So after I post that in Harry Potter #5, female characters move closer to center, I get this comment from Emily:
First grade is amazing. My six year old daughter, Alice, began this school year slowly sounding out words in picture books. Now, she saves those to read aloud to her enraptured little sister and then reads Harry Potter to herself.
That said, after spending her entire life in picture books, Alice was tentative to make the transition to chapter books. It wasn’t about skill but familiarity. Here’s the good and the bad history in books of how she did it:
Rainbow Magic Series ***S***
This was the first chapter book my daughter picked up. I thought I purged the house after my older one grew out of this series, but apparently I did not.
There are so many damn books in this series that I missed about 10. How did my older daughter acquire so many? All I can say is it happened before I knew better. Generally, I don’t forbid books. I may roll my eyes at a selection. I did refuse to let my eight year old read Twilight but mostly, I “highly encourage” books that I think would be great for them, and they would love and try to ignore the rest. So what did my six year old daughter do when I told her for one too many times she was ready to start chapter books? She picked up Lucy, the Diamond Fairy and brought it to be, beaming, knowing I would cringe. I caved. She read.
To learn more about how and why I hate this series and a few things that are OK about it, read here.
Junie B. Jones ***HH***
I’m not a fan of Junie B. either. She is super annoying and talks baby talk. I hate baby talk.
But the print is big, the stories are simple, and my daughter felt accomplished finishing the book. Parts of it are funny. Alice liked it okay. And, I’d rather her read about a brat than a navel baring Fairy who goes on about her outfit for pages. My daughter got through three of this series and then she went on to…
Judy Moody ***HH***
Judy Moody has a similar lay out of print size, book length, and illustration as Junie B.
I like Judy more than Junie. Thankfully, so does my daughter. I was kind of bored by these books, I like more drama. Alice also read a couple and then moved on to…
Magic Tree House ***HH***
If your new reader likes Magic Tree House, you’re in luck. There are so many of these books, and the kids always travel to a different place and time.
There is a lot of history woven into the stories, and of course, magic. I like these books a lot, though being me, it does bum me out that it is always “Jack and Annie” and never “Annie and Jack.” I mean, we’re talking hundreds of stories, can’t the girl come first at least half the time? When my older daughter got into this series, I was overjoyed and blogged about it here.
Ramona the Pest ***HHH***
I love Ramona.
The writing is great and the characters are awesome. This series is a jump from the previous 4: smaller print, longer, and more complex, IMO.
I think the only think I don’t like about this series is that Ramona thinks her brown hair and brown eyes are boring. If this was one book of many that had that theme, I wouldn’t have an issue, but dark haired girls don’t fare well in children’s media, from Rapunzel who literally loses her magic and power when her hair turns brown, to Ramona. Alice has two blue-eyed, blonde sisters, so its even more of a bummer to read about how Ramona is obsessed with other peoples hair. And no, it’s not something my daughter relates to, because she’s never felt like there is anything less good about brown hair. So that’s my tirade about hair. Otherwise, great series, read what I wrote about it here.
The Magic Half **HHH***
After Ramona, my daughter made the jump to The Magic Half.
This is a full on next level book and she plowed through it. I did not read it, but here is the synopsis from Amazon:
Miri is the non-twin child in a family with two sets of them–older brothers and younger sisters. The family has just moved to an old farmhouse in a new town, where the only good thing seems to be Miri’s ten-sided attic bedroom. But when Miri gets sent to her room after accidentally bashing her big brother on the head with a shovel, she finds herself in the same room . . . only not quite.Without meaning to, she has found a way to travel back in time to 1935 where she discovers Molly, a girl her own age very much in need of a loving family. A highly satisfying classic-in-the-making full of spine-tingling moments, this is a delightful time-travel novel for the whole family.
My nine year old daughter is tearing through the Rick Riordan books for the third time. Third time. She’s obsessed. She reads them at breakfast and then in the car on the way to school. She’ll forget the book at school and beg me to go to the bookstore down the street and buy her another because she can’t imagine getting through the night without huddling under her covers, reading, with her flashlight. Of course, I refuse, so she calls up her seven year old cousin who is also addicted and asks to borrow it. She won’t give it up because she’s reading it.
