The limits of a list

In response to the current national dialogue on media and products for girls, New York Times writer Lisa Belkin generated a list of books with strong female role models.

On her blog, pigtailpals, Melissa Wardy points out that Belkin’s suggestions are dominated by princesses; better strong than weak ones, but what about the radical idea of books about girls with no princesses in them at all? Wardy says, “can we PLEASE not LIMIT femininity to princesses, even the kind that scrape their knees?” Check out Wardy’s book recs here.

I agree with Wardy and have a similar argument about the so-called brave princesses in modern movies. These girls make elaborate shows of independence, refusing to marry the guy they’re supposed to, but marriage is still the basis of entire plotlines– rebellion within the safest possible framework. Yawn! Boys in movies get to go off and have adventures. Why can’t girls do that too? This is a fantasy world, after all. If girls are this limited in dreamland, what does that say about their options in reality?

But here’s the challenge: as I rate books and media, there are many great books, but I often have issues with them, even the best ones! Maybe this is because behavior, once rewarded, is hard to kick. When I wrote critically in school, found and analyzed the ‘flaw,’ I got an A. Or maybe, being cranky and critical is my own personality flaw. Or maybe the problem is just that books are personal. When you start reading one, you enter into a relationship with it. There are few ‘perfect’ books and media for everyone (except maybe Hayao Miyazaki)

For example, I absolutely love C. S. Lewis and the whole Narnia series. I love it so much, I named my first daughter Lucy after the protagonist in the books. But the Jesus stuff in Lewis can be distracting. Also, Susan, the older sister, stops believing in Narnia when she hits puberty, starting to only to care about boys. This transition does not happen to the males in the book.

I named my second daughter Alice after you know who. I love this book, but Lewis Carroll, as we all know, had his issues with girls. As far as I can tell, his pathology doesn’t seep into the book or does it?

I love Harriet the Spy, but Harriet treats her friends so badly that parts of the book were difficult to read to my kid. She’s never experienced that level of negative social interaction; Harriet called her friends names my daughter didn’t even know (and now does) and there are also a bunch of class issues in the book. Harriet is super rich, she has a cook who she treats badly and a nanny who she treats badly, though at least the nanny can stick up herself.

Right after Harriet, we read Danny the Champion of the World who is so poor in contrast to Harriet. He lives in a one room house with his dad. No mom in this book.  The author, Roald Dahl is probably my favorite kids writer, his writing is so good, but he has very few girl characters in his books. When he does have them, like The Witches, a funny and brilliant book, the story can be outright misogynistic.  Still, I’d rather read Roald Dahl than a badly written fairy series that’s all about girls.

The point is: books are personal and that lists, by nature, are limited. The most important thing is that our kids are reading and to have an open dialogue with them about whatever that book is. Remember, the goal is to teach her to think critically so she can get straight As and then grow up to complain about everything just like her mom.

NYT writer suggests books with strong girls

Peggy Orenstein’s book, Cinderella Ate My Daughter, has helped to incite a national dialogue on how kids’ media and products influence girls, which ReelGirl loves because that’s supposed to be the whole purpose of this blog.

I write “supposed to be” because, as any one who reads this blog knows, I’ve strayed far from my initial my mission. But once again (I think my last time was New Year’s) I commit to making ReelGirl a resource where parents can go to look up a toy or a product to get some ideas about how and why it could be good for girls (and boys for that matter because gender stereotyping, ultimately, isn’t so fabulous for anyone. )

Lisa Belkin, a writer for the New York Times suggested these books. I hope to read them and let you know my thoughts. Please let me know yours!

One thing parents can do, then, is add examples of femininity without frills. To that end, following up on our conversation here last week about children’s books in general, here’s the start of a list of books for young girls that turn more than a few stereotypes on their heads while remaining fun reads. Of course, as with any children’s book, read it first, because my idea of what is good for your child might not be the same as yours.

“An Undone Fairy Tale”, by Ian Lendler. A slapstick treat. The princess rescues herself.

“The Enchanted Forest Chronicles”, by Patricia C. Wrede.  A four-book series (I have linked to the first one) in which a strong-minded princess saves kind dragons.

“Princess Grace” by Mary Hoffman. A girl who loves princesses learns that real ones in history have done far more than just lie around and look pretty. In the end she chooses to emulate an African princess in a Kente cloth dress.

“Do Princesses Scrape their Knees?” by Carmela LaVigna Coyle. Part of a series (others are “Do Princesses Wear Hiking Boots?” and “Do Princesses Kiss Frogs.) The titles tell the story.

“Cindy Ellen: A Wild Western Cinderella” by Susan Lowell. The ball is a rodeo and Cindy earns her prince’s respect after her fairy godmother gives her “gumption” and a set of diamond studded spurs.

“Cinder Edna” by Ellen Jackson. Edna lives next door to Ella, and while Ella depends on her fairy godmother to change her life, Edna earns money mowing lawns. Guess which one gets the Happier Ever After?

“The Very Fairy Princess” by Julie Andrews and her daughter, author Emma Watson Hamilton. Geraldine believes she is a princess, even though her brother says princesses “don’t have scabby knees.”

“The Secret Lives of Princesses” by Philippe Lechermeier. An illustrated “history” of quirky, independent princesses.

“Zog” by Julia Donaldson. An accident prone dragon and the princess he “captures.” He gets hurt, she helps him, and she becomes a doctor.