Ponderings on feminisms in children’s (and young adult) literature

Everyone loves the Paperbag Princess… except we kind of didn’t.  We know we’re probably alone in that.

#2 did have a recording of the author reading it that she listed to a lot as a child and liked.  #1 didn’t read it until she was older and felt too deeply about it.  Like, why is she even giving this jerk the time of day?  Poor dragon, stuff like that.  #1 thinks perhaps she wasn’t getting the messages it was trying to give, but the ones it wasn’t trying to give.  Like, women are supposed to be subordinate to men.  That thought would not have crossed my mind, and yet, it is presented as the default option in the Paperbag Princess.  Sort of like educational television that makes kids behave worse because seeing the bad behavior that gets resolved at the end is more striking than the eventual resolution.

We like the books that don’t present it as a conflict, but instead present the ideal as status quo.  And we really only know one book like that.

Boy meets boy

We LOVED Boy Meets Boy.  It takes place at a school where there’s no question about whether it’s ok to be gay.  It’s like 2/3 of the book in where the author addresses how weird that it’s not like that in other towns. Boy Meets Boy is a splendid book and people should read it!

Of course, we also know that ignoring -isms doesn’t make them go away.  They do need to be brought to light and discussed.  But maybe subtlety isn’t the best way in children’s books.

Should literature present the ideal or present the reality, and when?

33 Responses to “Ponderings on feminisms in children’s (and young adult) literature”

  1. Rumpus Says:

    I find it disturbing when I see a TV show or movie targeted at kids that spends 90% of the time portraying something bad or wrong, and then one scene shows the comeuppance. I know that people tend to remember the first part and the last part of any show/lecture/etc, but it just seems wrong for the resolution (the “right” way to act) to be such a small portion of the show. Pinocchio is kind of like that.

  2. Cloud Says:

    Well, the dragon DID just eat a castle…. I’m more bothered by the extra forest creatures burned to a crisp by Elizabeth tricking him.

    I think most people come to Paperbag Princess after they have already been exposed to the “regular” princess stories, and so it usually functions as a counter-balance to those. I like your point about just presenting the world how we wished it would be, but I wonder if that rings true to kids who have already started figuring out that the world isn’t that way? Maybe I’ll experiment on my kids. Mostly I think that most books can be OK, as long as you talk about any potentially problematic issues- or at least, that’s how I deal with the Disney princess stories my kids love.

    I’ve got an idea bouncing around in my head for a story about a boy who likes to dance and saves the day through his dancing. Maybe that will be my next kids’ book, after the one about the girl who isn’t a princess (that is with the illustrator now). We’ll see if the rest of the story comes to me.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      I like the ones where the dragon is a good guy better.

      Plus dragons are like, endangered. Is it our right to exterminate the entire race just because we’re infringing on their natural habitats? (Yes, I do over think dragon lore.)

      • Cloud Says:

        But she doesn’t hurt the dragon! Just tires him out and sneaks past…

      • nicoleandmaggie Says:

        Sure sure, just part of the greater dragon literature. I want dragons and princesses to get along and make Cherries Jubilee together and have fantastic libraries…

        But I don’t want book 3 to have the husband trapped in a stupid bubble unable to be rescued until the baby is born and can grow up big enough to rescue his father from the stupid bubble in book 4 leaving the princess to be a single mom with an absentee husband and the son to never know the father he’s supposed to rescue. Because that sucks. *cough*

  3. chacha1 Says:

    I haven’t read “paper bag princess” and am kind of deficient in princess lit overall. I always preferred books about adventure, especially if animals were involved.

    I don’t remember my parents really trying to direct my reading at all. To the extent that they did, it must have been simply by buying me books that *they* found interesting. (Clearly, they were not interested in princesses.) We had craploads of nonfiction, like the Life Science Library and Life Nature Library, and then there was the Scholastic program – Mom always went through the catalog with us.

    The first books that I bought for myself were the Chronicles of Narnia, in 5th grade I think it was, after having read the Chronicles of Prydain till the covers were falling off.

    Subtlety: it works really well in allegory or fantasy. In a true-to-life setting, I think all the familiar details of the scenario would tend to distract from the subtext. The reader isn’t looking for anything but straight story in a true-to-life scenario, if that makes sense. This may especially apply to literature for kids, who are not (generally speaking) subtle thinkers.

    The author who is trying to teach a lesson through the writing, particularly of a fictional story, has a uniquely challenging task. The best “message” books, IMO, are the ones where the message doesn’t become clear until quite some time after you’ve finished reading. I was in college before I realized that the Narnia stories were allegorical.

