A Few ‘Girls’ Books All People Could Read

Today on Twitter I noticed something. I noticed how outspoken and completely amazing the Anne Frank Center is being. Seriously, if you haven’t been following them, do: @AnneFrankCenter. Anne Frank would be so proud. I also noticed a thread posted by @boguspress. She’s a clown. She tried to paint a little boy’s face with a blue butterfly upon his own request. His parents insisted that she didn’t paint the butterfly as it wasn’t ‘appropriate’ for a boy, so he had a skull and cross bones painted instead. It’s heartbreaking. She comments: “So the next time you are incredulous about how the govt could shut down our national parks, or build the pipeline, or nuke the planet…” Then I saw an article on The Guardian about Clarks shoes – specifically, a range of shoes for girls called Dolly Babe, and for boys called Leader. After claims of sexism – quite rightly! – the Dolly Babe range was removed. But look what happened: “Both shoes are made from black leather, but the Dolly Babe has the added cloying detail of a pink insole printed with hearts, while the version for boys – which remains on sale – has a football detail.” Yes, the boys’ range remained – of course there was nothing wrong with the masculine shoes – and the Guardian declares the pink insole with hearts ‘cloying’. Again, something feminine is attacked. The masculine remains unquestioned. There are other issues, commenters pointed out, in terms of comfort and quality and these should absolutely be addressed along with the ridiculous naming of the ranges and the gendered nature of the promotion. However, there is nothing inherently wrong in a pink insole. All children, all adults, should be able to access both feminine and masculine clothing – as well as that fabulous unicorn, gender-neutral clothing. However, I do wish that in the name of combating sexism, feminine things would not be simply attacked and removed.

In the spirit of that and thinking of Anne Frank today and how perhaps the world would be better if more little boys had blue butterfly faces, I thought I’d put together a list of a few books traditionally seen as ‘feminine’ and which really are feminine, but which I think all people should be able to read.

The Diary of Anne Frank by Anne Frank

She spells her name with an ‘e,’ of course she’s amazing. She is an eyewitness to so much social horror, yet her diary is also full of joy and frustration and love.

Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery

Of course this was going to be on my list! But for this post, I will also note that Gilbert and Matthew are excellent role models for boys. Gilbert is brought down a peg or two by Anne, but he learns humility and he learns to be patient and supportive. Matthew is a shining beacon of all that is good – proof that a man can be quiet and hardworking and loving.

The Wee Free Men by Terry Pratchett

Yes, written by a man, so what? The Tiffany Aching series is lively, funny, and has at its heart a difficult, smart, stubborn girl who does the really important, little things no one else wants to do. And she makes great cheese.

Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones

Sophie is an amazing hero who uses cleaning up as an excuse to investigate. She realises the strength of old women and how much fun it is to be bossy. She’s a thorough delight. Howl is vain and interested in pretty clothes. It’s perfect.

The Flopsy Bunnies by Beatrix Potter

Potter was astonishing as an author and I love The Flopsy Bunnies, which really does shake its metaphorical head at that wastrel, Benjamin Bunny, and gives a staring role to the resourceful Mrs Tittlemouse.

a long way to a small angry planet by Becky Chambers

This isn’t for children, and it isn’t traditionally seen as feminine, but it is feminine science fiction and it presents an amazing future where races, genders, species can all get along. I like to mention it as much as possible!

This is a short list and I’m sure I could come up with something much longer, but I have a book chapter to be getting one with!

 

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Evil and Fairy Tale’s Female Senior Citizens

This morning I came across Elizabeth Blair’s piece “Why Are Old Women Often the Face of Evil in Fairy Tales and Folklore?” It’s a valid question and one I’ve often contemplated (see Deb Waterhouse-Watson and my chapter here, for instance).

The problem is, we’re often saying the mean, old woman is a negative stereotype – or even evil. Actually, sometimes the mean, old woman just doesn’t care and gets on with what has to be done. Granny Weatherwax taught me that being liked shouldn’t be an object in life.

Nanny Ogg: “No one would come up here this time of night.”
Magrat Garlick: “What’s to be afraid of ?”
Granny: “Us.” 

Granny: “I’ve never claimed to be nice, just to be sensible.”

Yes, Terry Pratchett! It was a little rough this semester. I was teaching The Wee Free Men just after his death and it was difficult to deliver the lecture without tearing up. I definitely read a good portion of his last novel, The Shepherd’s Crown, through a watery haze. I’m just incredibly grateful that he gave us a last novel with Granny (by the way, it’s worth reading Neil Gaiman’s comments when you finish the book) and the novel, while not Pratchett at his most brilliant – it wasn’t, after all, completely polished – is an amazing farewell and leaves Pratchett’s readers with just a little more Granny-style wisdom to keep us going.

shepherds-crown-cover

Social media trains us to seek more and more ‘likes’ and to keep clicking ‘like’ even if we just give something a cursory glance and don’t hate it. In fairy tales, life is too difficult, decisions too momentous, to tackle with a click of a ‘like’ button. The old women of fairy tale know that not everyone will love them or protect them and they act accordingly. Granny Weatherwax is not always loved or even liked, but when the going gets tough, you need Granny in your corner, even if Granny herself worries that she’ll turn a corner and follow in Black Aliss’s wicked footsteps.

Not all old women in fairy tale are evil, though. Disney gave us Flora, Fauna, and Merryweather, three incredibly loveable old women.

