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But it gets kids reading! Some thoughts on critical literacy

Goosebumps: Scary House; RL Stine

BUT IT GETS THEM READING!

I’ve used this phrase myself, but what does it actually mean? Or, more importantly, what do we mean when we say it?

It’s a phrase used to excuse what we perceive to be poor quality literature; to imply value in books that would otherwise be dismissed as pulpy, badly written or simply non-canon. It indicates snobbery; it is an apology to the self – a platitude to excuse fiction that doesn’t fit the value system we want to impart. It may not be morally improving, but at least it constitutes practice. But practice at what? Functional literacy – the level of reading comprehension and writing ability necessary to get by day-to-day – might be the go-to excuse. But is that really what we mean?

We want our children to be functionally literate because we want our adults to be functionally literate; because functional literacy is, well, useful. It’s difficult to operate in the world without being able to decipher the intricate squiggles on road signs, on food packaging, in instruction manuals. It’s useful to be able to write a shopping list, to sign our names. Functional literacy helps us apply for jobs and mortgages. It helps us navigate from A to B. The intricate cognitive processes by which we decipher the random marks on a page and assign them meaning are second nature to most of us; we read all the time, and we read without thinking about it. Read the rest of this entry

Feminism for early starters – More Traditional Folk and Fairy Tales

My last post on this subject was so popular that I felt I had to bring you more. So here we are: three more traditional fairy and folk tales with a feminist message.

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99 Problems but a witch ain’t one (or, Harry Potter is a guilty pleasure)

First, a disclaimer. I’ve read all the Harry Potter novels, I’ve seen six of the movies (and I’m reserving Half-Blood Prince pt1 until I can watch it back-to-back with Half-Blood Prince pt 2). I’m not a (capital F) Fan, but I enjoyed the series; I didn’t cry when Dobby died, but I did go ‘aaaaww’ a bit.

As a subset of the bildungsroman the school story is well placed to both mirror and lead readers own growth into maturity, and Harry Potter does this well if not faultlessly. The series has got a lot going for it. Briefly:

  • The lampooning of clueless middle-class SOMETHING MUST BE DONE-ism when Hermione Middleton Granger (whose parents are both company directors dentists) sets up Society for the Promotion of Elvish Welfare (SPEW) despite the fact that all but one of the house elves are a) happy with their lot and b) view SPEW as an insult to their race*.
  • Rowling doesn’t keep her protagonists as pre-pubescent, pre-sexual beings througout their time at Hogwarts.
  • People die. From page one of … Philosopher’s Stone to page 607 of …Deathly Hallows people are dying left, right and centre. Because kids are actually pretty able to cope with that.
  • I cannot stress this one enough: it’s better than Twilight by several orders of magnitude.
  • There’s a Dickensian page-turnerly quality which certainly isn’t down to genius prose, but nevertheless works
  • It’s a damn good story

And, most importantly,

  • it’s got kids reading 780-page novels in a culture that demands instant access to everything.

That said, let the traditional lefty Potter-bashing commence!

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Review: Billionaire Boy; David Walliams

David Walliams; Billionaire Boy

Published in paperback June 2011, Harper Collins. List price £6.99

Appropriate for ages 7-11.

From the cover;

‘Meet Joe Spud, the richest 12-year-old in the world. Joe has everything he could ever want: his own Formula One racing car, a thousand pairs of trainers, even an orang-utan for a butler!

Yes, Joe has everything he wants, but there’s just one thing he really needs: a friend…’

David Walliams’ first offering, The Boy in the Dress was a mildly subversive but otherwise unremarkable book. Lucky to have both fame and illustrator Quentin Blake on his side, the book was nevertheless a bestseller. His follow-up, Mr Stink, though released under significantly less fan-fare, was awarded The People’s Book Award in 2010.  So we come to the third novel from the Walliams stable: Billionaire Boy.

Let me get this out of the way before I start. The premise – that money doesn’t buy happiness – is the kind of thing that poor people say when they want to console themselves and rich people say when they’re feeling guilty. And they’re right. Directly, money doesn’t buy happiness. But it really really helps. For every character in lit that finds happiness after losing everything, there are 100 people in actual real life whose lives are made that much better with the provision of a bit of spare cash. The lonely rich kid trope is a common one in television, film and literature, and Billionaire Boy does nothing to challenge the model.

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Feminism for early starters – Traditional Folk and Fairy tales

Molly Whuppie steals the ogre's sword

This is without a doubt the most fascinating (to me, at least) Feminism for Early Starters topic I’ve written on so far. Most fairy tales, as I’ve noted before, are inherently misogynistic. Their female protagonists are usually passive (Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, Rapunzel, The Princess and the Pea and so on ad nauseam) and their mother-figures either evil (Snow White) or uncaring and selfish (Cinderella, Hansel and Gretel). When they do display curiosity or independence, they are punished for it (Sleeping Beauty, Goldilocks and the Three Bears) and in order to get what they want they are subject to severe penalty (The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast) or ignored completely (Patient Griselda). Indeed, there are more than a handful of tales in which women do not feature at all (The Steadfast Tin Soldier). The life of the fairy tale heroine is a constrained one. It’s okay, though. As long as we depict them in pointy hats with scarves hanging out of the top of them no one will mind, because, hey, it’s historic, innit. They’re happening in another time, another place. This land called Once Upon a Time where it’s okay that the adventures of women are destined to be more heir raising than hair raising.

