Tuesday 17 September 2019

Fiona Ness: 'We should turn new page for girls' books'

Notebook

'This has been a big year for books for girls' (stock picture)
'This has been a big year for books for girls' (stock picture)
Fiona Ness

Fiona Ness

As we career downhill on a gluttonous romp toward Christmas (gorging along the way on a Black Friday where we spend as much as possible, buying as much as possible, for the cheapest price possible), I am caught up in altogether more pressing matters: considering what books Santa will bring to the girls of the house this year.

Book-buying is a big Christmas tradition, I suspect in part because they invoke a warm feeling of the ghosts of Christmases past. Before there were Xboxes and ice rinks and Malteser reindeer McFlurries, there were advent candles and dark nights and books by the fire.

This has been a big year for books for girls, as authors fell over themselves to tap into an increasingly paranoid seam of parenting - you know, the one where we all attempt to brainwash our girls into man-beating, Stem-studying, glass-ceiling breaking fembots for whom strong is the new skinny, whether they want to be or not.

"If she can't see it, she can't be it!" these books proclaim. Which seems in itself to be somehow infantilising and reductive - the notion that girls are so singularly lacking in imagination they can't conceptualise a different reality.

And it strikes me there's something about a feminist retelling that in itself whispers "I'm not good enough" to read critically and analytically - which, when you think about it, is exactly the opposite message we want for our girls. That, in fact, the message should be in the medium.

So when it comes to books for girls this Christmas, I will be avoiding women who changed the world; one more "feminist retelling" and "I'll scream and scream and scream until I'm sick!"

I didn't start out this way. When the new wave of feminist literature for girls arrived, I was first in the queue. Snaffling up stories such as 'Girls Who Changed the World', I felt a glow of positive action as I watched my girls consume tales of the women whom history had given the B-movie treatment (Greer Garson had made a lovely Marie Curie).

However, a year of on-message bedtime stories later, I've noticed a sea change in our house.

The nine-year-old has, apropos of nothing, taken to the works of Robert Louis Stevenson. She declared 'Kidnapped' "the most thrilling book I've ever read" - even going so far as to drop the old codger's name into a school activity where one child had to nominate a famous person and another divulge one fact about that person.

Up there with Katy Perry and Taylor Swift, Robert Louis was relegated by the class as "not actually famous".

Being amongst the top 30 translated authors in the world 125 years after your death doth not a Big Reputation make.

The eight-year-old, meanwhile, has taken to Tennyson's 'The Lady of Shalott' after the good lady of Camelot's poetic end was depicted in 'Anne of Green Gables' - a book conceived for adults but devoured by under-10s for more than a century.

The fact no one has sought to create a feminist retelling of a book written by a Canadian woman about a girl living in 1898 speaks volumes.

When it comes to girl power, Anne of Green Gables nails it, not because she strikes out against the social constructs for women of that time (she doesn't really), but with an opening sentence 180 words long, the story challenges its young readers to read on, to grapple with the complex language, and the beauty within.

"Prosaic," my sister says. "'Anne of Green Gables' was the first time I encountered the word prosaic."

The problem with so much revisionism in today's literature for girls is just that. Aren't we better creating a complex new narrative for our young womenfolk instead of getting stubbornly stuck rubbing out the old ones?

Irish Independent

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