Our family reads a lot. Every night for the past five and a half years, Rose has had at least one, (sometimes five!) bedtime stories. There have been stories about bears, fairies, adventurers, dreams, zebras and pirates. And lots and lots of little girls: little girls doing ballet; little girls cuddling their soft toys before bedtime; little girls doing dress-up. And princesses. Lots of princesses: princesses finding husbands; princesses getting married; and occasionally princesses defying the stereotypes to live independently (see below).
Although we have tried to find books that are gender neutral, or which challenge stereotypes, or which contain strong independent female characters, these are still few and far between. So we have resorted to some in-story editing.
I love Enid Blyton and grew up reading the Far Away Tree series. I have exactly the same beautifully illustrated, hard-cover version of these stories for Rose that I had growing up. They are immensely exciting and she loves them. So do I, but I have to edit them constantly. Instead of staying behind because they are girls, I change the story so that the girl characters stay behind because they are younger. Sometimes, I just have to skip over whole pages of sexist text. It kinda breaks my heart.
Same goes for the classic fairy tales. The prince falls in love with Cinderella not because she is beautiful, but because she is kind and caring and has strength of character. The emphasis in Sleeping Beauty is not on how scared and lonely she is in the forest, but how she makes a new home for herself by working hard for the dwarves. All this rewriting is exhausting!
As Rose has gotten older, we have started to have discussions on these points. Just last night, we were reading a library books called Jamil’s Clever Cat (a Bengal folk tale) in which the cat tricks the Rajah into allowing his daughter to marry the poor weaver. Despite the beautiful illustrations, I declared half way through (in rather grumpy tones) “I don’t think I like this book,” and Rose agreed, “It’s not nice to lie to someone.” Followed by a brief conversation about not lying to people you love (it was bedtime after all).
And to my joyous surprise, Fancy Nancy. With its sparkly covers and emphasis on all things feminine and fancy, this series of books by Jane o’Conner (author) and Robin Preiss Glasser (illustrator) has a surprising emphasis on science and learning (which is not to say that there are not also books about ballet, tea parties, weddings and even fortune telling).
For those of you who have not had the pleasure of meeting Nancy, she is a young girl who believes that everything fancy is wonderful, including tiaras, feather boas, high heel shoes and every other accessory imaginable. It also includes fancy vocabulary, which is sprinkled throughout each story like so much pixie dust, along with Nancy’s plain-language explanation of each word.
Many of the stories take place in the classroom, and the reader gets to lear
n along with Nancy. Rose’s introduction to Astronomy came courtesy of Nancy when the class planned an outing to the Planetarium. This particular story resulted in star shaped cookies and a play room decorated with glow in the dark constellations and a planetary mobile, just the way Nancy does these things in the book. And a trip to our own local planetarium.
Most recently (in the same library excursion that brought as that truth-mangling cat), we discovered Fancy Nancy Explorer Extraordinaire, by far my favourite Fancy Nancy to date. In this tale, Nancy, her best friend Bree, and their small siblings set out to explore the garden. Full of fun facts and encouragement not to be squeamish: “Rule #2 Nobody in the club things bugs are gross (That’s just immature, which is fancy for babyish)” this is a wonderful book to promote all things fauna and flora. And as with Fancy Nancy Sees Stars, the activities in the book need to immediately be transferred to the real world. Armed with collection bag, camera, hat and notebook, our own intrepid explorer first combed our own garden for all things wild and wonderful and then took the whole family on a fabulous Sunday excursion to the local botanical garden* for a fantastic day of exploring.
While I have no intention of being the book police, I certainly intend to guide my children and promote books that reflect the values that we hold dear**. What a pleasure to find books that appeal so naturally to my daughter (herself a bit of a prima donna) which also teach and guide and provide a positive role model to whom she can relate.
* On the slopes of Table Mountain, the Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens in Cape Town are exquisite and showcase the Cape’s unique flora (fynbos).
** For a great anti-racism read, try Something Else by Katheryn Cave and Chris Riddell