Throughout the history of children’s literature, children’s books have existed in large part to teach lessons. Not only do they teach children to be compliant, grateful, pious, and to work hard, children’s books socialise children. Today we might say they teach ’emotional literacy’.
“Everybody else on the block rides two-wheelers. Only babies ride tricycles.” She made this remark because she knew Howie still rode his tricycle, and she was so angry about the ribbon she wanted to hurt his feelings.
— Ramona the Pest, Beverly Cleary
Adult readers are left to work out motivations, ironies and desires for ourselves — we read between the lines. And this is true for young adult novels, too. But when children are learning to read they are also learning to recognise and name their feelings. Chapter books such as the Ramona series are good at doing that because they add that little extra bit of explanation.
This little bit of extra explanation can be found in children’s books for older readers, too:
“So you should have told me before, that’s what. You shouldn’t hide things like that from people, because they feel stupid when they find out, and that’s cruel.”
— Northern Lights, Philip Pullman (Lyra to her father)
When an adult is unable to identify their own feelings it’s called alexithymia.
Alexithymia is defined by:
difficulty identifying feelings and distinguishing between feelings and the bodily sensations of emotional arousal
difficulty describing feelings to other people
constricted imaginal processes, as evidenced by a scarcity of fantasies
a stimulus-bound, externally oriented cognitive style.
Alexithymia is found more commonly in the autistic population, but not all autistic people have trouble understanding and identifying emotions. In fact, only about one in two autistic people have trouble with this.
Lately I’ve been reading chapter books with my 8-year-old daughter. We’ve been reading realistic comedy dramas from various American eras, from Ramona Quimby to Junie B. Jones to Judy Moody to Clementine. We’re just starting to (re)delve into the work of Judy Blume.
We’ve also read similar books produced locally such as Philomena Wonderpen by Ian Bone, Billy B. Brown by Sally Rippin and the Violet Mackerel series by Anna Branford.
Many of these stories are great. All of these stories have things to recommend them.
But there is a formula running throughout most chapter books aimed at girls which isn’t doing women any good at all. In fact, in this week heading into the American election, I’m getting pretty cranky about it, because this narrative is having a real world effect.
The chapter book formula concerns the character web, which looks like this:
There are variations on this basic plan, of course.
For instance, the girly-girl might actually be the fake opponent.
Considered together as a corpus, this kind of character in middle grade fiction is saying something quite damaging about a certain kind of girl — the young Hillary Clinton archetype. A non-sympathetic character.
The Mixed Message of Ivy + Bean
An example of that is the relationship between Ivy + Bean. In their case, ‘tomboyish’ viewpoint character Bean mistakes the girly-girl across the road for someone completely uninteresting. But when she takes the time to know her, Bean realises that Ivy is just as scheming as she is, and because of her good-girl appearance they are actually better equipped to carry out their often quite nasty — but always fun — plans. Various parent reviewers criticise this series for its unpunished bad behaviour, but one good thing about the Ivy + Bean series is that the girls learn in the very first book to look behind appearances.
A possibly quite damaging unintended message is that girly-girls are basically presenting a fake image. And unless a girly-girl reveals a more masculine side, she remains unsympathetic. Ergo, true girly-girls are still horrible. This is femme phobic.
The girly-girl opponent of the Philomena Wonderpen series is a girl called Sarah Sullivan, who the reader knows to hate due to her overtly feminine accoutrements. Her matching pink accessories and her pink bag. Then there’s the way she competes against our imperfect hero and ends up winning the literal ‘gold star’ at the end of camp, dished out by an unsympathetic Trunchbull-esque school principal.
Even though Philomena has all the advantages of a magic wand (her father’s Wonderpen), Sarah Sullivan still wins the gold star — mostly through her own hard work, I might add, though she is also a rich girl and dishes out store-bought sweets.
The more successful a woman is, the more pleasure we take in demolishing her and turning her into a two-dimensional villain. Hillary Clinton’s extraordinary success may only be tempting the God of Trainwrecks to make her our biggest and best catastrophe yet.
To dwell upon the ‘fakeness’ of girly-girl opponents, Sarah Sullivan’s ‘store bought’ sweets are depicted by the author in opposition to Philomena’s home-baked treats, and once again, Sarah Sullivan is deemed a ‘fake’, in a way any modern mother should understand implicitly as coming straight from the ad-men trying to persuade us to buy this cookie over that, because it tastes just like a home-baked one, and women are therefore allowed to serve it up. (Because ideally, women are in the kitchen baking genuine cookies, but if we can’t manage that, we must at least make a good attempt at faking it.)
