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Where are the fathers in fiction?

Anna Perera; Guantanamo Boy

Anna Perera; Guantanamo Boy

The Sunday just gone was Fathers’ Day. Prompted by this, a friend of mine tweeted a question that I thought I’d be able to answer:

I had a half-hearted stab at naming a couple of father figures who seemed like generally good eggs – Dumbledore, obviously, and The Fat Controller from Rev. Awdrey’s Thomas series. In desperation I added the father from Piggybook, who starts out not very pleasant but grows into a good father. Other friends mentioned Arthur Weasley – Ron’s dad in the Harry Potter series, Pa Ingalls from Little House on the Prairie and  Gilbert Blythe from the later Anne of Green Gables books (from Anne’s House of Dreams onwards).

Contrast this with the number of (kid)literary orphans one can name without taking more than a second to think about it: Harry Potter; Oliver Twist; Giant Peach inhabitant James; Mary Lennox; Heidi; Anne of Green Gables; Dorothy (of Oz), Mowgli; Pauline, Petrova and Posie of Ballet Shoes; Katniss Everdeen; the Sager children of Children on the Oregon Trail or the Chant siblings of Diana Wynne Jones Charmed Life, to name but a few. Read the rest of this entry


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: Picturebooks

My plan to write a ‘little post’ about feminism in children’s books turned into  an unwieldy behemoth. For that reason, I’ve decided to split it into smaller sections, starting with…


I’m not going to rattle on about the importance of picture books in the feminist movement. They are one way in which preliterate children and emergent readers come to understand the world around them, first by clues in the illustrations alone, then by combining visual and textual to create meaning.

Generally, picture books reinforce traditional gender roles and heteronormitivity. More recently, there has been a shift in production of books for pre-school and primary education designed to empower young girls and instil and ‘I can do anything’ attitude in them – see Carmela laVigna Coyle’s Do Princesses… series for a prime example, but overwhelmingly, picture books, with the possible exclusion of those that fall into the ‘post-modern’ category, do little to subvert. Depressingly, this is most apparent in learn-to-read scheme stories such as the Oxford Reading Tree, in which stereotyped family units and gender roles are the norm.  A study carried out in 2003 by Prof. Diane Reay and discussed in Kat Banard’s excellent book The Equality Illusion found that the education our children receive at in early years education is remarkably gendered, with teachers reinforcing typical gendered behaviours:

…girls received harsh criticism from teachers when they didn’t conform to stereotypical gender behaviours. Teachers described girls who misbehaved as ‘bad influences, ‘spiteful’, and ‘scheming little madams’, yet when boys behaved in similar ways, they were described as ‘just mucking about’.

The Equality Illusion  p. 54

So for feminist parents it is critical that books that subvert traditional gender roles are introduced in the home.

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