Thursday, January 31, 2013

"There are no strong female leads in children's books" apparently (except a couple of billion...)

Elastogirl (sigh) how I love thee!

Twitter was abuzz (well, a few of us were rolling our eyes at least) at a Jezebel article, bemoaning, amongst other things, the lack of strong female leads and role models in children's books. Here's the article in question and probably one of the first things you'll notice about it is the book (series) they're picking on. 

"OH NO!" says Steven Vallas PhD, citing a paper by sociologist John Levi Martin"A book that is 45 years old (I know this, because it was published the year I was born!) doesn't have any female characters in strong job positions, all the women are home makers, all the best jobs are taken up by males!"

I've got some rather bad news for Steven Vallas and John Levi Martin. It's far worse than they think. For instance, let's take a look at Enid Blyton's "Noddy" series. Yes, it's an old book but where are the strong female leads - in fact why on earth isn't Noddy himself female? Would it not have had more of a positive impact if Big Ears was a kindly old spinster instead of a bearded gnome? Look at Rupert the Bear, boldly embarking on adventure after adventure asserting his maleness willy-nilly and offering no positive role model to all those little girls who still love him despite his extra bear-shaped Y-chromosome. 

Excuse my sarcasm and eye-rolling of course those of us (you) who love children's books know what a lot of rot the article is speaking. Picking over the most-loved and most popular children's titles pre-dating and published in the period from when those lovely Scarry books first appeared, you can't move for strong female leads, positive role models and smart female characters. You know, the ones Mr Vallas and Mr Levi Martin are trying to convince you don't exist in children's books. 

So let's pick a few out shall we, just for a giggle? Bring on the girls...

Rosie's Magic Horse by Quentin Blake

Hilda and the Midnight Giant by Luke Pearson

Twelve Minutes to Midnight by Christopher Edge

The Borrowers (suggested by Maxine Howells)

The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

His Dark Materials by Phillip Pullman

The Worst Princess by Anna Kemp and Sarah Ogilvie

Princess Smartypants by Babette Cole

One Crazy Summer by Rita Williams-Garcia

Harry Potter by J.K Rowling (a metric ton of strong female characters, not least of all Hermione!)

The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett

Pippi Longstocking by Astrid Lundgren

Matilda by Roald Dahl

The Magic Finger by Roald Dahl

The Giant under the Snow by John Gordon

The Rescue Princess Series by Paula Harrison (suggested by Catherine Friess)

The Emily Brown Series by Cressida Cowell and Neal Layton (also suggested by Catherine Friess)

The Little Princess Series by Tony Ross

Winnie the Witch Series by Valerie Thomas and Korky Paul

Meg and Mog Series by Helen Nicoll and Jan Pienkowski

Whizz Pop Granny Stop and Hubble Bubble Granny Trouble by Tracey Corderoy and Joe Berger

Hello Hello by Matthew Cordell

Extra Yarn by Mac Barnett and Jon Klassen

Chloe by Peter McCarty

Red Knit Cap Girl by Naoko Stoop

Just Because and Sometimes by Rebecca Elliott

Kahu the Whale Rider by Witi Ihimaera (suggested by KM Lockwood)

Millie the Detective and the Diamond Ring by Jacqueline Pye

Witch Child by Celia Rees (suggested by Sally Poyton)

Some cracking suggestions over at The Nerdy Book Club Blog

Any more for any more? Drop a comment below, thanks!


Sally said...

Great post! How about 'Witch Child' by Celia Rees! Or any of the female characters in Melissa Marr's 'Wicked Lovely' series.

ReadItDaddy said...

Good suggestion! Love Celia Rees' writing!

John Dougherty said...

- Sophie in The BFG, by Roald Dahl
- The "Girls FC series by Helena Pielichaty
_ Catherine Storr's magnificent Clever Polly & the Stupid Wolf
- And, if I may, my own Bansi O'Hara stories... Bansi's not only a strong female lead (with strong female support from two eccentric old ladies); she's also dual heritage.

Paula Harrison said...

Yes there are lots! I have a particular soft spot for Anne in Anne of Green Gables.

ReadItDaddy said...

I just don't understand the purpose of the original article, or the rather lazy example used. Even the original Richard Scarry books have been subtly altered to feature more prominent female roles in the various jobs the animals do. I did like one of the comments under it, where someone pointed out that their child is completely crushed they'll never become a train driver because they're not a fox :)

tygertale said...

Perhaps I'm missing something, but isn't that article about class in children's books, specifically Richard Scarry's books (which is rather fascinating)? I can't really find a mention about gender roles apart from in the comments section. Agree with you though about there being plenty of strong female characters, however there is a worrying trend in publishing, particularly in serial fiction, which increasingly demarcates books for boys - with Alex Rider type heroes, and books for girls - Fairy Magic Princess Popstars. I'd add my fave Marmalade Atkins to your list btw.

ReadItDaddy said...

Marmalade Atkins! How on earth could I have missed her off!

You're right, the article is more focussed on the equally odd theory that somehow, you've got to be a lion to be a doctor (a male lion at that) but as a diminutive female rabbit you're OK as a nurse.

Odd though, the books were tweaked some years back when they were re-published and the tweaks were jarring. I'd still love to see the article use something more contemporary. It's like using Mad Men as a great example of how the world of advertising has a massive male bias (it probably still does actually, judging by the sort of ad that makes muster).

Catherine said...

How about George in the Famous Five books and Jo in Little Women?

legionseagle said...

The entire Swallows & Amazons series by Arthur Ransome, and including especially Missee Lee, Cambridge-educated Classicist and pirate leader ("Let them fire on that!" she says as she hauls her standard to the masthead.)

Dido Twite (and others) from the Joan Aiken series beginning with The Wolves of Willoughby Chase.

ReadItDaddy said...

Oh heck yes to those, partic Arthur Ransome books. Always wanted to be in that gang as a kid, sounded like the best most idyllic thing ever.

Also big tip of the hat for the Joan Aiken mention.