    I personally found greater value in more realistic stories – like “Where the Red Fern Grows” or “My Friend Flicka” or S.E. Hinton‘s novels. Those stories helped me get over my wish for an ideal world. But I was reading at that level way before most people get there, so I can’t really speak to how one helps a younger child reconcile real life to the ideal.

    I tend to think presenting the ideal can backfire, because a kid might feel she’s been scammed when she runs up against real-life BS.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      Ugh, I HATED where the red fern grows. HATED.

      spoiler alert:
      You go into graphic detail about a dog being ripped apart by a wildcat and then you expect a damn flower at the end of the book to make everything better? Really? Nightmares for YEARS.

      (Required reading in 4th grade. But we also read The Blue Sword, so I can’t complain too much.)

  4. hush Says:

    Literature should continue to do both. Thanks for the recommendation of “Boy Meets Boy.” It will be perfect for my son in a few years. My son still adores “The Paperbag Princess.”

    “The Berenstain Bears” were recently banned from Casa Hush. My then 2-year-old started mimicking some of their don’ts. “Captain Underpants” and his progeny have also been sent to Goodwill. Too many intentional misspellings.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      Captain Underpants is still pretty popular among the under 7, over 5 set at Casa Grumpy. I tried to get DC1 hooked on Bruno and Boots, and DC1 asked, “This is one of those like Captain Underpants where they try to do good things but everything ends up in some ridiculous big thing going wrong but it all turns out ok, isn’t it”… and I had to say, yes, things usually end with an explosion and everything turning out ok.

      Recently ze asked why Big Nate doesn’t like to do schoolwork. Does he not like to learn things? Thank goodness for Francis, otherwise I’d have to confiscate those books. (Even if Gina “really really likes doing schoolwork.”) On the plus side, it makes me really happy with DC1’s school environment that ze is in third grade and doesn’t know that some kids don’t like school, work, or learning.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      Oh, but I’ve been very successful at keeping Junie B. Jones out of the house. I hear that series is the worst for encouraging bad behavior.

  5. Ana Says:

    Fascinating. I never thought about books/shows encouraging bad behavior. What about that ridiculous Curious George? Always up to no good and yet in the end all is forgiven because…he’s just so lovable? I guess its really the parents’ fault. That man in the yellow hat and his constant neglect. “Wait right here, and don’t get into any trouble” didn’t work the first 100 times you said it…

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      Hahahaha… ah, sigh.

      The tv show and the “new books” are pretty tame compared to the originals. Probably because of that.

      I remember when DC1 was little there was a huge outcry about Caillou (that adorable Canadian scamp) encouraging bad behavior, and how the later episodes have a much better behaved Caillou. Less realistic, folks argue, but I’m not so sure… sometimes we are creating our own reality.

  6. Laura Vanderkam (@lvanderkam) Says:

    You know what children’s book I really dislike? The Giving Tree. Maybe that’s what starts the martyrdom-is-noble complex for people.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:


      This is funny because I just went off on a tiny rant in class, literally yesterday. Someone had an adorable decal on her mac laptop with the mac apple as the apple on the giving tree’s cover.

      And I explained how it’s a horrible book that tells women that they need to give up everything for their boy children.

      I’m sure my students think I’m crazy.

      Let me dig up our more general post on children’s literature that we hate. (And a few that we love.)

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      Here it is! https://nicoleandmaggie.wordpress.com/2010/09/08/childrens-literature-we-hate/

      And yes, it may be part of the more general moms as martyrs problem, not just the specific we need to become stumps just so our male offspring have something to sit on.

      (There are much more efficient ways to put that tree to use, btw. Killing it is very short-sighted. For example the renewable apples can be sold every year if you don’t cut down the tree. Just sayin’.)

      • Rented life Says:

        And the seeds from the apples can be planted for more trees! My husband took a childrens lit class a few years ago and the prof gave a similar rant.

      • Laura Vanderkam (@lvanderkam) Says:

        Argh – Love You Forever – so, so creepy, and yet incongruously cliched at the same time. Yet people think it’s so meaningful!

      • Practical Parsimony Says:

        I wanted to give Love You Forever to my adult son who has a boy and girl to show how I love him. However, the book just got too creepy for me to send to him and to have his children read. Knowing he is of the same mind as his father on a woman’s duty, he probably read it to his son. Still, I will not ever read that book again. The Giving Tree made me so sad that I could barely finish it. That is a horrid message for children to receive.

        Children do get the subtleties. They are capable of incorporating wrong-headed messages that they cannot articulate as children.

  7. oilandgarlic Says:

    Yikes, I never thought of children’s books as giving kids ideas on how to misbehave! Now I have to be on the look-out.

