Monday, March 9, 2015

Musings on Best Feminist Books For Younger Readers Lists

BookRiot posted a Best Feminist Books For Younger Readers list and I am trying to figure out how I feel about it.

Here is the list ...
  1. The Princess in Black by Shannon Hale and Dean Hale, illustrated by LeUyen Pham (ages 5-8)
  2. The Case of the Missing Moonstone by Jordan Stratford, illustrated by Kelly Murphy (ages 8-12)
  3. Luz Sees the Light by Claudia D├ívila (ages 8-12) 
  4. The Year of Shadows by Claire Legrand, illustrated by Karl Kwasny (ages 8-12) 
  5. Zita the Spacegirl by Ben Hatke (ages 8-12)
  6. Phoebe and Her Unicorn: A Heavenly Nostrils Chronicle by Dana Claire Simpson (ages 8-12)
  7. The Mighty Miss Malone by Christopher Paul Curtis (ages 9-12)
  8. The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making by Catherynne M. Valente, illustrated by Ana Juan (ages 10-14)
  9. The Last Dragonslayer by Jasper Fforde (ages 10-14)
  10. Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson (ages 10 +)
  11. The Thickety: A Path Begins by J. A. White, illustrated by Andrea Offermann (ages 10 +)
  12. Etiquette & Espionage by Gail Carriger (ages 12 +)
  13. Delilah Dirk and the Turkish Lieutenant by Tony Cliff (ages 12-17)         
So, on the one hand, I have read 7 of the 13 books listed and for the most part really enjoyed them (the only one the list I am conflicted about is The Princess in Black and I will explain that in a minute). So, I plan to get the rest of the books on the list and look forward to when my daughter is old enough for me to either read some of these books with her or for her to read them herself.

On the other hand - the obsessive gendering of things has been making me nuts for years and I am not clear on how this list breaks the pattern or really upsets the gendered assumptions that seem to permeate everything these days.

The Princess in Black is actually sort of an example of this ... see the titular Princess "by day" behaves as a "normal" princess "should" - but by "night" (not actual night, but you know what I mean) is a ninja, monster-fighting, hero-princess. So it is cool that the princess gets to be the ninja hero in black, but on the other hand - the way the story is framed - being a ninja princess is out-of-the-ordinary and not normal.  We still have this background assumption that being the hero, wearing black and fighting monsters is not a normal girl thing to do. And that bugs me.

Girls and boys should both be able to be ninja monster fighters and it shouldn't be out of the ordinary. I also think that girls and boys should be able to like pink, tea parties and unicorns - and be the princess if they want (that one is even harder to manage).  (And yes, I understand that sex and gender go beyond girl/boy - male/female ... that brings a whole entirely different level of difficulty in terms of available literature and expectations that I am not equipped to discuss here. This has been hard enough to try to type out as it is.)

So, unless I am missing something (which I could be since I have only read seven of the books) - all of these books feature female protagonists - which is both cool ! because I love books with awesome female leads ... and troubling ... though this is really hard to put into words. And this isn't just about this list, which I do like better than most since it is based on the concept of feminism rather than gender, but more of a musing about all of these sorts of lists I have been seeing lately. 

Is having a female protagonist the main criteria ?  Even if the framework of the story concentrates on how the lead character is defying societal expectations ? I mean, on one hand, stories that celebrate differences are good, but on the other hand, do girls constantly need to hear the message that being the hero, or being the smart one, or whatever it is, means that you are not normal and that you are defying expectations?  (The worst of that sort of thing is the special-snowflake only one book - books were the lead female is the only nice, good, competent female in the whole book and all the other girls/women are bad, mean, or awful somehow. I hate that trope!)  Why can't female heroes be the norm too?

Also - are there feminist male characters ? Is that a thing? It should be.

Can female characters be feminist in books with male protagonists ? I should think so. We need more examples of this too.

And of course, every time a list like this is posted, someone has to come along and ask "What about the best books for empowering boys?" ... which a) ignores the fact that boys can be feminists too and b) ignores the fact that the empowered male protagonist is the default. It doesn't actually take much work to come up with a list like that (though surprisingly, in a quick internet search haven't found any using that sort of title.)

After all - girls are not only allowed to read boys like Harry Potter, Percy Jackson, etc. which feature one or more male leads, they are expected and even required to in classes.  But I keep hearing more and more examples of how boys are expect not to even want to read books that feature female protagonists. The only cross-over that I remember seeing in the hands of boys in the recent past was the Hunger Games trilogy. This is bad.

Reading Shannon Hale's post No Boys Allowed: School visits as a woman writer made me absolutely livid. My son also likes Spirit Animals, he loved all of the Zita books - we have always told him that virtually any book in the house is okay for him to read at this point, because we trust his judgement. He  has zero interest in books like the Guys Read series or many of the books that are supposed to be "for boys." He obsessed over Harry Potter. He also reads all sorts of books that I picked up with my daughter in mind - and enjoys them. He has totally no problem reading books with female protagonists.

But (you knew this was coming) he has been getting more and more careful about which books he is willing to carry to school. Some of them, he only reads at home - or he hides them in his backpack only to share with a special teacher or two. This is painful to see. 

I can totally picture him wanting to attend a talk by Shannon Hale. Then - to be told by the school that the books are really for girls only - and that he is somehow strange for reading them! How confusing! Invalidating! Dis-empowering!!! Just Awful on so many, many levels !!!   I just - words can't express my outrage and disgust.

So... I have no idea what any of this means. And I don't know what to do about it. But I do know that this is a serious problem.

I also want more lists of "Empowering Books for Kids" - all kids.

1 comment:

  1. Amen! I am in the middle of writing a post on more-or-less the same topic, and your post has given me food for thought. Like you, I was appalled at a school restricting Hale's appearance to girls only, and by the broader problem of boys being discouraged from reading books featuring female protagonists. Please stop by later this week, when my post goes up? And I now plan to link to this post as well.

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