Middle Grade experts recommended that I read Rick Riordan since I am writing an MG book and he has “perfect pacing.”
I read the first three and liked them very much. The characters and stories are compelling, and I’ve always loved Greek Mythology, though there is a challenge for female characters in a series based on legends of a patriarchy. That patriarchy is not something in the background but an integral part of the narrative. In the three books I read, there is a lot of talk about “the big three:” Zeus, Poseidon, and Hades. When I blogged about Lightning Thief, I rated it ***H***.
There is a strong female character, Annabeth. It is striking how similar the gender ratio and relationships are to the Harry Potter series: two boys and a girl who are BFFs. This is the essence of the Minority Feisty set up: there is a girl and she is strong, so we can all sigh with relief, but she is not the protagonist. She helps the male on his quest.
I know, don’t judge a book by its cover, but but there are so many Riordan books, and so many covers. Let’s check them out and see what they have in common.
The Lightning Thief:
Here’s the movie poster from 2010:
Sea of Monsters, the second book in the series:
Here’s the movie poster, coming out this year and shown in Reel Girl’s Gallery of Girls Gone Missing From Children’s Movies in 2013. On Google, you can find posters with Annabeth, but I doubt that is the version our kids will see around town. This movie, like the Harry Potter movies, prominently displays the male protag’s name.
Next in the series is The Titan’s Curse and the cover shows a solo male astride a magical creature. It’s a beautiful, exciting image and a thrill females in the imaginary world rarely get to experience:
Battle of the Labyrinth:
The Last Olympian:
So that’s the first Riordan series: 5 books, 2 movies, male protag/ male star, male solo on 4 out of 5 books. Male’s name in the title every time. Once again, I am a fan of Riordan. These books are great. But just imagine your kids– girls and boys– getting the opportunity to read a fantasy series of 5 books with a female protag, her female BFF and male BFF helping her on her quest. And just to be clear, this series is the definition quest narrative.
Girls fare better in the Egypt series: The Red Pyramid is narrated by siblings Sadie and Carter. Though there are more males than females, there is another very cool female, Zia. I wish the book was all about her. The cover is good, too. Sadie makes it on, though behind Carter.
And now, my favorite Riordan cover: Throne of Fire.
The Serpent’s Shadow also has a pretty great cover:
The next Riordan series, Heroes of Olympus, goes back to the standard Minority Feisty imagery. Here’s the first cover. See those three on the cover? They are not Percy, Annabeth, and Gus. They are Jason, Piper, and Leo. Guess who the protag is?
In Son of Neptune, Percy is the protag again, and this time, his friends are Hazel and Frank. It’s remarkable how consistent, persistent, and repetitive the Minority Feisty model is in the imaginary world.
Are you ready for the next one, and this is the BEST one, really according to my daughter and her aunt: Mark of Athena. YAY. A female makes it into the title! There are 7 main characters in this one and 3 are female. Less than half, so still the Minority Feisty, but not a bad showing for the consistent sexism in fantasy kidworld, right? But check out the cover:
WTF? No girl riding a pegasus and the owl of Athena fading into the background. ARGH!
Before I go into the gender issues of the fourth Harry Potter book, Goblet of Fire, as usual, I want to say: the book is great. I am going straight to the next one: Order of the Phoenix.
I didn’t love this Harry Potter as much as the others; this is the first time I’ve read a new one and not adored it more than the last. The first chapter was great and terrifying. But after that, 200 pages of Quidditch and Ministry politics bored me. Too many names and characters. Of course, it also annoyed me that the Quidditch heroes and ministry bigwigs are all male.
If it were not for the last 150 pages, I would be giving the book a harsher review right now. But that last section, oh my God, it is terrifying. The plot twists are so boggling and compelling, I reached multiple level of shock. I watched the movie last night and thought it was good, but there is just no way the film can replicate the complexity or the terror of these pages.
Here’s a passage describing Harry’s first look at Voldemort:
It was as though Wormtail had flipped over a stone and revealed something ugly, slimy, and blind–but worse, a hundred times worse. The thing Wormtail had been carrying had the shape of a crouched human child, except that harry had never seen anything less like a child. It was hairless and scaly-looking, a dark, raw, reddish black. It’s arms and legs were thin and feeble, and it’s face–no child alive ever had a face like that–flat and snakelike, with gleaming red eyes.
