Monday, 18 March 2013

Feminist Children's Books: Part Three

Finding genuinely liberating children's books with a strong feminist message is like finding a snowball in hell. Such books are often lost in the flames of patriarchal sameness, where females are passive, pretty and content to be relegated to supporting roles.

But fear not. My hobby as a library lurker has finally paid off! I have discovered ten more feminist children's books (ten!)

Following on from Part One and Part Two, here is an eclectic selection of lesser known stories, with some classics thrown in.

Don’t Kiss the Frog: Princess Stories With Attitude
Fiona Waters

“Once upon a time...” “and they all lived happily ever after.” These spellbinding words open and close the door to that far-off land where magic and enchantment reign – but also where boringly good behaviour is always rewarded, rose-tinted glasses are firmly in place and princesses are usually simpering nincompoops, unable to think beyond the next party frock before being married off to a prince William clone.

Yet many frogs resolutely remain frogs, despite all attempts to kiss them into human form, and in this collection of princess stories absolutely no one simpers. Rapunzel would like to cut her hair short and dye it blue, Princess Wendy turns down her frog-prince because he smells, and Princess Jane thinks she might like to be a conventional frilly-dress-marble-palace-glittery-tiara sap of a princess, but soon finds that all sparkles is not necessarily satisfying. The illustrations are richly eclectic, the prose is witty and crisp, and nothing is more delightful than a whiff of feminine anarchy.

The Paper Bag Princess
Robert Munsch

Whenever you think of feminism and children’s literature, no doubt this book is on the tip of your tongue. A gem of the 80s, The Paper Bag Princess set the standard for the influx of ‘princess parody’ books which have found their way onto Amazon ever since. It contains all the ingredients that any self-respecting fairytale spoof should – disorder, rebellion, and a naked princess wearing a paper bag. The story is perhaps not the most challenging or inventive, yet its reversal of character roles was so revolutionary at the time of publication, that The Paper Bag Princess became a feminist benchmark in children’s literature.

The story introduced several plot quirks, which have since became established conventions in feminist storytelling. Beginning with a stereotypically pretty princess who wore expensive princess clothes and wanted to marry a prince (convention 1), the story then introduces an evil opponent that turns her world upside down (convention 2), in this case a dragon destroys her castle and captures the prince. Alone, the princess ventures off to rectify the situation (convention 3). She uses her brains to overcome brawn (convention 4), and rescues the prince (convention 5). Then a twist occurs in which the princess rejects the prince after he criticises her for being dirty, and we see her gleefully skipping off into the sun set. She has rebelled against her original oppression (convention 6).

Top Jobs 
Monica Hughes

Here’s a book from the ‘Oxford Reading Tree’ collection. This range of books, loved by teachers and helicopter moms alike, features simple ‘key’ words and an emphasis on phonics. However the collection is a far cry from the bygone misogynistic days of its predecessor ‘Dick and Jane’.

In “Top Jobs” children are seen role playing various occupations alongside adults - a recipe for feminist disaster. However refreshingly, females are not relegated to caring or domestic jobs here. Instead they take on prominent roles as plumbers, vets and pilots. The boys meanwhile, “get out their pots and pans” as cooks, and empty trash cans as bin men. “It’s a top job!” one boy is photographed saying as he rifles through people’s garbage.

My Granny is a Pirate
Val McDermid and Arthur Robins

Avast ye land lubber spawn raiser! Here’s an empowering book to amuse aspiring buccaneers. Pirates are normally men; so when a woman dons buckled boots, pointed hat and phallic sword, it undoubtedly sparks feminist sentiment. The star of this book is female, and what’s more - she’s elderly, she’s ginger, she wears specs and she wields a handbag. When she’s not sipping tea in her rocking chair or knitting, you can find her capturing men and making them swab her decks and walk the plank.

The inevitable plot twist occurs when skeleton nasties start making a nuisance of themselves. Naturally, our fearless geriatric heroine lamps them with her handbag, then feeds their bones to her dog. This marriage of traditional grannyhood with rebellious adventurism will delight pirate fans and lovers of paradoxical humour alike (the same people surely?)

Three Wise Women
Mary Hoffman and Lynne Russel

Forget the Three Wise Men. Those guys are freeloading fancy-pants compared to the strong, intuitive women in this book. Like the wise men, the women followed the star which led them to baby Jesus in the stable. However unlike the wise men, the women’s gifts were more than mere bling. One woman (the elderly one) gave the gift of folklore. One woman (the young one) gave the gift of special bread. And one woman (the mother) gave the gift of her baby’s kiss. Unknowingly, these women had created a legacy. When he grew up, Jesus conducted his life via the influence of these women's gifts: he showed that bread is better when it is shared; he told wonderful stories to anyone who would listen; and he taught the world that “the greatest gift of all is love”, and if that doesn’t melt your heart, well, there’s a special seat in hell for you.

The Worst Princess
Anna Kemp and Sara Ogilvie

This delicious contemporary spin on the tragically limited job description for princesses was obviously inspired by The Paper Bag Princess (above). It even ‘borrows’ some of the plot and dialogue.

The story introduces us to a ‘lonely princess’ sat in a tower forever waiting for a prince to whisk her away. She has all the standard trappings of a princess – tiara, gown, slight physique and long plaits down to the ground. However she wears yellow sneakers (a subtle hint at the rebellious streak soon to blossom).

Finally, a prince arrives, and this is where Disney has a lot to answer for. To her dismay, the princess is taken from her stuffy stone tower to an even stuffier stone castle where the prince instructs her to “just smile a lot and twist your curls”.