    I do remember reading books like Harriet the Spy and Ramona series…they were always getting in trouble, too, if I remember correctly.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      We’re doing From the Mixed up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler as our bedtime story and when we started I hugged DC1 really really close and told hir not to ever ever run away from home because we love her and there are a lot of bad people out there and we would be worried sick because something terrible could happen. (And with that, please enjoy the story about two kids who run away from home.)

      (Children’s classics seem to provoke lots of “Don’t try this at home” lectures… explaining why large swaths of The Secret Garden are racist and we [should] know better now, for example. Or the anti-Indian sentiment in The Little House series. Even LM Montgomery has a few racist screeds here and there against Native American Indians. And we’re probably just not even going to try Rudyard Kipling.)

    • Cloud Says:

      FWIW, I think Ramona the Pest was the tipping point on last week’s sudden decision that the tooth fairy doesn’t exist, and therefore, neither does Santa.

      But otherwise, I rather liked it, because it gave me several nice opportunities to discuss what happens when adults just don’t understand you, and why sometimes it is better to not argue. (My oldest is rather fond of contesting every single point and (1) it drives me crazy and (2) it is going to cause her trouble at school someday and yes I know #2 from personal experience- I got an extra day of kitchen duty at music camp in 7th grade because I didn’t know when to just SHUT UP.


      • nicoleandmaggie Says:

        I always identified with Beezus. Poor long-suffering Beezus.

        DC1 recently discovered How to Train Your Dragon and Harry Potter, so poor Beverly Cleary doesn’t stand a chance. Also ze is reading through the entire magic treehouse series from beginning to end for probably the millionth time. (Ze has read all the Ralph books and we did some of the Henry/Beezus books as night time books, but I don’t see hir picking up Ramona books any time soon even though they’re all there in the bookshelf.)

        DC1 is very cagey when questioned about tooth fairies and Santa. I suspect ze suspects, but also understands the pretense, but that could be me projecting (since that’s how I was at that age).

      • Blue Russian Says:

        Have you tried the Clementine series? Sort of like Romona or Junie but so much better for the adults too.

        Is their really evidence that reading these to kids will actually encourage bad behavior? I always clean up the grammar while reading Junie out loud but didn’t really worry about the actions. Maybe I should.

        Your post has me thinking of the 1970’s film and book by Marlo Thomas: Free to be you and me. I feel like that was very blunt but it so positively shaped my early thoughts of what I could be.

      • nicoleandmaggie Says:

        I don’t know about real evidence on the books– definitely evidence for the tv. The only evidence I can cite for Junie B Jones is the Amazon reviews!

        Also, my cousin and I both slept upside down while reading Pippi. :)

        Free to Be You and Me is teh Awesome! We now have it on cd for our children.

  8. Miriam Says:

    I went to a conference once where a speaker talked about the power of Zadie Smith’s imagining of multiculturalism as an already achieved reality. I haven’t read her books, so I have no idea if that’s accurate or not but the power of that idea has stuck with me. I’m now a big believer that books shouldn’t bother with messages–they should simply portray the world we wish to see. Unfortunately, most children’s publishers don’t publish the world I’d like to see (one in which males and females are equally present as active characters and engage equally in the full spectrum of potential behaviors), which makes finding books for my child difficult. Because not reading is not an option (child would revolt and doesn’t fit into husband and my values), my husband and I are just doing the best we can.

    I do not believe it’s true that girls will read books with male protagonists more than the reverse, but girls have fewer options than boys. YA literature is supposed to be near or at parity, but nothing else is even close–even though girls read more. I remember noticing and being bothered by this as a girl. I also don’t think girls (on average) identify with male protagonists when they do read about them. I think they identify with the love interests or sidekicks or sacrifices, which is part of how girls get socialized into supportive role behavior.

  9. HanAiwen Says:

    Mrs. Katz and Tush is a good children’s book about the friendship between an African American boy and a Jewish grandma-aged lady. Totally presented as nothing out of the ordinary. Awesome kids book.

  10. What Now? Says:

    LOVE Boy Meets Boy! Fantasy literature, of course, but powerful, and I agree with your point that sometimes presenting the ideal is the best way to respond to the un-ideal.

    And Where the Red Fern Grows completely devastated me in 5th grade, and I’m not sure I’ve ever quite recovered!

  11. Book Review: Petunia, The Girl Who Was Not a Princess | Grumpy Rumblings (of the formerly untenured) Says:

    […] and totally fails because they shame a subset of women (ex. princesses) or provide the message that misogyny is normal in a way that shouldn’t yet be crossing a toddler’s mind.  Petunia is the other […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: