Books to inspire young women
28th February 2015 - Emily Brown
It was as long ago as 1909 that the very first International Women's Day was marked in New York. Since then, 8th March has been adopted worldwide as an occasion on which to mark the achievements of women and to continue the campaign for equality, with the UN offering official backing since 1977.
This year, you'll find a display of books by and about great women, chosen by our booksellers, in each branch of Foyles. Children's books have a particularly important role in offering inspiring models for young women and, as Emily Brown, from our shop in Waterloo Station, notes there are many more of them available than there once were, from picture books to young adult titles. Here she shares some of the books she relishes recommending to customers.
International Women's Day is almost upon us, so let's take a moment to appreciate all the great books out there written with young women in mind. This month at Foyles Waterloo, as in all our branches, we have a special promotion highlighting all the wonderful books for children and young adults that have an inspirational female character fighting the good fight against patriarchy (or at the very least traditional social norms).
I have always loved genre-bending stories, and as a child I loved stories of princesses who didn't live up to the Sleeping Beauty standard. Books like The Paper Bag Princess (in which the princess in question has to rescue her Prince from a dragon) and Princess Smartypants (who decides that marrying a silly self-obsessed prince is just not her cup of tea) made much more sense to me than princesses who fell asleep at the first sign of trouble. Julia Donaldson has added to this wonderful trope with Zog and a Princess who is more worried about being a doctor then being scared of a dragon.
I'm going to say something controversial now: I don't like Enid Blyton. For me, her books are simply too formulaic, with cardboard characters making the same mischief and getting in the same trouble, and girls who always eventually fall into the same 'gender-appropriate' roles. I can't help but believe that if she were alive today she'd be churning out books like the factory-line Rainbow Fairies and their ilk. Pah! Give your kids something with bite to read. Chris Riddell's Ottoline and the Yellow Cat would be a good start – Ottoline Brown is an ingenious Mistress of disguise who solves mysteries with the help of her hirsute best friend Mr Munroe. Or inspire a love of the great outdoors by having your kids read Dick King-Smith's Sophie's Adventures, about farmer-in-training Sophie who makes friends with local snails and tom cats.
There are some great three-dimensional female characters in the 9-12 age range too. Lauren St John's Laura Marlin, who first appears in Dead Man's Cove, is a great character. Laura is a girl determined to solve any crisis with a cool head and quick thinking and she's fantastically realistic. I want her to be my best friend now, and it hurts to think about how much I would have loved these books when I was ten or so. Another set of books I would have raved about if they were around 15 years ago are Laura Dockrill's Darcy Burdock books, with a hilariously inspiring kid who knows her own mind and refuses to bend to pressure to be 'normal'. Today's young readers really are spoiled for choice when it comes to engaging and progressive books, so there's no reason why girls should have to do without inspring characters.
Young adult fiction is where feminist books really shine, and I've read some truly exciting books in the past year that are a testament to this fact. Louise O'Neill's Only Ever Yours is an original take on the very real pressures that young women are faced with every day. Set in a dystopian world where women are created and live only to please men before gamely committing suicide when they get too old to be pretty, this is a novel to shock and make you think more than twice. Small details like all the girls names starting in lower case letters and the not-so-subtle nod to the damage social media can inflict make this what I believe will be a future classic.
For more rebellious teenagers who don't yet think they are feminist, try E Lockhart's The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks, a story about a girl in a posh boarding in New England who is appalled to find out she can't join the prestigious secret society because she is a girl, so goes ahead and takes it over anyway. And one of my favourites is Non Pratt's Trouble, a novel about teen pregnancy which falls into none of the potholes normally associated with the genre – the very first lines show how different it will be compared to other similar books: “So I had sex with Fletch again last night. It was all right, better than last time anyway, and Fletch is a laugh.” No slut-shaming here, girls, so if that's your thing, move along.
What all these books have in common is the ability to open up the world and expand minds, and show kids that just because something is standard it doesn't mean that it's right. Books should entertain, but they should also educate, and some of the most important books you will buy your daughters - and sons! - will be the ones that introduce them to the way the world works and inspires them to change it.
Dick King-Smith; David Parkins
Robert Munsch; Michael Martchenko
Lauren St. John
Julia Donaldson; Axel Scheffler