The thing seemed almost helpless; it raised its thin arms, put them around Wormtail’s neck, and Wormtail lifted it. As he did so, his hood fell back, and Harry saw the look of revulsion on Wormtail’s weak, plae face in the firelight as he carried the creature to the rim of the cauldron. For one moment, Harry saw the evil, flat face illuminated in the sparks dancing on the surface of the potion. And then Wormtail lowered the creature into the cauldron; there was a hiss, and it vanished below the surface; Harry heard its frail body hit the bottom with a soft thud.
Eek. Chills. And this goes on, relentlessly, for pages of scary shit.
As far as the rest of the book and my thoughts on it, the Harry Potter gender matrix remains firmly intact. Mad-Eye Moody, a character I loved, is the fourth Dark Arts teacher to be male. Will we ever get a female?
Bertha Jorkins, the only female Ministry official I’ve noticed, is present in her absence as deconstructionists would say.
The villain of the book is male. I can’t name a female Death Eater.
Winky and Rita Skeeter are new female characters with key parts. Winky’s part is small but important.
Mostly, I am pissed about Fleur Delcour. The only female champion to compete, one out of four. Not only did she suck as a competitor, in the book and the movie, but the male competitors, Krum and Cedric, have much bigger parts. And Fleur is half-Vela? What is up with the Vela? They’re supposed to be sirens?
I actually felt like the whole Triwizard tournament was contrived, a plot device. Why would Hogwarts create danger when there is so much danger already? When Dumbledore apologizes to Harry at the end for putting him in danger, I said to my TV “You should be sorry.”
I continue to love Hermione, but it annoys me how she is always above it all. Ron gets pissed at Harry for getting all the attention. I am pissed at Harry for getting all of the attention. But Hermione, she’s OK with it. Why? Obviously, when she waves her hand in the air, wanting to be called on, she is desperate for recognition.
Hermione doesn’t care about Harry’s stardom, because that is the role of the female, specifically the Minority Feisty, in kidlit. She is brave, she is smart, she is strong, but her purpose, and this could not be more true with Hermione, is to help the male on his quest.
Why is being the designated “helper” a bad thing? Helpers exist in all myths, be they fairy godmothers or talking animals. They exist in myths because they exist in real life. Anything we accomplish, we don’t do alone. That is not to say that helpers don’t turn into betrayers or monsters later in the story; that can happen, but helpers are always there; no one accomplishes anything without help. Recognizing that and opening up to it, helps dreams come true. But too often, females are cast in the role of helper, not quester. So who supports females as they risk taking actions to accomplish their dreams? Whether in the form of a cheerleader, a smiling/ applauding first lady, or a Hermione, men are shown, if they dare to achieve, they will have support. Women, not so much.
One thing I did like about Hermione– and this may surprise you– is her transformation into “beauty.” I liked that Rita Skeeter called her pretty before she turned against her and that Hermione won the admiration of Qidditch stud, Victor Krum. The reason I liked this take on Hermione is because I could not be more sick of the smart/ mousy-beautiful/ dumb dichotomy females are forced into. The ugly feminist and dumb beauty queen are flip sides of the same coin; stereotypes that keep all women down. What if women didn’t have to choose? What if we could be smart and beautiful? Think more women would run for office or become CEOs? Women are taught the more success they achieve, the more unattractive they will become. Men are told the opposite. How do you think that affects ambition and motivation? With Hermione in this book, J. K. Rowling broke out of the gender matrix, and I applaud her for it.
My nine year old daughter read most of the last third of the book with me. It was kind of funny because she kept telling me she didn’t want to listen until I got to the underwater part and I can totally see why. That girl has good taste. Later, when I complained about it, she told me later that she had no idea what happened it the beginning of the book. It’s true, it’s a confusing opening after the first pages.
After we finished, my daughter drew this.
It’s adorable, but, aside from some exceptions as mentioned above, I feel like this series is such a lesson in, a replication of, the gender matrix. There it is in her picture: 2 boys, 1 girl; boy is the lead; the text celebrates his competition and victory.