Bollocks to that! She’s been stuck in a stone tower for a century and wants to have some fun. So she does what any newly emancipated woman would do – befriends a fire breathing dragon. The dragon then literally and metaphorically frees the princess from her domestic shackles by burning down the castle, and they fly off into the sunset, leaving behind a rather exacerbated ash-panted prince.

Lila and the Secret of the Rain 
David Conway and Jude Daly

At last! A book which focuses on the strength of female emotion, and instead of ridiculing it – embraces it! This tale, set in a drought-ridden Kenyan village, features a central female character - a young woman named Lila.

For months the sun burned down on her village, devastating the villagers, livestock and vegetation. Without rain the well threatens to run dry and the crops look likely to fail. Lila is so worried that she sets off to have a harsh word with the sky. She climbs the highest mountain and proceeds to tell the sky the saddest things she knows. She weeps as she does so. And after listening to her tales, the sky joins in! Lila had saved her village, using the secret of the rain. Atmospheric watercolours draped over vast landscapes add potency to this rich story of female courage and passion.

Little Red Hood
Majolaine Leray

This is essentially a petite, cheque-book sized collection of sketches that parodies the story of Little Red Riding Hood. People have been writing spoof Little Red stories for decades, so the premise of this book is hardly ground-breaking. However what sets this book apart from its peers is the dark, almost sinister, faithfulness to the terror evoked in classic fairy tales.

Indeed, traditional folklore is normally watered-down to make it more palatable for the modern, sensitive youngsters of today - but not in this book. Here, Leray uses the powerful medium of juvenile scribbles and similarly childlike handwriting to guide the reader through a harrowing tale in which two opponents face-off: the Big Bad Wolf, and Little Red Riding Hood. The story ends in the death of one of them. In fact, there’s so much bloodshed in this book you’d be forgiven for mistaking it for a tampax pamphlet.

The story begins by introducing us to the much taller, much pointier, aggressor wolf who is clearly on The Fast Diet (TM). Skinny and ravenously starving, he captures a tiny red-cloaked preschool girl. “What’s to eat?” she asks innocently after being informed that dinner is served. The wolf bitches back, “Some joooooosey red meat!!!!” [sic]

After going through the time-honoured stalling-ritual of commenting on the size of his teeth, ears, eyes,  etc like the smug presenter of Embarrassing Bodies, Little Red, true to this form, then comments, “You’ve got stinky breath”. The wolf is suitably offended by his social faux pas and gratefully accepts the candy that Little Red offers. Consequently (spoiler alert!) he promptly he chokes to death. Little Red then simply turns to the reader and remarks smugly, “Fool!”

Mal Peet and Elspeth Graham

Based on a centuries-old legend, ‘Cloud Tea Monkeys’ is brimming with vivid characters and exquisite pencil illustrations.

When her mother becomes too ill to work, young resourceful Tashi takes it upon herself to bring in the bacon. She turns into an entrepreneur of sorts – a drug dealer. Well okay, a tea dealer.

Every day she joins the village women as they pick tea in the fields. Their boss is a dodgy-looking dude called 'The Overseer'. He manages the women, ordering them about and generally being intimidating; a kind of 'tea pimp'. Realising what a twat he is, Tashi decides to cut out the middle man. She befriends a group of local monkeys (just go with it) and, with their help, succeeds in picking the rarest, most tasty tea which can only be found high up “in the clouds” (read: at the top of a mountain).

One day, a quirky fat fellow enters the scene, an old geezer with grey hair, moobs, and a love of putting a towel over his head while inhaling tea. He’s not a contestant on America's Got Talent, no he's a tea connoisseur sent by the Empress (a matriarchal monarchy - nice touch). He likes Tashi’s tea so much that he agrees to pay for a steady supply. With her new income, Tashi nurses her mother to good health, frees her from the drudgery of the tea fields, and keeps the monkeys sweet with bananas. Donald Trump and Alan Sugar can't hold a candle to this lass.

Babette Cole

Here’s a pearl of a book by the deliciously witty Babette Cole, author of the ground-breaking feminist classics: Princess Smartypants; Princess Smartypants Breaks the Rules; and Long Live Princess Smartypants (each reviewed in Part One). This isn’t the first children’s Tarzanesque book to trigger my feminist radar (“Me...Jane”, reviewed in Part One, was rather good) but it is perhaps the most fun.

Rather than a female character supplementing Tarzan (as is the case in Me...Jane), this book presents Tarzan as female, even going so far as to switch the gender of the other characters too. So for instance, ‘Tarzanna’ discovers “a new kind of animal she hadn’t seen before, so she carried it off”. This animal was of course, a human explorer, here depicted as male. Tarzanna teaches him to speak animalese. He teaches her to speak English. It's a love-in.

True to the original story, the explorer then takes Tarzanna to see his country, a western urbanized city setting – which Tarzanna hates. Here, she takes pity on the miserable animals caged at the zoo and releases them. Cue all sorts of mayhem, amongst which she manages to rescue the prime minister from a criminal gang (like you do!) The story draws to a satisfying ending in which Tarzanna returns to her beloved jungle, liberated zoo animals in tow. Not only does this book give the finger to gender stereotypes, it also takes a dump on zoos and other environmental nasties. Five stars!


Carrera said...

This series is awesome! I have a 7-month-old daughter to whom I read daily, and always cringe whenever I read her a story that perpetuates sexist gender roles. I can't wait to introduce these stories to her! Also, Paper Bag Princess is a favourite :)

HannahB said...

Thank you so so much for this brilliant series. I have been looking for a list like this for ages. Thanks for your detailed descriptions too.

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