Even in the Clementine series, which I do love, overt markings of femininity are punished. This dynamic is set up in the very first paragraph of the first in the series:
I have had not so good of a week. Well, Monday was a pretty good day, if you don’t count Hamburger Surprise at lunch and Margaret’s mother coming to get her. Or the stuff that happened in the principal’s office when I got sent there to explain that Margaret’s hair was not my fault and besides she looks okay without it, but I couldn’t because Principal Rice was gone, trying to calm down Margaret’s mother.
Clementine, Sara Pennypacker
Since hair (and handbags and high-heels) are strong markers of femininity, Margaret the girly-girl opponent is immediately brought down to size, and the reader is encouraged to despise the hysterical mother who is upset about something so frivolous. Putting aside the fact that actually, cutting someone’s hair is a violation of personhood that women have been talking about for decades and which, from boys and men, is actually really unacceptable.
In the seventh book we see the girly-girl character cut down to size by breaking her ankle after insisting on wearing high heels. And so on and so forth. Not so subtle subtext: Clementine is adorable because she is not like one of those girly-girls. She is basically everything we are encouraged to love in a boyish trickster.
Judy’s girly-girl enemy is Jessica Finch who at least breaks the mould of blonde bitches by having dark hair. (I suspect the dark hair is a symbolic representation of her dark moods.)
Judy Moody marched into third grade on a plain old Thursday, in a plain old ordinary mood. That was before Judy got stung by the Queen Bee. Judy sat down at her desk, in the front row next to Frank Pearl.”Hey, did you see Jessica Finch?” asked Frank in a low voice.”Yeah. So? I see her every day. She sits catty-cornered behind me.”
Judy Moody Gets Famous! by Megan McDonald
‘Cater-cornered’ means to sit diagonally behind someone, but the common pronunciation gives me the feeling that ‘catty’ is supposed to be a sexist pun. (When women are compared to cats it’s because cats don’t ‘fight fair’. They hiss and spit and posture, and will scratch you with their long ‘nails’.)
We are encouraged to hate Jessica Finch because she is the Queen (Spelling) Bee. We are encouraged to root for Judy’s defeating her mostly because Judy is the viewpoint character but also because Jessica’s presentation is ‘perfect’ — she sits up straight in class and doesn’t have a single hair loose from her high ponytail.
We are also encouraged to hate Jessica Finch because she tries hard, much as Donald Trump criticised Hillary for preparing for the second 2016 presidential debate:
“I have spelling posters in my room at home,” said Jessica. “With all the rules. I even have a glow-in-the-dark one.”
“That would give me spelling nightmares. I’ll take my glow-in-the-dark skeleton poster any day. It shows all two hundred and six bones in the body!”
“Judy,” said Mr. Todd. “The back of your head is not nearly as interesting as the front. And so far I’ve seen more o fit today than I’d like.”
Judy Moody Gets Famous! by Megan McDonald
Obviously, our siding with Judy is helped by the fact that both girls were talking but only Judy gets reprimanded by the teacher authority figure.
A positive aspect of the Judy Moody series is that Judy is allowed to express a wider range of emotions, including anger. But mostly she displays spite, and actually ‘moody’ itself is a highly gendered word. Boys are not called moody for displaying the exact same range of emotions. (And yes, I acknowledge there is also a — completely different but still sexist — problem, concerning the narrow range of allowable emotions in boys and men.)
Junie B. Jones
Like Clementine, Junie B. Jones has a loving relationship with her school principal, owing to her pranks being adorable and the principal being a caring type. (In this post I make the case that Junie B. is a fictional representation of an ADHD phenotype child.)
Junie’s girly-girl enemy is Richie Lucille. The reader knows immediately that Lucille is horrible and unsympathetic because she has long blonde hair tied up in a perfect ponytail, whereas Junie B. looks rough and tumble and doesn’t care about neatness. She is also unlikeable because she is rich. (She has unearned power.)
Billy B. Brown
By now it should be clear that messy hair is prerequisite for empathetic girl heroes.
Billie B. Brown has two messy pigtails, two pink ballet slippers and one new tutu.
The Bad Butterfly by Sally Rippin, opening sentence
It’s almost as if the girliness of the ballet outfit has to be neutralised by the messy hair. The messy hair says, “I’m wearing ballet clothes because I’m doing ballet, but don’t let that fool you into thinking I care about what you think of me.”
