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.
Little Women & Good Wives
I struggled over the inclusion of this classic here.
When Little Women was first published specifically gendered children’s literature was a new phenomenon. Previously children’s literature had been consumed indiscriminately regardless of gender, but as values change, so to do representations of them in literature. Concern over the appropriateness of cross-gender reading material for young girls created the impetus to divide literature down arbitrary gender lines. So it is that Little Women and its sequel Good Wives (now often sold as one volume, which is how they are treated here) is one of the first examples of gendered literature for children.
Jo March is the archetypal tomboy: fiercely independent, slang loving and distinctly unfeminine. Throughout the novel subversions of traditional gender roles can be found; not just in Jo March, but also in Laurie, the March sisters’ effete neighbour and, occasionally, in the other March sisters too.
But it is only in childhood and adolescence that the individuality of the March clan is embraced. Their individuality, their own desires and passions are the folly of youth; the girls must get any thought of real subversion out of their heads in time to become wives and mothers. At the end of the book each surviving March girl is queen of her own household. ‘Oh my girls’, goes their mother’s final sentiment, ‘however long you may live, I can never wish you a greater happiness than this!’ The women rarely appear outside a domestic setting and the home is presented as a practice ground for, and a refuge from, the outside world. Jo’s apparent freedom from the family home is merely transference to a different domestic setting where she is kept under the watchful eye of another matriarch.
But Little Women is the product of another time, and ultimately it’s good readin’. The characters are easy to relate to, and the dilemmas they face have real equivalents for young women today, and even if the March sisters make different decisions than we might hope today’s young women will, their journey encourages engagement with feminist issues.
In a Gilded Cage
Part of a series by Rhys Bowen, In a Gilded Cage is not great literature. The prose is sometimes clunky and Bowen has a habit of Really. Spelling. It. Out. But I’ve included it here because its historical setting offers a glimpse into first-wave feminism. With a title alluding to Evelyn de Morgan’s 1919 painting, one can hardly be surprised.
Molly Murphy is a lady detective living in early 20th century New York, struggling with the ideas of marriage and independence in a world that expects her to have one or the other. Set two years before a woman’s right to vote was written into the constitution, our feisty protagonist is arrested following a march under the banner of suffrage, and this where the story begins.
The cast of characters each suffer from their lack of emancipation: property, illegitimacy, sexual agency, education and constructs of beauty are all touched upon by Bowen, both driving and hiding behind the plot.
Reviewers frequently compare Rhys Bowen to an Agatha Christie novel, which, as a frequent nominee (and occasional winner) of the Agatha and Macavity awards, is hardly surprising. I must admit – and feel free to berate me – I have never read Christie, but still the comparison seems a fair one.
I Wouldn’t Thank You For a Valentine – Poems for Young Feminists
Edited by poet laureate Carole Ann Duffy, I Wouldn’t Thank You For a Valentine is a wonderful collection of 85 short(ish) poems.
Poems from a variety of writers tackle the issues of adolescence – identity, isolation, cultural constraints, race, femininity and desire – from a feminist perspective. From Liz Lockhead’s musing on the traditions of St. Valentine’s day that gives the anthology a title, to Fleur Adcock’s witty and affirming For Heidi with the Blue Hair and the heartbreaking translation of Picadilly Line, there is something here for everyone. There’s no misandry, no fun-making and finger-wagging; this is a celebration of shared experience, even when that experience isn’t so fun. This collection should appeal to buffs and novices, students and pleasure-readers alike. It deserves a place in everyone’s library.
Dealing With Dragons
Dealing With Dragons tells the story of Princess Cimorene, a lively and headstrong young woman who isn’t particularly keen on the usual business of princessing, so when her parents arrange a betrothal to the pretty but vapid Prince Therandil she takes the most reasonable course of action available to her – volunteering to become a dragon’s captive.
Subverted fairy tales are a dime a dozen. Angela Carter’s short story collection The Bloody Chamber is a prime example of the genre, as is Babette Cole’s Princess Smartypants. The trope is a mainstay of feminist YA literature, and here we have hints of Rapunzel and The Frog Prince, as well as a little bit of Noggin the Nog.
Wrede is a skilled storyteller who builds here an almost flawless world. Dealing With Dragons is sharp and engaging – a page-turner and a delight.
Once again, there are titles I’ve not included here, but that do deserve a mention. Parrotfish by Ellen Wittlinger, which deals with trans issues brilliantly; Marion Zimmer Bradley’s The Mists of Avalon, a feminist retelling of the Arturian legends; Avi’s The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle and Scott Westerfeld’s oft recommended Uglies series are all deserving of a fuller write-up here. What else should I have included?
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