Look at the cover:
It’s not so much J. K. Rowling that I take issue with, but all the people that told me this is a feminist series. It’s not. Yes, it has more female characters than most, but it has a lot of characters. These are 7 books, some over 500 pages. As I keep writing about it, this is a great series, but it’s Harry’s story.
Reel Girl rates Goblet of Fire ***H***
First things first: I loved Prisoner of Azkaban. I could not put it down. I am onto book 4. That is a big deal for me. Since I started Reel Girl, I have read the first book of many series, because I want to get a good idea of what is out there. It is rare that I keep going and going, but with Harry Potter, I cannot stop.
Prisoner of Azkaban is my favorite book so far, and I loved the first two. For me, reading Harry Potter is like being in an incredible relationship where you fall more in love everyday.
Part of the reason I was so into this book was the dementors, terrifying and compelling new characters. J. K. Rowling’s description of them is one of the scariest I have read in kidlit:
Standing in the doorway, illuminated by the shivering flames in Lupin’s hand, was a cloaked figure that towered to the ceiling. Its face was completely hidden beneath its hood. Harry’s eyes darted downward and what he saw made his stomach contract. There was a hand protruding from the cloak and it was glistening, grayish, slimy-looking, and scabbed, like something dead that had decayed in water.
But it was only visible for a split second. As though the creature beneath the cloak sensed Harry’s gaze, the hand was suddenly withdrawn into the folds of its black cloak.
And then the thing beneath the hood, whatever it was, drew a long, slow, rattling breath, as though it were trying to suck something more than air from its surroundings.
An intense cold swept over them all. Harry felt his own breath catch in his chest. Th ecold went deeper than his skin. It was inside his chest. It was inside his very heart…
The scabby hand looking like it had decayed in water! EEK.
So are we clear, I love Harry Potter?
Not only do I love it, J.K. Rowling is the writer. She can call herself the androgynous “J.K.” if she wants to, for God’s sake. And, if she wants to create an imaginary world that is a patriarchy, it is her right to do so.
But this is what I want to write about it: Harry Potter’s world, both the Muggle one and Hogwarts, are patriarchies. Before I read Harry Potter, I was often told that the series is populated with strong females, and it is. But the females are sidelined to the males, and it’s important to recognize that there is not gender equality in this popular series the way there is in the The Hunger Games. The reason this inequality is important to acknowledge is because the imaginary world, 99% of the time, is sexist. If we cannot imagine equality, we cannot create it.
Okay, have I qualified my criticism enough?
Here we go. I am going to point out how the sexism of Hogwarts and the Muggle world that I have already referred to in previous posts is further advanced in Prisoner of Azkaban.
First, the book cover:
The cover shows Harry riding Buckbeak, the Hippogriff, with Hermione clinging to his back. How many times have you seen this image of male in front, girl behind? It’s all over kidlit, in movies and in books, and my God, its all over the grown up world. It’s everywhere on the streets when you see a guy on his bike, the woman behind him. Do you ever see a female alone on her dragon? What about a dragon that is also a female, like in for example the reverse of “How to Train Your Dragon,” which features a male rider and male beast. Do you ever see a female rider with the male behind her, clinging to her back? This gendered, repetitive image sends the message that the male drives while the female is along for the ride. It’s a powerful message and it’s everywhere in the imaginary world. I was disappointed to see it in Harry Potter.
Then there is Lupin. I loved Lupin, but he is the third male Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher, the most important class at Hogwarts.
Sirius Black is a great character, but also male. I loved discovering the history of friendship between Harry Potter’s dad, Lupin, Sirius, Peter Pettigrew, but they are all male. Lily, Harry’s mother, apparently hung out with the group, but she wasn’t an animagus. She was the only female.
Mrs. Weasley and Mrs. Dursley are both homemakers while Mr. Weasley and Mr. Dursley have careers that factor into the plot.
Percy Weasley is the Head Boy. For a while, I couldn’t even figure out if there is a Head Girl. I have, now, seen the Head Girl referred to, but I don’t know her name or what she does. She has no role in the book so far.
The Minister of Magic is male and the headmaster of Hogwarts is male. Hogwarts was started by two males and two females 1000 years ago and that is progressive, but the two houses started by the males, Gryffindor and Slytherin, dominate the series.