Billie’s best friend is Jack. Billie and Jack live next door to each other. They do everything together. If Billie decides to play soccer, then Jack will play soccer too.
The Bad Butterfly by Sally Rippin
Rippin avoids much of the ‘girl drama’ by making Billie a ‘guy’s gal’, basically. Billie’s close friendship with a boy elevates her social status.
The only real gender subversion here is that Jack learns ballet just as Billie plays soccer. This is pretty radical and modern, and it’s easy to overlook the other side.
Because once again we have the horrible girly-girl enemy. This girl is called Lola. Once again she is drawn (by illustrator Aki Fukuoka) with her blonde hair in a perfect bun. She closes her eyes and holds her nose in the air, as if no one else matters.
The message for young readers is that being a girl is fine and girls can do anything they want … so long as they are not too much of a girl. This femme phobic message works in silent opposition to the feminist ‘girls (and boys) can do anything’ intent.
Frenemies: A feature of girl fiction but not in books for and about boys
I have also read the Wimpy Kid books and others like it, and it seems the very concept of ‘frenemy’ is specific to books aimed at girls. There is no frenemy in Wimpy Kid — Rowley is a genuine WYSIWYG friend. Fregley is an out-and-out comedic archetype and the girls are somewhat complicated but one-dimensional opponents. These heterosexual boys don’t like the girls as people but they’re starting to feel inevitable adolescent attraction. The most popular books among boy readers are both reflecting and reinforcing a completely different but equally problematic dynamic — a discussion you can find elsewhere.
In fiction aimed specifically at girls, however, we often see frenemy dynamics. This is an outworking of a culture in which the allowable emotional spectrum for girls spans between friendly and neutral. Anger, distaste, disgust is not generally not allowed from girls.
So we have these girls who trick the adults into thinking they’re perfect but actually they are horrible: a sexist variation on the trickster archetype. The reason this is sexist is because the prevalence of these girls suggests, to widely-read kids that:
Only girls are able to pull this particular trick off
Boys are all surface and no depth — boys speak their minds and you always know exactly what you’re going to get.
Girls are basically liars.
The worst girls are the prettiest ones. And by ‘pretty’ I mean the girls with the most feminine accoutrements. The more feminine a girl is, the more likely she is to be fake underneath, in a direct correlation.
Hillary Clinton has a unique talent to make people viscerally angry. Just look at the footage from Trump rallies: supporters carry “Lyin Hillary” dolls hung from miniature nooses, cry “Lock her up” and “Hang her in the streets”, and wear Trump That Bitch T-shirts.
There are plenty of boy tricksters but they are presented in a completely different way.
Boy opponents, for example, arrange to beat someone up, after school, behind the bike sheds, but we aren’t inclined to call him ‘scheming’ for arranging the fight outside the range of adult supervision.
Boys take girls’ dolls, attach them to kite tails and send them sailing into the air, but boys aren’t schemers — they are simply having fun.
The bully-boy characters in children’s stories are not raking in all the academic awards. The fact that girly-girls also know all the answers is one more reason for the readers to despise them. We don’t like women who have all the answers.
The lesson is clear, and has been reiterated in countless hacky comedies about cold, loveless career women ever since. Success and love are incompatible for women. For a woman, taking pride in her own talents – especially talents seen as “masculine” – is a sin that will perpetually cut her off from human relationships and social acceptance. She can be good, or liked, not both. The only answer is to let a man beat her, thereby accepting her proper feminine role.
Feminine Girl Opponents Are Always Brought Down A Peg
When the girly-girl gets water dumped all over her (accidentally on purpose), or her pretty dress covered in ink, the reader is encouraged to revel in schadenfreude. It’s not just that the girl hero manages to come out on top — punishment usually focuses on ruining the very thing that stands for femininity.
Don’t forget that punishing female characters in children’s stories has a long history. Below, the Wicked Witch melts. The Wicked Witch is truly wicked, not just an annoying perfectionist classmate with frilly dresses and bows in her hair:
I would argue that Hilary Clinton irritates people not just because of her gender, but because we simply can’t process her narrative. There are no stories that prepare us for her trajectory through life and, therefore, we react to her as if she’s a disruption in our reality, rather than a person.
We love public women best when they are losers, when they’re humiliated, defeated, or (in some instances) just plain killed.
