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Exploring the Classics – Uncle Tom’s Cabin; or, Life Among the Lowly

Harriet Beecher Stowe; Uncle Tom’s Cabin

Page notes refer to the 2009 version of the text.

Published in serial form in abolitionist newspaper the National Era beginning in June 1851, Uncle Tom’s Cabin; or, Life Among the Lowly is a harrowing read: the violence is unflinching and brutal.

Uncle Tom’s Cabin is, without hesitation, a product of its time. The overt and covert messages of the text contradict each other so that the Christianity and equality that is overtly preached in both plot and dialogue is tainted by the innate racism of the prose. Non-white characters are condescended to and stereotyped: slaves are described – by a character who is ostensibly on the side of the oppressed – as ‘poor, simple, dependent creatures’ (p. 31); Stowe states that ‘the negro mind, impassioned and imaginative, always attaches itself to hymns and expressions of a vivid and pictoral nature’ (p. 29); the children are ‘pickaninnies’ and the mixed-race women are sexually available. All of the black characters are ‘woolley headed’.

Stowes racial essentialism is paternalistic and unpleasant to modern readers, but, perhaps (and this is not to excuse her) they are a product of her experiences. Stowes ideas of race are socially constructed, a product of a divided world that truly believed in the natural characteristics of the races.

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More on Maggie

For those of you living in the UK, Maggie Goes on a Diet will be featured on 5live, at 5pm on channel 5 tonight.

Dieting: it’s not just for grown-ups

Here’s a bit of armchair activism for you: hop over to the Amazon page for this new childrens’ book, due to be released in the not-too-distant future. Take in the name. It’s called Maggie Goes on a Diet. Feeling a little uncomfortable yet?

Now read the description. Fairly unpleasant, isn’t it? Fairly unpleasant, but nothing too horrendous. After all, teaching healthy eating habits is an admirable enterprise. But wait. What’s this I see? Suitable for ages 4-8? Four to eight?? FOUR TO EIGHT?

What we have here, Islanders, is a book, written by a man, telling pre-pubescent girls to diet. YOU THERE! YOU’RE PROBABLY TOO FAT! DON’T YOU WANT TO WEAR THIS PRETTY PINK FROCK?


Let’s take in the cover. It is, after all, the only thing we currently have to go on. This smiley girl with Pippi Longstocking plaits is probably Maggie. And Maggie is, lets face it, a little on the plump side. Maggie has a pretty pink frock. Girls like pretty pink frocks. But look! The pretty pink frock will not fit her – it is too small! Here’s a suggestion for your next book Mr. Kramer: write a book called MAGGIE’S MUM BUYS A DRESS THAT ACTUALLY FITS HER AND DOESN’T DEGRADE HER DAUGHTER, and get someone else to write it.

Young girls are surrounded by messages telling them they’re not good enough. But just in case they miss the billboard adverts, TV commercials, models and actors preaching impossible standards of beauty and culturally acceptable body sizes why not give them this? It’s never to early to introduce body fascism to your children!

Dieting Maggie is 14. Fourteen, incidentally, is the peak age for the developing anorexia nervosa. It doesn’t matter, though. Maggie could be 14 or 40. This book is aimed at children who have only just started school. Children who may be being widely socialized for the first time. Teen bodies and pre-pubescent bodies are very different places to live. To write about one as relevant to the other is irresponsible. To even suggest children with still developing bodies diet is irresponsible and cruel. As far as I can tell Mr Kramer is not a GP, nor a nutritionist, nor a child psychologist. He’s a kidlit author who self-publishes. Is he popular? I don’t know, but I certainly hope not.

I’ve already been over to Amazon and added a couple of appropriate tags to this book. Why not go add yours?

But it gets kids reading! Some thoughts on critical literacy

Goosebumps: Scary House; RL Stine


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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