Chang Cho, the Ravenclaw seeker, is the only girl on the team. Would there be a Quidditch team with only one male? Is there a female captain? So far the rivalry between Slytherin and Gryffindor is between two male captains.
To me, it seems like Quidditch is a boy’s game in which girls are allowed to play. I feel the same way about the series.
Yesterday, I posted about the fat-shaming of Dudley Dursley in the Harry Potter series, specifically quoting from the opening of Chapter 2, Prisoner of Azkaban which I’d just read. I have since finished the chapter. So this what happens: Unable to contain his anger when the evil, annoying, and fat Marge constantly puts his parents down, Harry uses magic illegally to inflate her, making her even fatter. To readers, this punishment comes off as humorous and deserved.
I have not seen “The Prisoner of Azkaban” yet, but looking at the image from the movie pasted below, and after reading J.K. Rowling’s prose, I am wondering if there is a child who could watch (or read about) the fate of wicked Aunt Marge and not burst into laughter. Can you even look at these images and not smile? And again, if this fat-evil-stupid-comic imagery happened once in a while, it would be no big deal, but its ubiquity in kids’ media trains kids that it’s normal to laugh at fat people.
Reading into night, I was also fascinated that Harry’s act– so far– remains unpunished. Underage wizards are not permitted to practice magic in the Muggle world, and Harry assumes he will be expelled for his act. Yet, when Cornelius Fudge , the Minister of Magic, meets Harry on Daigon Alley, he assures Harry that he took care of the infraction, deflating Aunt Marge and erasing her memory. Harry wonders why this reaction is so different from the time when he was wrongly blamed for the magic done by Dobby, the house elf, in Book 2. At that time, Harry received a letter of warning from the Ministry threatening expulsion.
Obviously, there is some reason in the plot why Harry is forgiven, given a cozy room in the Leaky Cauldron instead of a letter of expulsion. But the subdued reaction thus far underscores the deserved punishment for Aunt Marge.
I have been trying to think if there are any fat protagonists in kidlit. Please tell me if you know of any: not sidekicks, main characters. So far I’ve thought of one: Wilbur. I just blogged about how Charlotte’s Web may be the best book ever. without even thinking about that. Could E. B. White get any more original?
I am reading Prisoner of Azkaban, the third Harry Potter installment. Here’s the first paragraph of Chapter Two:
Harry went down to breakfast next morning to find the three Dursleys already sitting around the kitchen table. They were watching a brand new television, a welcome-home-for-the-summer present for Dudley, who had been complaining loudly about the long walk between the fridge and the television in the living room. Dudley had spent most of the summer in the kitchen, his piggy little eyes fixed on the screen and his five chins wobbling as he ate continually.
Do fat people always sit around and watch TV? Are fat people obsessed with their refrigerators? Do they eat all day long? Are fat kids spoiled and self-indulgent? Are there thin people who are lazy and addicted to television?
Before you argue that my irritation with the portrayal of Dudley means that I want to censor artists with my PC views– the fat, evil character is a cliche. It’s not original, and its ubiquity in kidlit doesn’t show imagination or innovation. You know what would be creative? Fat heroes in kidlit, showing fat characters who are good, magical, and smart. Fat characters who are leaders, not followers. Fat protagonists, not the sidekicks or comic relief.
When you teach your kid that people come in different shapes and sizes, as well as colors and genders, and one is no better than the other, it sucks to read in books and see movies where fat characters are continually derided and made fun of by the hero of the book. In most of kidlit, as well as movies, when others are teased or mocked, there is usually a lesson to be learned: bullying is bad. But fat characters are exceptions to that rule: making fun of them and teasing them is often portrayed as justified and deserved.
I just watched the movie Chamber of Secrets, the second Harry Potter, where Crabbe and Goyle, Malfoy’s dumb sidekicks are lured into a trap by cupcakes: their appetites are their stupidity.
As I just posted, I’ve only read books one and two so far. Commenters told me that Dudley redeems himself in later books, and also that Mrs. Weasley is a positive fat character. But does Dudley’s later redemption justify the mockery? Does Mrs. Weasley just happen to be fat, or is her fat part of her character and the dilemmas she finds herself in? Dudley’s fat is Dudley.