It Didn’t Start With Ramona Quimby And Susan Kushner
As Doyle explains, this view of femininity goes back as far as Greek mythology and perhaps even back into the Paleolithic era:
Aversion to successful or ambitious women is nothing new. It’s baked into our cultural DNA. Consider the myth of Atalanta. She was the fastest runner in her kingdom, forced men to race her for her hand, and defeated every one of them. She would have gotten away with it, too, if some man hadn’t booby-trapped the course with apples to slow her down, which is presented as a happy ending. By taking away her ability to excel, he also takes away her loneliness. Then, there’s the story of Artemis and Orion: He’s the most handsome hunter in all Greece, and she’s the Virgin Goddess of the Hunt, who’s ready to get rid of the “virgin” portion for him. Until, that is, her jealous brother Apollo tricks her into an archery contest – she’s so proud of her aim that she lets Apollo taunt her into shooting at a barely visible speck on the horizon and, therefore, winds up shooting her lover in the head.
You see it again in the Bible and actually my high school classics teacher had this quote from Pericles on the wall as if it were a maxim to live by:
[I]njunctions against female self-expression or fame are everywhere in ancient history. The Christian New Testament “[suffers] not a woman to teach, nor to usurp authority over the man;”Pericles wrote that the greatest womanly virtue was “not to be talked of for good or evil among men”. In the colonial United States and Britain, women who talked too much and started fights were labelled“common scolds” – recommended punishments included making them wear gags or repeatedly dunking them in water to simulate drowning.
Boyish Tricksters Are Heroes; Girlish Tricksters Are Punished
[T]hough Clinton activates the darkest parts of her critics’ sexual imagination, our yearning for her downfall goes beyond even that. It’s not just that her success makes her unattractive or “unlikable”, it’s that, on some level, we cannot believe her success even exists. You hear that disbelief in the frantic insistence of certain Sanders supporters that the primary was “rigged”, simply because Clinton won it. You hear it when Trump sputters that Clinton “should never have been allowed to run”, making her very presence in the race a violation of the accepted order. You can hear it when pundits such as Jonathan Walczak argue that even if Clinton is elected, she should voluntarily resign after one term “for her own good”. (Also, presumably, good for George Clooney, whom Walczak offers up as a plausible replacement.) Even when we imagine her winning, we can’t imagine her really winning. Unadulterated female success and power, on the level Clinton has experienced, is simply not in our shared playbook. So, even when a Clinton victory is right in front of our eyes, we react, not as if it’s undesirable, but as if it is simply not real. And the thing is, it might not be. Or at least, it might only be temporary: the rise before the big, spectacular, sexism-affirming fall.
The caveat in chapter books is that ‘tomboyish’ girls, like boys, can also get away with anything. It’s the particularly feminine way of being that is not acceptable.
This is where I give a shout out to the Violet Mackerel series by Anna Branford.
Violet is kind, inquisitive, creative, understanding, thoughtful and loyal. The author avoids the girly-girl frenemy dynamics and instead focuses on Violet’s relationship with her hippie family and to the natural world around her. Her ‘opponent’ might be her mother, who meets a friend at the mall and bores Violet talking about the price of petrol, for instance. The conflict is not contrived. We do still have, though, a teenage girl snarker in Nicola, the older sister.
Admittedly, this makes for quieter plots with less Bestseller appeal.
Illustrator Elanna Allen dresses Violet in practical clothing and Violet sometimes has quite neat hair, other times quite messy. The covers of this series are not heavily pink, which I find ironic given the pinkness of all the other books implicitly criticising pinkness.
Fancy Nancy is another interesting case because this is a character who embraces all of those feminine accoutrements vilified in most chapter books.
For pedagogical reasons, I’m sure, these books also teach young readers ‘fancy words’, which Nancy uses with full explanations for the young readers. In other words, there are many ways of being fancy, and one of those ways is to be smart.
There are also lots of standalone books about different kind of girls, but it’s the bestselling series which are the most widely read and therefore the most influential.
Real World Consequences of the Female Maturity Formula In Storytelling
I have previously written about the way in which girls and women in popular stories are consistently portrayed as ‘the only sensible’ one in the room. Typically, the girl is more of a swot, more organised, more witty than the ‘everyday boy’. We see it all sorts of narrative for both adults and children:
Everybody Loves Raymond (the long-suffering wife)
Harry Potter (Hermione)
Calvin and Hobbes (Suzie)
Big Nate series (Gina, and also the female teacher Mrs Godfrey, who is far more studious about doing her actual job as teacher than the laid back Mr Rosa.)
At first glance, to the uninitiated, this might seem like sexism indeed… but against men. After all, isn’t it good for women’s rights that women are consistently smarter than the men?
