I was very wary picking up a book called Bossyboots to read to my daughter. ‘Bossy’ is a heavily gendered word. There’s no way a book called ‘Bossyboots’ would ever star a boy. So the first thing I checked was the year of publication. 1985, I thought. Well, this could be a good thing. Overtly feminist messages were pretty popular in 1985. I’m happy to say that this book subverts reader expectations.
This isn’t a story in which a bossy girl is put in her place; it’s a story which shows that a little girl’s bossiness can save the day.
This isn’t the easiest book to get hold of these days but it’s nevertheless an award winning publication. Bossyboots won a Children’s Choices Magazine Award in the USA and was included in America’s Children’s Choices List. I think the Wild West setting must be a familiar and popular one to an American audience, even though this is obviously set in Australia (with specific place names mentioned up front).
Where the hell is Narrabri, you ask?
The small town of about 6000 people exists due to the cotton growing industry.
The story follows classic structure. A further word on the setting: The ‘Wild West’ is a good one for a classic big struggle. In this case there’s even a ‘black hat’ with a gun. Note that, because this is a story for children, the gun ends up being not even loaded — one way to tone down the scariness of guns, I guess. Also, if you want to write a picturebook with guns, it really does need to be set in earlier times. I suspect publishers would balk at a gun-weilding criminal in a modern setting. The Wild West stories are far enough into the past as to feel mythically alien to children.
Abigail, along with the rest of the passengers, just wants to go home to Narrabri.
Australian history is full of dodgy characters with poetic names, from Mad Dog Morgan to Bold Jack Donohoe. This outlaw is appropriately named Flash Fred. He’s not all that scary looking really. He’s a hapless guy who can’t overpower a little girl. He wears a straw hat, has a large belly and skinny legs — built to topple over, as he does.
She’ll catch the train and everything will go smoothly, because everyone will do exactly as she says.
We don’t see how exactly, since this is a series of static images, but Flash Fred topples over.
Because this is a tale designed to subvert reader expectations, it’s the reader, not the main character, who has the revelation.
We realise that although this is an unappealing little girl who bosses everyone around, bossiness has its virtues; a bossy girl also has the ability to save the day. Bossiness can also mean ‘scared of nothing and no one’.