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One of the reasons I disliked Maleficent (2014) was that the film turned the old women into bumbling fools. In Sleeping Beauty (1959), they are a little silly, but there is no underestimating their power. They take charge when the baby princess is cursed with death. They can wield their wands to bake a cake or send a sword swift and true to defeat a dragon. Their magic and their generosity saves the kingdom.

And when old women are evil, they can be rather wonderful. One of my all time favourite, bad, old women is Yzma from The Emperor’s New Groove (2000). While we may be wary of the negative stereotypes attached to the old woman in fairy tale, I don’t think it hurts to occasionally celebrate her in all her snarky, reckless, insouciant glory. She reminds us we don’t always have to be liked to be incredible women. Indeed, sometimes it’s a lot more fun to be wicked.

Yzmqa

When you discovered a favourite author… J.K. Rowling edition

I wasn’t among the first readers of J.K. Rowling. I caught up around Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire’s release, which involved a number of late nights reading the first three books before cracking open the most recent.

At the time I was working on my PhD thesis about Disney animated and theatrical musicals. My supervisor gave me a rather stern look: “I know you’re enjoying Harry Potter, but you should put it down and focus on your thesis.” I’m always a rebel. At the following meeting, I brightly smiled and handed him a short essay comparing Harry Potter and Simba from The Lion King. He chuckled.

When I started teaching children’s literature, of course, the Harry Potter books were an essential part of our curriculum. I was actually teaching the first generations who grew up with Harry Potter. When the last book was due to come out, we held a symposium and compared notes about waiting at Borders for our books and how we clutched our Hedwig plushies, which came with the book, as we started reading.

So, Harry Potter has really been with me throughout the start of my academic career. I still teach Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, which is my favourite volume of the series. I’m not actually a great fan of the films, although I enjoy them well enough, so I’m always surprised these days when people identify the films before the books. It just seems wrong. Harry Potter is about books. Harry Potter is about those amazing, halcyon days when it seemed everyone on the planet was reading the same book on the same day.

The influence of Harry Potter is still being felt. Anthony Gierzynski, with Kathryn Eddy, has published Harry Potter and the Millennials (covered in i09), which examines the political influence the series has had on a generation:

Specifically, the evidence indicates that Harry Potter fans are more open to diversity and are more politically tolerant than nonfans; fans are also less authoritarian, less likely to support the use of deadly force or torture, more politically active, and more likely to have had a negative view of the Bush administration.

Indeed, the series has prompted much activism and charitable behaviour. The Harry Potter Alliance, for instance, is a brilliant gateway to these activities, as is Lumos, which works to free children from institutions. As J.K. Rowling herself has said, “Isn’t it time we left orphanages to fairytales?” Indeed.

I’ve also loved the creativity of fans in creating stories, art and even knitting patterns inspired by the books. To end this post, here is my completed Ginny’s Cardigan with its pattern of owls on the back.

Ginny's Cardigan

Ginny’s Cardigan

Maybe I should make some butterbeer for Christmas?

Why is there a question about happy endings?

I was just at Transporting Tales, which was held yesterday on a very grey, windy, cold, wet day. It was rather nice to be snug in the Glen Eira Town hall talking about fairy tales! However, I will tell you about that later as I’m off this afternoon to give a paper on princesses at the Australian Children’s Literature Association Conference and I still have to check that all my slides are in order and… you know, get dressed so that I’m not delivering a paper in my pyjamas.

However, this is something close to my heart. Before I headed off to Transporting Tales, I saw a piece in the guardian, “Should children’s books have happy endings?” Seriously, I thought, that’s a question? Still? This has been a debate raging for a while in children’s literature and I find it particularly frustrating. Surely there is room for books with all kinds of endings? And what is so wrong with a happy ending, anyway? Sometimes things do work out. People achieve their dreams on the odd occasion. In the article, Robert Muchamore writes:

Happy endings necessitate a black-and-white world. But what is the mindset of a child who has grown up exposed only to goodies, baddies and happy endings? A hundred years ago, young men queued at recruitment offices to fight the evil Kaiser. Today, they watch online propaganda, switch fast-food uniforms for Kevlar and head for Iraq and Syria. After childhoods crammed with clear-cut villains and happy endings, is it any wonder they’re conditioned to believe in fighting for justice and that ultimate happy ending: the promise of eternal life?

I would profoundly disagree. Happy endings can occur in a world of greys as easily as an unhappy ending can occur in a world of black and white. Happy endings can provide hope and motivation to make positive change. They can also provide comfort. Meg Cabot wrote a wonderful blog post about this issue, in which she articulates how books about trauma and misery might be attractive to some teens, but as a teen herself, handling a number of serious issues, she wanted an escape from that and she found it in romance fiction with all its happy endings. I think the ‘fight for justice’ card is a little overplayed too – I’m not convinced that reading a book with a happy ending will prompt any teenager to sign up to the military. I’ve read a lot of books with happy endings and I can assure you, I myself have no desire to sign up. This goes beyond fiction and involves a great many political and social factors. Fiction can provide a possibility of the happy ending. I’m not sure that’s such a bad thing. And those happy endings aren’t all about eternal life or the ultimate justice – many happy endings are about finding a family, celebrating friendship, healing old wounds or simply discovering that the hero is going to be okay after all.

When I began my journey into children’s lit. scholarship, I read a lot of articles deriding novels like Pollyanna, but the thing to remember is that the heroine had to journey through grief, loss, despair, loneliness and disability before she could find her happy ending. There was a reason she had to play the ‘glad game.’ Don’t look at the happy ending and judge the book by it.