These women are the sidekicks, not the heroes. They start and end the story as sensible; the character arcs happen to the men. You can’t be the hero of a story unless you undergo some sort of character arc. This makes men the main characters of the stories.
These women are motherly. When the only role for the girl is the motherly type, we end up thinking that’s the only role she’s good for.
While these motherly types are allowed smart comebacks (a la Suzie from Calvin and Hobbes), they are are often limited to sarcasm. As often as not they are in fact completely humourless, adding to the cultural stereotype that ‘women just aren’t funny’. This sensible, parental role suits the straight ‘man’ more than it suits the funny ‘guy’.
But more disturbing than any of these points are the very real political consequences, as described below at a feminism and linguistics blog, in a discussion about the recent English election:
One answer to that question invokes the concept of the ‘glass cliff’. In politics as in business, women are more likely to be chosen as leaders when an organisation is in serious trouble and the risk of failure is high. In that connection it’s interesting to recall one of the phrases used about Nicola Sturgeon last week—‘the only grown-up in the room’. Since then, other women, including Theresa May and, in the wider European context, Angela Merkel, have also been described as ‘grown-up(s)’. Though the term itself isn’t gendered, I’m beginning to think the metaphor is: it’s a reference to the most culturally familiar and acceptable form of female authority, that of adult women over children. When the men are responding to a crisis by throwing their toys out of the pram, it’s time for Mummy to sweep in and clean up their mess.
So whenever the girl character swoops in to save the boys with her book learning and smart ideas (a la Monster House, Paranorman, Harry Potter), what we’re really seeing is the Glass Cliff effect.
We might also call it the Happy Housewife view of female politicians:
I have heard many women (and some men) say that they want to see more women in power because women would make the world a better place, lift the tone of parliaments and be all-round kinder to the planet. Some go all quasi-spiritual on me, wittering on about female energy and our goddess-given nurturing nature. This has always struck me as the happy housewife model of leadership, where female leaders whiz around cleaning up the men’s mess, leaving the world all sparkly, clean and sweet smelling. It sounds like it’s a compliment but, in fact, it is a burden.
Jane Caro, after the first 2016 Trump-Clinton debate
This view dictates that women must be better than men before they can aspire to leadership, that they must offer something special and different or they have no right to take the top job. Frankly, it sets us up for failure because it sets a higher standard for female leaders than for their male counterparts.
Please don’t mistake this for ‘girl power’. And definitely look out for it in your own country’s politics.
A New Vision For Chapter Book Series Aimed At Girls
Could we change the character web template and still engage young readers? Here’s what I’d love to see:
More imagination when it comes to dreaming up opponents. Perhaps this is where fantasy shines. Fantasy, unlike realistic drama, is open to all sorts of monsters, ghosts and ghouls and does not need the girly-girl frenemy/enemy. However, as number 2 in the Ivy + Bean series shows (The Ghost That Had To Go), fantastic imaginings can be included even in realistic fiction.
More complex boy characters. I’d like to kill the stereotype that girls are fake and wily while boys are shallow and simple and unencumbered by complex social difficulties. If writers think they’re reflecting realities, by exaggerating them for comedic effect they are also reinforcing them. Is it possible to model good relationships while still including sufficient tension between characters? (Don’t tell me that these stories shouldn’t be didactic, because they already are.)
In real life, girly girls are not usually the enemy. The girl with the neat hair is probably sitting quietly in the corner doing her work. I know it’s tempting to write only about the Clementine/Ramona/Junie B. wreckers of this world because these girls are propelled into action by their very nature, but there is an invisible majority of girl readers out there whose compliance and hard work are not only invisible, but actively punished throughout children’s literature. Let’s change that. Because it’s affecting how the actual world is being run.
Each of these pairs represents a perceived dichotomy of girlhood: the girly girl versus the “tomboy”.
While I use the word “tomboy”, the speech marks indicate my disdain for the very concept. A girl who likes rough-and-tumble and dressing for practicality is no less of a girl. The word itself upholds a narrow notion of what it means to be a real girl.
This is the very political position taken by many popular modern writers of chapter books and middle grade novels. Publishers and readers love it, right now. This upturns the now offensive political position of earlier children’s stories; until very recently, if girls were depicted in children’s books at all, they were the minor characters — the inevitable sisters and mothers and giggly schoolyard opponents. Even books for girls and about girls actively encouraged domesticity in their young readers, preparing them for their futures as mothers and housewives by returning them safely to the home, if they ever left home at all.
