So, Chestnut and Diana just spent a lovely week in Vermont with their
grandparents, and part of that meant trips to the 4h of July library
book sale, and to the very tiny but excellent local library, where
Chestnut discovered this:
kids books is such a massive sticky morass I am hesitant to wade in,
but here I go.
The first thing I want to acknowledge is the
significant (I think) advantage girls have over boys in the
culture of books: so many, many of the amazing and wonderful books for
children concern girls. In some very real way it seems like
books—especially magical books, and childhood books—center on girls
because girls are the writers, and I mean that to be more metaphorical
than literal. It's as though the role of interpreting experience, of
recording it from within it but a little bit distanced, is what it
means, in our historical culture anyway, to be a girl. Girls are
narrators. It's as though being female is a way to understand
Now, the problem is that when I get to thinking along those lines, I
freak myself out. Because it, on some deep level, seems wrong. Surely
experience is human, not female? Surely action, participation, is
human, not male, right?
Chestnut LOVES the Billy & Blaze
books, which are about a boy and his horse. They have a certain purity
of vision and story. They were written in the 1930s and have very direct, clear illustration. There is
something very hopeful about them, about a world in that acted as though it was a matter of course to teach our children to go out and do good in the
world, to be proud and strong and brave and trustworthy. A whole different universe of virtues
from the reflexive sass of children (and their avatars—wise-ass pandas and penguins and mice) in books today.
I don't mean to judge one or the other; you're brought up in the culture you're brought up in, you don't have a whole lot of choice in the matter.
But Chestnut responds powerfully to this past world, and here's the thing:
for this sort of straightforward heroism, particularly of a human and
an animal aligned in adventure, it seems it's always a boy.
My even saying this makes me feel like I'm falling into that familiar boys-are-uncomplicated-girls-
But maybe this is all fine? Maybe I should just be happy that it's a great thing that she's reading Billy
and Blaze, and identifying as powerfully as she could with anything;
why should it be a girl, after all? Girls have dominion over so much of
children's literature, why not allow the boys their wildlife outdoor
adventures (see The Trumpet of the Swan, The Once and Future King,
Lassie, etc etc etc etc)?
Or maybe just take this away: the Billy and Blaze books are sweet and true, with interesting and moving illustrations. Maybe you ought to read them.