But it’s not all bad. While most fairy tales in their original (where for ‘original’ we can substitute ‘most famous’ or ‘canonical’) are not exactly equality driven, there are a few fairy and folk tales that do have something of a feminist message. Sometimes you have to squint.

These are a few of my favourites, retold, badly and briefly*, by me.

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Gender imbalance in children’s literature, study finds

A fly-by update to point you in the direction of a Guardian article which reports on a study which reveals the gender imbalance in children’s literature.

Looking at almost 6,000 children’s books published between 1900 and 2000, the study, led by Janice McCabe, a professor of sociology at Florida State University, found that males are central characters in 57% of children’s books published each year, with just 31% having female central characters. Male animals are central characters in 23% of books per year, the study found, while female animals star in only 7.5%

I am yet to read the study myself, but I will report back when I have done so.

Vampire fiction in the Twilight generation

You’d have to be a hermit not to have noticed the recent shift to the mainstream of supernatural fiction. Once the reserve of old-school Goths and LARPers, the supernatural is now dripping in cool.

You can barely fire up Google these days without falling over someone complaining about Twilight, but I would suggest The Escapist’s tounge-in-cheek (and spoilerific) take-down for an overview of just what’s wrong with the series. But it’s not just the über-conservative values Meyer espouses in her that make the series objectionable. There’s the terrible writing too. Meyer’s dearth of adverbs and adjectives  – dazzling, perfect, pale, glorious, er… marble – is as grating as it is lazy. It’s purple prose at its worst.

Twilight is popular, though, and not just with its target audience. Why? To YouTube!

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Feminism for Early Starters: Fairy tales and folk stories retold

Fairy tales are important. They’re a  massive  part of our cultural history and they’re part of curicula in schools world-wide. Children are introduced to fairy- and folk tales in the cradle, and they’re seen as an important part of childhood. Fairy tales are also, on the whole, deeply misogynistic. The traditional versions we know today were written down in cultures that actively sought to suppress women: Perrault wrote down stories told in the salons of France in 1697 in his Histoires ou Contes du Temps passé: Les Contes de ma Mère l’Oie; the Grimm brothers collected tales from German oral traditions in their Kinder- und Hausmärchen of 1812 and Hans Christian Andersen produced his first volume of fairy takes, Eventyr, in 1835.  The first of these works is almost a century before A Vindication of the Rights of Women, the last around 60 years before the first wave of feminism really got going. 

One of the joys of fairy tales is  that they are part of a strong tradition of oral storytelling. They mutate, fudge and grow, transcending arbitrary boundaries to fit the societies and cultures in which they are told. Take Cinderella. There are dozens of tales across cultures:

For many of us twenty-first century dwellers, this oral tradition means traditional tales can easily take on the foibles and sensitivities of modern living, which in turn mean that published fractured fairy tales, political in nature or otherwise, are common.

I’ll be moving on to folk tales from antiquity with a strong feminist message at a later date, but for now, here are my favourite feminist reworkings of some traditional tales.

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Feminism for Early Starters: Books for Boys

I can’t stand the title that hovers above this post. I don’t want there to be ‘books for boys’ and ‘books for girls’; I just want there to be books. Lots of them. But the heartbreaking truth of the matter is that girls and boys do experience gender segregation in their play and have stereotypical masculine/feminine behaviour reinforced by forces outside of the control of parents and carers: the t-shirts they wear feature diggers or princesses bought not in the ‘t-shirt’ department, but the boys or girls department; the toys they play with are dinosaurs or doll-houses purchased from toy stores coded in pink and blue or a catalogue that depicts girls nursing dollies and boys zooming Hot Wheels down a track.

In schools too gendered behaviours are reinforced – countless studies over the last few decades have shown that even in classrooms with teachers that perceive themselves as gender-blind still assume the superiority of male students in maths and sciences, and grade/reward accordingly, and reward meekness in girls and outgoingness in boys. Deborah A. Garrahy’s 2001 study “Three Third-Grade Teachers’ Gender-Related Beliefs and Behavior” is an intriguing example.

I digress.  If the tone of the above seems a little apologetic, it’s because it is. Almost all the books I’ve mentioned in this series have been marketed at a female audience. But feminism is not just for girls. The message of equality is equally important for young readers of all genders.

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Feminism for Early Starters: Young Adult & Teen

So far on my quest for feminism in children’s literature finding overtly feminist titles has not been easy. That’s not to say it’s not out there, it is, but among the mountains of books published every year for young readers, titles that promote gender equality make up only a small proportion. Not so for the teen market: Feminism is strong in Young Adult fiction. For the first time, I’ve had a hard time narrowing my selection down to just three titles. So hard in fact that I forgot how to count.

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