Modern literature for girls is mostly the inverse of that. Modern girls read about girls doing brave, adventurous and amazing things. It’s a truism that the most interesting kidlit characters are proactive, sometimes naughty, often cheeky. Imperfect and relatable, in other words. Sometimes they are average kids in every way (oftentimes ‘underdogs’); other times they have a special super power.
I don’t just mean ‘super power’ in the fantasy sense. Modern heroines of kidlit might be a Hermione trope — good at school work and often annoying in girly kinds of ways, but useful to the boys in their quest for self-knowledge due to her extensive knowledge on a subject, which must take place (rather boringly) off the page, since swotting requires many hours of solitude.
What It Means To Be A ‘Girly-Girl’
Upholder of social rules (a la ‘Tattletale May’ from the Junie B. Jones series)
Feels the need to look pretty and also judges others on their appearance
Good at memorisation
Well-behaved in school, sometimes a teacher’s pet.
Helps the mother at home and is often the ‘mother’s pet’
Aligns self with adults who have conservative, old-fashioned attitudes about a child’s place: Children should be seen and not heard.
Fearful, anxious temperament
No sense of humour, though she may develop a sense of humour/how to have fun if she ‘learns’ it from tomboy types
What It Means To Be A ‘(Tom)Boy’
Breaks the social rules. Is sometimes punished, other times rewarded
Dresses for practicality rather than to look pretty, and is interested in other people for what they can do rather than what they look like. Non-judgemental.
Tasks such as rote memorisation are rejected due to their boringness.
Misbehaves in school. Has trouble sitting still. Drawn to movement.
Is mischievous at home and is often in conflict with the mother, aligning self with the father (who may often be absent)
Aligns self with adults who are open-minded, kid-friendly and even tempered and fair
Open to adventure; unafraid of consequences; brave
Keen sense of humour
Typical Character Web Of A Chapter Book For Modern Girls
Opponent 1: The Girly-girl, and perhaps her posse of proto-mean girls.
This opponent highlights the rambunctious nature of our tomboy main character, and she will often get the tomboy into hot water using subversive tactics. But she will ultimately be punished. This punishment will ‘serve her right’ for her extreme femininity. She’ll be grossed out or she’ll get her clothing dirty despite having a distaste for germs or she’ll have a wardrobe malfunction or her beautiful hair will get pulled or ruined in some way. Although the opponent in a character web is designed to highlight a shortcoming in the main character, the girly-girl mainly serves to highlight the tomboy’s strengths.
Opponent 2: The Boy
The boy opponent is often on the edge of boy-dom himself as we rarely see him with all of his buddies. He is drawn to the tomboy girl without seeming to help himself, and he often tries to attract the girl’s attention with silly tricks or bravado. The relationship between the boy and the tomboy main character is a proto-love story. As is true for romantic comedies for adults, the tomboy and the boy must start out as rivals, and learn over the course of the story that they actually have a lot in common. This boy will often live nearby. He has probably known the tomboy for a while, and the beginning of the series marks the beginning of their friendship arc.
The boy highlight’s our tomboy heroine’s unpleasant tendency to be mean for mean’s sake. This is a Pride and Prejudice sort of thing going on; the tomboy dislikes the boy simply because he is a boy. But she comes round to his way of thinking because this boy is basically fun.
Opponent 3: An Adult
This will be a parent (almost always the mother — fathers tend to be fun), a teacher (an old-fashioned, grumpy type who doesn’t seem to like children), or a neighbour person (a cranky neighbour who won’t let kids onto the lawn or a shopkeeper who thinks kids only thieve).
These adults highlight the tomboy heroine’s inability to conform to an old-fashioned ideal; that children should be seen and not heard. But mainly these adult opponents highlight the child’s resilience, daring, bravery and ability to think themselves out of trouble. Our heroine seems jovial and full of the joys of life against these dour characters whose main concern is doing housework, rote memorisation, and boring daily routine.
In a regular character web, each opponent is in opposition to each other. That’s not always the case for the girly-girl and the teacher/mother figure, who are one and the same person. But sometimes, in the slightly more complex books, the adult is an ally as much as an opponent, and can see through the ingratiating tendencies of the underhanded girly-girl.
Which opponent comes out looking worst in most of these stories?
The girly-girl, of course. While the boy character is generally a secret ally-opponent, and the adults are often as kind as they are ignorant of kidland politics, the girly-girl has no redeeming qualities. However, she is sometimes redeemed by the end of the book/series. Usually it’s because she’s learned something from the tomboy, or she has realised that dressing in pretty clothes and focusing on image is leading to her downfall.
