Girls, Boys and Books

“It is a good rule after reading a new book, never to allow yourself another new one till you have read an old one in between.”

::C.S. Lewis

I had a friend whose grandmother was a bit of an icon in the early Feminist movement. She used to make frequent book recommendations for her granddaughter, who was a voracious and curious reader. Among them were a number of science fiction novels by the likes of John Wyndham (including Day of the Triffids, about a doomsday invasion of intelligent alien plants. It was a movie; knock yourself out). Reporting back to her grandmother, my friend asked how she could stand the way women were regarded in these novels, with their hoary gender roles and casual misogyny. Mostly, she wanted to know what to make of the absence of women as protagonists or characters with agency. Her grandmother replied with genuine surprise: she said she had never noticed, because she just identified with the male characters.

I have always kept that in mind as my daughters begin to read widely across genres. The fact is, books written in the past reflect the political and cultural limitations in which they were written (and for some reason science fiction, supposedly dealing with the future and the perfection of human societies, tends to be the worst offender). There’s no way around it, really.

Driving around today, we were listening to an audiobook my wife had selected because it was Fourth of July-themed: a recent book about a girl growing up in the era of the American Revolution. In the book, our young heroine neglects her studies, her housework and her etiquette and her baking–in fact, all the markers of femininity in the 18th Century–in favor of more “boyish” pursuits (namely, mud and horses). Which is fine, because surely there were tomboys in every age. But this is a marker of contemporary historical fiction written for girls and young women: in order for modern readers to identify with the protagonist, the assumption goes, she will have to escape or reject the gender roles we now regard as confining (in some cases literally: these women don’t wear corsets). But as my wife pointed out, there were many ways for girls and women to be strong in the lives and times in which they lived. It is unfortunate that today’s writers and publishers don’t trust that we can go there.

And let me be clear that there is nothing wrong with swashbuckling heroines. My daughters will meet Katniss soon enough, and I am sure they will get along. But in new fiction for young people they are crowding out all the regular girls.

One solution in the interest of widening the experience of girlhood in literature is to go backwards. Books about girls written a century or more ago–including heavy hitters Anne of Green Gables, Little Women, the Little House books, and as they get a bit older, invincible O.G. Jane Austen–are about girls who live as girls, and grow up to live as women, within the circumstances of their time and place. There is much of value to be gained from this.

What else are they reading, as long as we are rummaging about in the past for entertainment? Robinson Crusoe! The Three Musketeers. Around the World in 80 Days. These stories have hardly a girl among them, but it’s okay. Like my friend’s grandmother, they see themselves. After all, they’re only human.

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