put books which are not necessarily feminist although they may be. These are the realistic books which accept that not every person can be a kickass warrior who doesn’t give a monkeys what her friends think, and that turning from a girl child into the beginnings of a girl adolescent can be extremely hard exactly because you don’t want to defy every convention and cliché and gender expectation, even if you could.

The other book I’ve just bought, for the upcoming tenth birthday (yes, okay, I buy her a lot of books and keep them in the wardrobe till she’s old enough/I’ve read them) is Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret. Margaret was part of pre-adolescence for me, as for countless other kids since first being published in 1970. I notice that when talking about it nobody – not even me – mentions what I remember being the general consensus of my friends: that it was a massively embarrassing read. There is an hagiographical atmosphere round Judy Blume at the moment which I’m all for and I hope this doesn’t offend anybody, but at the time it was a bit like reading Just 17: you shrieked with laughter at the concept of girls doing chest-expanding exercises together (individually with the bedroom door locked, telling no one, would have been a different thing), and wondered if any girl ever really did look forward, with excitement, to getting her first period. And while you blushed and giggled you learned an awful, awful lot, not least that there were other girls out there who were insecure about how they looked and how they were and how messy everything was.

I also admire Judy for giving us Deenie, and a point of view I think is unusual in realistic MG fiction – that of the girl who’s so damn pretty she’s supposed to be the thick one. Generally we don’t like glamorous heroines in MG-land (I don’t think I’m speaking only for myself) – unless they are justified by starting out plain before a satisfying transformation, like Anne Shirley – homely as hell when she arrives at Green Gables; the second hottest chick on campus by the time she gets to university – or Harriet from Geek Girl who never dwells much on the aesthetic affirmation that the rest of us assume girls get from becoming models. What is more typical in an MG book is the suggestion that our MC has the raw material, the promise. Anastasia Krupnik and Meg from A Wrinkle In Time, both clearly set to turn into their better-looking mothers a bit further down the track – even old George Kirrin has those noteworthy blue eyes. Always a sign, like red hair (see almost all these pictures).

I seem to have descended into not-very-feminist territory here, suggesting that I am uncomfortable with gorgeous heroines. Let my daughter, and all our daughters, not dwell upon such matters, judging by looks whether in fiction or reality. Let them instead be kind and silly and loyal and independent and defiant and responsible and brave like Pippi Longstocking, Dicey Tillerman, Mina Smiths, Alanna of Trebond, Lesley Burke, Anastasia Krupnik, Meg Murry, Anne Shirley, Pea Llewellyn, Rusty Dickinson and all the rest of them, and plenty of boy characters too. When they struggle with changes and the hard bits of growing up, like Margaret Simon, let them not think they are the only ones struggling. And let them remember that books are a great place to go when you want to try out something different, or to be how you used to be, or when you need some joy in your life.


  1. I LOVE ALANNA!!! thanks for the post!

    1. I love her too. I still hope I might discover someone else as good in a book someday...

    2. Have you discovered Trickster's Choice and Trickster's Queen? It's a duology (if I can use that word) following the adventures of Aly, Alanna's daughter. I actually read them before I read the main series, and loved them. Would definitely recommend if you like Alanna or awesome heroines in general.

    3. I do know about these, but I've never been brave enough to read them in case they didn't match up, or showed any marital disharmony between Alanna and Mr Alanna (no spoilers here). But maybe I should get over that and myself and give them a try.

  2. Wow.
    Brilliant post.
    I'm racking my brains for age ten, but if I had a daughter (I have two sons), for her sixteenth birthday I'd definitely give her: How to Be a Woman by Caitlin Moran and the uttering chilling and brilliant Only Ever Yours by Louise O' Neill. (And I'm a guilty lover of all things Enid, eek! I mean Julian was a flake, wasn't he, compared to George with her piercing blue eyes and epic rowing skills, haha.)

    1. Yes. I'm sort of scared that I won't be as on top of what she SHOULD be reading by that age - once she hits thirteen I'm just going to be standing her in a corner of the room and throwing Jane Austen at her. But these are very good suggestions.

  3. Perfect age to introduce her to Dido Twite, heroine of many of Joan Aiken's Wolves Chronicles. You could start with The Wolves of Willoughby Chase with feisty heroines Bonnie and Sylvia battling wolves and a wicked governess, or meet Dido in Black Hearts in Battersea - find out more here:

  4. Absolutely right. I read her Wolves and Black Hearts a year or two ago but we haven't had any since - I should lay in a stock. I read The Stolen Lake first, when I must have been eleven or twelve, and it had a funny effect on me I never really did get over.