The tomboy main character far less often learns anything useful from our girly-girl. On a surface level, the tomboy does not start dressing in pink, realising that pink is okay after all. She doesn’t grow her hair long or start to take more pride in her appearance.
One exception to this — though it’s a young adult novel rather than a chapter book — is a story by Joyce Carol Oates, Big Mouth and Ugly Girl. Stories like these inevitably become prone to all of the problems involved in the ‘makeover’ trope. It’s an almost impossible line for authors to walk.
However, in the best books of this kind, the tomboy character does learn something from the girly-girl. She generally learns kindness, which comes about from learning that there are depths to this annoying representation of walking-femininity, and that even girly-girls should be treated as rounded people. This requires a more fleshed-out subplot, where the reader, alongside the tomboy heroine, gets to see another side of the girly-girl. Sometimes the girly-girl has problems at home — absent parents, most often, who give her pretty dresses to try and compensate for their lack of parental attention. This is a lesson for parent co-readers as much as it is for young readers.
However, when a girly-girl is suddenly presented as dimensional due to basic neglect, what does this say about obvious outworkings of femininity? Girly accoutrements, however they’re handled, are generally indicators that something is going terribly wrong with that girl.
A Brief History Of Tomboys Versus Girly-Girls
LITTLE HOUSE ON THE PRAIRIE SERIES
Our viewpoint character is Laura Ingalls: brave, adventurous, outdoorsy. Laura despises being cooped up inside and has to be coaxed into doing her school work. When the family moves into town she longs to be back on the prairie. Lacking a boy in the family, Laura is consistently profiled as ‘her father’s daughter’, whereas Mary is cut from the same cloth as the mother. This even extends to the colour of their hair; Laura has brown hair like her father, while Mary has blond hair like their mother.
Mary also contrasts as the feminine flipside of a prairie daughter: Mary is studious, prone to anxiety and never misbehaves. When Mary ultimately becomes blind after a bout of scarlet fever, her feminine virtues are only heightened. Now, she is resigned to a life of sewing inside, and having others describe things to her — living secondhand.
For most of the series, Mary and Laura are flipsides of a girl, but in the third Laura book On The Banks Of Plum Creek, a new character is introduced who represents not just the flipside to country girls (a rich townie) but also provides an even more exaggerated, and this time toxic, version of what femininity can mean. Nellie Oleson’s obsession with cleanliness and pretty dresses is evident when she visits Laura and Mary at their modest prairie home. She criticises their home by saying she didn’t want to wear her best dress to a country party. The reader is encouraged to condemn Nellie for such rudeness. Inevitably, the reader also condemns Nellie for her rejection of the country and also for her obsession with dresses. As unpleasant as Nellie is for other reasons, we learn to associate a love for fashion with vacuousness and image obsession.
Yet there is a line. We see time and again throughout the Little House series how overjoyed Laura and Mary are to be getting new dresses. Laura’s new dresses are simple, however, and she is at one point overjoyed to be getting a new dress made of brown fabric, when she’d been expecting Mary’s hand-me-down. The author encourages the virtue of gratitude, but the focus on clothing has the — perhaps unintended — consequence of denigrating ostentatiousness in female dress. Girls and women must take care of their appearance, but not too much.
THE RAMONA QUIMBY SERIES
[Ramona] represents the kind of girl who has not been subdued by adults or the world in general.”Twentieth-Century Children’s Writers cites Ramona’s “spunk, her impermeable but often ambivalent bond to Beezus, and her unsurpassed creativity… (Cleary) never sacrifices Ramona’s integrity or intelligence.
— Librarian Kathleen Odean
Compared to Laura Ingalls, who nonetheless conforms to feminine standards of the time (even buckling down, against her nature, to be a future teacher), Ramona Quimby is a revolutionary character, and Beverly Cleary’s mischievous little girl marked a new era in realistic middle grade novels.
Ramona can never live up to standards set by her older sister Beatrice.
