This is a collection of twenty-four short extracts taken from classic books purporting to showcase strong girl characters.
Opinion seems to be divided among children’s literature experts on the question of whether there has been much of a change in the number of books written and published which feature girls as the central protagonists. This particular compilation stands alongside other collections such as Goodnight Stories for Rebel Girls which aim to inspire and empower girl readers. Rather than profiling remarkable pioneering women, this is a literary collection taken from ‘classic’ books written by women in the nineteenth and very early twentieth centuries, with Enid Blyton as the most recent author, and with the addition of a few fairy tales by men such as Andersen.
While you might praise the project of contributing to the redressing of the gender imbalance in books for children certainly very much in evidence at the end of the twentieth century, this one begs a few questions. It is quite an eclectic selection ranging from serious to playful, including the Bronte sisters, Edith Nesbit, Frances Hodgson Burnett and American favourites such as Little Women, Anne of Green Gables and Pollyanna. I have some reservations about the inclusion of Wuthering Heights for this age group; Jane Eyre too, but this extract does, like some of the other pieces, show a vulnerable girl standing up against bullying authority, always something to be applauded.
A problem for me with a number of the extracts is that, in fact, the heroines are there to dutifully serve and usually save brothers, boyfriends and old men in distress, and so the status quo of gender relations is maintained and even strengthened, particularly in the fairytales but also in several of the pieces from the literary canon. The narrative voice is often the male one; the action is also sometimes in the hands of the boys,as with the redoubtable Julian and Dick; George (a pseudo-boy) does at least get to row them all away from the adventure, but she’s not given quite the same kudos.
Some readers will respond to the more feisty girls, though I am not sure that they will find inspiration in all of them. However, if we agree that part of being a good reader is to read evaluatively and critically, then maybe this collection will provide a platform for some rich discussion.
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