The International Writers Magazine: Childrens Books
Fairies, Princesses and Heroines: where are the role models when you need them?
There are times when you could be forgiven for thinking that publishers have very little imagination when it comes to the subject matter of books for girls in the 6-10 years bracket. Perhaps the same may also be said for children’s buyers in bookshops since many bookshops seem to have shelves full of princess and fairy books. There are several long running series of fairy/ princess titles, of which the Rainbow Fairies series by Daisy Meadows is but one. That is before counting assorted books about magic kittens and unicorns, such as the series by Linda Chapman.
Apart from the pink and glitz of this genre, the attribute they have most in common is a sort of chocolate-boxy gooey centred feel to the plots and characterisation. There is a lot of sweetness, artificial flavours, pretty packaging and a sugary finish. However, is this what the young readers (and their parents) really want or is it what they are encouraged to want? How many girls would choose pinkish type books of their own accord? Sparkle-lit is all very well in small doses but if it is all that a child reads then the content they absorb will be very limited.
Perhaps it is too easy to be critical of the plethora of fairy princesses; however limited the novels are the girls are at least reading something. Or, so the theory goes (as I bookseller I have often heard harassed parents use this argument in relation to boys reading matter). However, these books are hardly challenging in terms of plot, vocabulary or meaning. Neither do they provide any strong interesting characters to inspire their young readers. Humour also seems to be in short supply; many of these books would fail a giggle test (do try this one at home). There is also a sad lack of the ‘yuck factor’ (for want of a better expression) in books of the sparkly variety. I know that parents of small boys consider this a particularly important factor, but it does liven up girl-oriented books too. Girls like grotty squishy bits sometimes (or perhaps that is just my female child).
It is fair to point out that the quality of the writing is variable across the genre. Some writers are better than others are, but the prose (unlike the jackets) cannot be said overall to shine. Thus, the books short-change the young reader, since she does not get a feel for the enormous potential that there is out there in the world of literature. It might seem obvious to say it, but I think you learn to appreciate good quality writing by reading it from an early age. That is not to rule out the occasional dose of junk, but a diet of nothing but fairies and magic unicorns does not bode well for a future healthy literary digestion. There is also not much scope for lively, realistic role models; princesses and fairies are not too common in the twenty-first century. Escapism is one thing, but I think it is good for kids to come across a little more variety in story protagonists.
The Alternatives: a few adventurous girls to be going on with:
||More imaginative books for girls are out there however, some new faces and some old favourites. I would like to focus on some of the ones that have appeared in the last few years or so, which unfortunately rules out the incomparable Pippi Longstocking (trans.1954). It seems however that her spirit lives on within the hearts and minds of today’s literary heroines. There are a variety of them across a range of novels and all are highly individual, quirky even. The girls are usually tough, funny and intelligent people who would make wonderful friends indeed. And even though I am not keen on the overused adjective ‘feisty’, I am forced to conclude that the heroines mentioned below are indeed very feisty girls.
Wonderful illustrations often enhance the characterisation too. I have picked out a few of my favourites to discuss in this article. Taken together they provide plenty of food for a lively imagination to chew over. My main criteria for selecting the heroines mentioned below is that they have in my own experience directly inspired many games and projects in the past and indeed continue to provide a focal point for long after the books have been read and re-read. The first of these heroines is a small girl named Sophie who has been around for a while but deserves a mention for her sterling qualities:
The Sophie series of stories by Dick King Smith tells of the adventures of a tough, determined animal lover who definitely does not suffer fools (or soppy girls in frocks) gladly. The first book, Sophie’s Snail (1988) introduces us to a four-year-old Sophie and her family. We meet her parents, her elder twin brothers (Matthew and Mark) and great aunt Al, with whom Sophie develops a special bond during the series. The review on the back cover describes Sophie as a ‘doughty little heroine’. It sounds a touch patronising perhaps, but as the books will reveal there is no one as resolute as Sophie is once she has made up her mind to do something. During the first episode of her adventures, she makes up her mind to become a (lady) farmer when she grows up. Hence the piggy bank labelled ’FARM MUNNY THANK YOU SOPHIE’ (her spelling does improve with age). Meanwhile she has to make do with her flocks and herds of snails, woodlice and assorted creepy crawly creatures that she keeps in old tins in the garden shed. Unfortunately, they have a tendency to escape so Sophie doggedly catches a new batch each time they make a break for freedom.
