My kids find me to be a fairly difficult parent. The problem with having a know-it-all mum with strong views is that she often imposes her will upon you (or so I’m lead to believe). But it’s hard when you are always right—perhaps not. One thing I am strict about, however, is the books I encourage my kids to read.
I’m sure many of you have seen the book order forms than come home from school, the ones where your child has carefully circled the books they are hoping to convince you to buy. My kids slide their order forms forward in trepidation, a pleading look on their faces while clinging to the glimmering hope that I will be too tired, distracted or—God-forbid—in a good enough mood to blindly say yes to their choices. I want to. I really do. Saying no is so much harder than saying yes, and it’s books right?
Wrong. My children have TERRIBLE taste in books. They are as capable of discerning good literature as they are of choosing healthy food over sweets. Rather, they buy into the glittery fairies on the cover, or the junky free necklace (worth… 10c!). The thing is, many people appear to consider children’s literature as a transitory and superficial transaction. Have you ever said, at least they’re reading? I have. But that is doing them a disservice. Children aren’t stupid, they’re just inexperienced. They are equally intelligent to us. They are capable of complex emotions and nuanced thought, yet, much of the world of children’s literature doesn’t celebrate this. According to fairy-tale scholar, Jack Zipes: “it has been demonstrated by psychologists and educators time and again that stories and fairy tale do influence the manner in which children conceive the world and their places in it even before they begin to read”.* If this is true then surely we need to be choosing books that help children develop a world view beyond the limiting stereotypes many children’s books have on offer.
To my view, quality literature is even more important for children than for adults because we have the opportunity to shape their worldview before it’s become rigidly and contextually bound within the prevailing social norms of class, race and gender. While much of what worries me about children’s fiction is focused upon the portrayal of young girls, children’s stories can be just as limiting for boys, particularly if you are seeking a less adventure-bound, more emotionally-driven narrative.
Books for children should contain stories that empower their main characaters, “regardless of gender”.** That is, gender should not be the limiting factor in the character’s development and should put paid to such sayings as “because she’s a girl”, and “that’s just what boys do”.
So next time your kid’s book club slip comes home look for the insidious and serialised pulp fiction that is Mills and Boon for children. Things like the Puppy Clubs, Kitten Clubs, Fairy Clubs, (choke, splutter) Barbie (with free nail polish!) and look instead for stories that explore its characters’ inner world, relationships with family or self-development.
The Children’s Book Council of Australia is an excellent resource when looking for intelligent fiction for children.
For middle-age readers books like Cressida Cowell’s How to Train Your Dragon series depict characters that break out of cultural stereotypes and moulds to create positive changes. I haven’t yet had the pleasure of reading Jessica Townsend’s Nevermoor but this a book that promises a female protagonist that bucks conventions and embarks upon her own adventure. And who can overlook the wonderful Matilda by Roald Dahl or Coraline by Neil Gaiman?
For older readers I just can’t go past the amazing work of Patrick Ness. You may know his heartbreaking book A Monster Calls that gives voice the complex and difficult experience of losing a parents from a child’s perspective. Patrick Ness’s incredible Chaos Walking series uses conventions of science fiction and fantasy to explores themes of gender, power, class and race in a compelling trilogy. The science-fiction and fantasy genres create alternative worlds where children can explore complex reworkings of issues such as sexuality, identity, gender norms and race that are so often a taken-for-granted norm in their daily lives.
I include Patrick Ness, and Cressida Cowell’s work to make the point that texts with male protagonists can still be feminist. It is not enough to create new depictions of how girls can be in the world, it is also imperative to change the stories we tell about boys as well.
We have an incredible opportunity to gives our kids intelligent, enriching and eye-opening fiction that will help them understand the world from other people’s point of view, or in the very least give them access to a world where their way of being is celebrated.
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*Zipes, Jack. 1987. Don’t Bet on the Prince: Contemporary Feminist Fairy Tales in North America and England. New York and London: Routledge. p. xii.
**Trites. Roberta S. Walking Sleeping Beauty: Feminist Voices in Children’s Novels. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press. p. 4.