Update: I finished the chapter: More fat-shaming in Harry Potter: the inflating of Aunt Marge
I’ve only finished The Sorcerer’s Stone and Chamber of Secrets, and I’m going to give you my bottom line first: I love the Harry Potter books.
The series is brilliant and engaging, suspenseful and so well plotted. Most of all, I love the characters. J.K. Rowling creates a magical world with heroes who readers can relate to and admire and also scary, evil villains who we passionately root against. Rowling does a great job of hooking the reader into these relationships. We see real friendships and rivalries form through a series of events that we were there for, that we witnessed and were a part of; that, for me, that is the most engaging aspect of the book.
So here’s my history with Harry Potter:
I saw a couple of the movies but had a hard time following them because I hadn’t read the books. Therefore, though they were beautiful to watch, I didn’t quite get what all the fuss was about.
When my daughter was in first grade, I started reading the books to her. But when reading time was over, she was rushing down into her bed, hiding under her covers with a flashlight, reading late into the night. The next day at reading time, our reading time, she would be 100 pages ahead. Left in the dust, I was lost. No matter how she tried to fill me in, I grew frustrated with the fragments that made no sense to me, and I gave up. Liberated, my daughter finished the series on her own (then went back and read the whole thing again and again.)
My third challenge with Harry, I’ve written about before on Reel Girl: I wish J. K. Rowling had made a female character front and center. Hermione is a great character, but she is there to support and help Harry on his quest. There are many other strong female characters but, still, I don’t feel the total gender equality in this imaginary world the way I do in The Hunger Games. Hogwarts is run by men (don’t get me wrong, I adore Dumbledore). So far, Harry’s main rivals: Voldemort, Snape, and Malfoy are also male. Not only that, but why is J.K. Rowling “J.K.”?
One more complaint so far, fat people don’t come off so well. Poor Dudley is portrayed as selfish, spoiled, and greedy, personified by his body and eating pattern which is constantly mocked. I don’t like Dudley, of course, but I feel sorry for him getting such a bad rap because he is fat. The reason I bring this up is because making fun of fat characters happens so often in kids’s books. But so far (I have to keep writing “so far” because there are 7 long books) it doesn’t seem that in the series fat equals evil with any consistency. I LOVE how J. K. Rowling mocks the vain and idiotic Gilderoy Lockhart. She wins lots of points with me here: I am happy to see a man be so in love with his reflection. As we know, mirrors and females have a long, long history in kidlit.
So while I have some issues, finally reading Harry Potter on my own– no kids, no movies– I cannot put it down! It is as good as I was told it would be. A boarding school for wizards and witches may be the best setting for a series of all time.
Reel Girl ratings are based on girlpower and I’ve only read the first two books: Reel Girl rates Harry Potter 1 & 2***H***
Girlw/Pen‘s Natalie Wilson asks: why are strong female protagonists missing from so many YA books? She wishes Harry’s series belonged to Hermione, or at least there were more series centered around Hermione-like characters. Wilson posts a link to my gallery of girls-gone-missing posters for kids’ movies and writes the ‘Harry Potter and The Deathly Hallows’ film could’ve been included in the list. She’s right. Here’s my comment on her blog:
Thanks for this piece and posting the link to my depressing gallery. Kudos for dealing with Harry Potter. I didn’t include the poster even though, as you write, it would completely fit because it breaks my heart.
The Harry Potter series got my seven year old daughter to read 700 page books. And its by a single mom! But why not a girl wizard as the main character? And why does the writer call herself the gender ambiguous J.K.? Maybe she figured, given the total sexism in kidworld, a male hero is the best way to sell books. Maybe she figured she might not get published at all if she wrote ‘Hermonie Granger and the Sorcerer’s Stone.’ If so, given the climate in Hollywood and publishing, maybe she made the right choice for herself as a writer, deciding the world was only ready for the girl to be a sidekick– but she’d give her a really good part, make her really smart, and not the love interest of the main character.
S.E. Hinton wrote ‘The Outsiders’ about a boy gang to much acclaim. Maybe in 2011, women writers still exist in the world of George Eliot more than anyone admits.