Apart from dealing with her animals, Sophie has to contend with her two older brothers (much inclined to tease her) and the experience of beginning school. She is not at all impressed with some of her new classmates; though she does identify one boy as husband material, as his father is a farmer. She is nothing if not dogged in her ambitions. Her relationship with her great aunt is charmingly described and the May to December aspect of it has its poignant moments. The Sophie stories are thus firmly rooted in the family oriented here and now and her various childhood adventures are anchored in realism. However, the same cannot be said for some other engaging female protagonists I have encountered. There are girls out there who have some rather surreal adventures, as we shall see below.
||A recent addition to the feisty girls stable is Martine Murray’s idiosyncratic creation Henrietta (the girl with the big bad habit of making things up). The first in the series, Henrietta: there’s no one better was first published in Australia in 2004 (UK 2006). Henrietta has created a wonderful imaginary world for herself, which includes the ‘Wide Wide Long Cool Coast of the Lost Socks’ and ‘the Island of the Rietta’. If you want to know what a Rietta looks like or whether the socks remain lost then you will have to read the books yourself. I try not to do plot spoilers. Henrietta lives with her parents and her baby brother Albert. Henrietta feels that it is fortunate that there is only one Albert in the house; more than one would be far too many.
Henrietta also has a friend called Olive Higgie who shares in the adventures of the imagination (who strangely enough has a creature called an Iggie in her bedroom, who happens to be a friend of the Rietta). Both the adventures in strange imaginary lands and life on the domestic front are surreal and bizarre to say the least. The text is ably supported by Martine Murray’s brilliant, crazy illustrations of the girls’ adventures. When I first glanced at a copy of Henrietta I took in the pink cover, which does rather scream ‘girly’ but then I registered the picture of the girl herself and realised that Martine Murray had neatly subverted the pink thing. Henrietta is no girly girl, but a lively go-getter who has been known to wear her father’s underpants on her head (it would take too long to explain why).
|Another comparative newcomer on the block is Maeve Friel’s character of Tiger Lily (Lily to her mother) and her three-legged greyhound Rosie. Her first outing was in 2007 with A Heroine in the Making and a second heroic adventure followed in 2008. The latest episode is A Heroine for all Seasons (I am sure you have all caught the reference) which involves floods and a disused jam factory. Tiger Lily is obsessed with books, particularly books where heroic deeds are done and adventures had. She obviously wishes to have her own adventures. The only snag is that Tiger Lily lives with her mother (no sign of a cannibal king for a father either) in a place called ‘The Middle of Nowhere’ where nothing exciting ever happens. Well, hardly ever anyway.
Friel has packed the Tiger Lily stories with literary references in a very un-stuffy way that expresses the sheer pleasure of books and reading.
Even if the young reader does not immediately pick up the references to literary works, there is fun to be had with them by parents. Again, the illustrations are important, with Joelle Dreidemy bringing Tiger Lily to vivid life on the page. Tiger Lily has a sidekick called Sammy (Maeve Friel called him Tiger Lily’s Sancho Panza) to aid in her adventures. Unlike her, Sammy is the practical one, rather than a reader so they make a good team.
More childrens books
I am also a great fan of the Molly Moon series by Georgia Byng, which tells the story of orphan Molly and her friends battling various nefarious characters. The first book opens (Molly Moon’s Incredible Book of Hypnotism) when Molly and her best friend Rocky are languishing in a rather grim orphanage called Hardwick House. The fun really begins when Molly discovers an old book on hypnotism tucked away in the ‘xyz’ corner of the local library. She soon teaches herself this very handy skill. After that, there is just no stopping Molly and her friends; the only thing that does stop is the world turning. That proves to be another skill that Molly discovers later in the series (Molly Moon Stops the World). You never know when it might come in useful to be able to stop the world (even if you do not actually want to get off).
Georgia Byng has described her main character, as ‘a rusty tin on the outside, but inside she’s full of diamonds’. It is a marvellous description and one that seems very apt as Molly is a child of unprepossessing appearance, but she proves to be a fantastically loyal, brave and determined friend. Over the course of several incredible adventures, Molly has the opportunity to show her true mettle as she battles with some dastardly adversaries. The stories are page turning and exciting with clever plot twists and plenty of fun too.
I hope that I have persuaded potential readers that there are more great heroines out there than you could shake a stick at (not that you would get away with doing that to any of them). I still have a soft spot for Pippi Longstocking but she has stiff competition from the younger set. Henrietta and Tiger Lily are set to become the Longstockings of the future; they have plenty of staying power between them. Moreover, if you have a problem that needs tackling, you could do much worse than ask for Molly’s help!
© Chris Mills June 2012
And here is one rare import to look out for :
Once there was a girl who lived in a castle. The castle was inside a museum. When children visited, they'd press against the glass globe in which the castle sat, to glimpse the tiny girl. But when they went home, the girl was lonely.Then one day, she had an idea! What if you hung a picture of yourself inside the castle inside the museum, inside this book? Then you'd able to keep the girl company. Reminiscent of The Lady of Shalot, here is an original fairy tale that feels like a dream — haunting, beautiful, and completely unforgettable.
Author: Bernheimer, Kate
Publisher: Schwartz & Wade Books
Illustrator: Nicoletta Ceccoli