Primary Schoolers are a remarkably diverse group as far as reading ability and interest goes. Though some at the higher end of the spectrum may be able to engage easily with, and even prefer, adult novels, reluctant and struggling readers may prefer less challenging literature. Key Stage 2, in UK schools, covers ages seven to eleven, so I’ve gone for books that (I think) fall neatly into that category.
Where feminist picturebooks make basic assertions about gender equality books for slightly older children can begin to build on those foundations. It’s not just ‘girls can be astronauts too’, though of course strong female characters are still the cornerstone of the genre, but now the philosophies of gender equality are beginning to be explored as well.
Bill’s New Frock
Possibly my favourite of Anne Fine’s books (though they’re all so lovely that making such a decision would probably involve a long weekend in a conference room with a set of whiteboards).
It’s a remarkably simple story. One day Bill wakes up to discover he’s a girl. Dressed in a pink frilly frock, he goes off to school to discover just how different life is for the girls in his class. Written after returning to the UK from California, Bill’s New Frock directly addresses the gender stereotyping that is so common in schools. Anne Fine says:
My children went to primary school in California, where the schools had a rule to treat girls and boys the same, and make sure the workbooks they used weren’t old-fashioned and ‘sexist’. (If anyone ignored the rule, parents were quick to complain.)
Then we came back to Britain. My children came home from their new school astonished at how often the boys did one thing, but the girls did another. And there were other things they noticed: boys were always given the noisy instruments in the Music class; girls were not expected to read adventure books – that sort of thing. My daughters were also shocked by how the teachers seemed to expect different standards of neatness, quietness and behaviour, depending on whether you were male or female.
From the trouble of not having pockets to ruminating on whether he should allow a boy to win a race, Bill’s New Frock offers young male readers insight into the small and not-so-small difficulties that come with simply being female: the expectation that you shouldn’t get muddy, the assumption that you’re not as strong or as fast as your male classmates. Bill’s New Frock deserves a place in everyone’s library.
Astrid Lindgren has created in Pippi Longstocking a real feminist role model and as such the merits of the character and books have been widely discussed. Pippi’s super-heroic exploits, her agency and anarchic spirit play against her hyper-feminised, and infantalised, appearance – the plaits! the freckles! – to create a subversive world so daring that until 2005 Iran banned production of the books.
Pippi Longstocking finds the titular hero living in an unnamed Swedish town. Her mother dead and her father lost at sea, Pippi foils attempts to place her in an orphanage and in school, regularly outwitting the adults and authority figures around her and denying the inequity that childhood bestows upon her.
Pippi’s lack of interest in her physical appearance (“I don’t suffer [my italics] from my freckles,” she tells a purveyor of anti-freckle cream, “I like them”.) and aping of accepted adult feminine beauty ideals delivers the same message that Naomi Wolf’s The Beauty Myth would do for adult readers nearly 50 years later; Pippi will not be oppressed by patriarchal dictats of beauty. Her lack of perfunctory respect for authority figures, her financial independence, her instinctual kindness and normalising fallibility offer a picture of child- and womanhood that young readers can respect, relate to and aspire to be.
A Hat Full of Sky
Terry Pratchett’s 2nd Tiffany Aching novel, and his 32nd Discworld novel, is a much more quietly feminist title than those I mention above. Science fiction and fantasy is a genre, arguably*, in which strong female characters are underrepresented. Terry Pratchett has done much to redress the balance. His women are fully realised characters, with strengths and weaknesses that don’t pander to gender stereotypes, and Tiffany Aching, one of his many magical women, is no exception. To him witchcraft is more than just playing with sparkly wands:
It has an awful lot to do with taking responsibility for yourself and taking responsibility also for the less able people and, up to a certain point, guarding your society. This is based on how witchcraft really was, I suspect. The witch was the village herbalist, the midwife, the person who knew things. She would sit up with the dying, lay out the corpses, deliver the newborn. Witches tended to be needed when human beings were meeting the dangerous edges of their lives, the places where there is no map. They don’t mess around with tinkly spells; they get their hands dirty.
Tiffany Aching is an apprentice witch, learning the craft of her calling at the hands of an older witch named Miss Level. A Hat Full of Sky sees her forced to choose her path; she can become a cackling ‘wicked’ witch, or a compassionate, understanding one. By this device the novel questions our roles in society – do they choose us or do we choose them? A Hat Full of Sky doesn’t overplay the virtues of its young protagonist, she is like us all open to temptation, but it does gently remind the reader that we are accountable to one another, and that in all of us there is the potential for greatness.
Once again, there are titles that I haven’t touched on here that nevertheless deserve a mention: The Day Joanie Frankenhauser Became a Boy by Francess Lantz, That Girl Lucy Moon by Amy Timberlake and Diane Stanley’s oft recommended Rumpelstiltskin’s Daughter to name but a few.
I’d like to know what you think. What have I carelessly ignored? Do you have a feminist favourite that should be required reading?
Next time I’ll be picking out books from the Young Adult genre.
*I say ‘arguably’ because of some vague sense of not making assertions I don’t have the knowledge to back up. In reality, I am certain that there’s no ‘arguably’ about it.
Older posts in this series