But Beatrice is still not a particularly girly girl. For that trope we have the ‘exaggerated Beatrice’: Susan Kushner, who is punished for her feminine accoutrements by Ramona, who just can’t seem to help pulling her golden curls. Readers are invited to take enjoyment in Ramona’s mischief, because Ramona is the viewpoint character after all, but also because Susan is not a nice girl, and the prettiness of Susan marks her out as such. From this character, readers learn that prettiness in girls is associated with meanspirited-ness, lack of originality and underhandedness:
Susan is portrayed as being somewhat snobby and overachieving; in the book of her debut, her beautiful curls become the object of Ramona’s fascination and lead to the girl’s suspension from kindergarten for pulling the curls out of curiosity. In the following book, set a year later, Susan copies a stereotypically-designed wise paper bag owl designed by Ramona during an arts and crafts session, which is destroyed by an enraged Ramona after Susan is praised by the entire classroom for her work. She is depicted as a typical perfectionist; well-behaved in class, calm, and hard-working, as opposed to Ramona’s active imagination and unintentionally troublemaking personality. However, she is a bit of a snob, exaggerating the pain felt after Ramona tugged her curly hair in Ramona the Pest for attention. Also, she did copy Ramona’s work.
Once again, we have a girly-girl who is easily upset by uncleanliness, and which an older reader might pick up as the first signs of an eating disorder:
In the final book of the series, [Susan] refuses a slice of cake during Ramona’s birthday celebration claiming that it is probably unhygienic and eating an apple instead, but soon afterward she confesses, in tears, her lifelong strive for perfection among adults, and her relationship with Ramona Quimby seems to improve afterward. In the same book, it is revealed that her parents tell Ramona to “be nice”.
THE CLEMENTINE SERIES BY SARA PENNYPACKER
In the name of upending gender stereotypes, she might be the opposite of what readers expect from a girl. Clementine is great at math and nothing else school related. Clementine shows clear signs of ADHD, something far more often diagnosed in boys. This makes Clementine a great kidlit character — she doesn’t think too much before acting, and this gets her into trouble. She sees the world differently and is often perplexed. The illustrations of Clementine by Marla Frazee depict Clementine as a Ramona Quimby sort of girl — back in the second wave of feminism, when girls wore their hair short and their mothers chose clothes for their many pockets and durability. Clementine is shown most often in the midst of action, which is what makes Marla Frazee such a great choice of illustrator for the Clementine series — she is super good at it.
Margaret is constantly ‘punished’ for her interest in feminine accoutrements. Insofar as long hair marks a girl out as a proud owner of femininity, she is ‘christened’ into Clementine’s more masculine world when Clementine gives her a haircut, which happens near the beginning of the first book.
In the seventh book of the series, Completely Clementine, Margaret insists on wearing high heeled shoes to a fancy event and ends up breaking her ankle.
IVY AND BEAN
More than any other cover I’ve seen, this graphic design highlights a girly-girl and a ‘tomboy’ girl as flipsides of the same character. I believe this cover highlights the intention of this category of modern stories marketed at girls: That there is more than one way to be a girl. You can have fun whether or not you like to wear pink dresses.
This series works a bit differently from those above, though ultimately, the result is the rejection of extreme femininity.
Bean — our viewpoint character — lives across the street from a girl who wears pretty dresses and seems to behave perfectly. Since Bean is nothing like that, she decides she wants nothing to do with this girly-girl, despite her mother’s suggestion she go and introduce herself. Naturally, the two end up meeting inadvertently and they hit it off. The rest of the series focuses on the adventures these two firm friends have together.
Does Bean realise that girly-girls aren’t so bad after all? No. She (and the reader) realises that although Ivy looks like a girly-girl, she’s as adventurous, imaginative and naughty as Bean. Older readers especially will notice that Ivy comes from an economically advantaged home and that she is an only child, which explains why Ivy is dressed up like she is. The subtext is that well-off parents of only-girls are inclined to treat them as dolls, and if these little girls want to have real fun, they must reject their parents’ limitations by pairing up with a ‘tomboy’ kid like Bean.
Book eight in the series shows readers that even girls who like to wear pink and pretty dresses can have lots of fun.
The Ivy and Bean series shows girls that wearing pink dresses means you can still have fun, but you must nevertheless reject other aspects of traditional, stereotypical femininity, such as aligning yourself with adults, behaving perfectly at all times and feeling anxious when trying new things.
If you’re looking for a chapter book to bridge the gap between beautifully illustrated picturebooks and pictureless novels, the Mercy Watson series is a great option, because the illustrations are just as enticing as any found in a high-production picture book.
STORYWORLD OF MERCY WATSON GOES FOR A RIDE
1960s American suburbia.
Children’s authors and illustrators seem to love this era — in hindsight it feels so safe, with the housewives cheerfully putting on endless spreads of food. For every happy housewife we probably had a Eugenia and a Baby, sisters forced to live together because there was no pay equality, a dearth of husbands after the world wars, and no freedom for a full life outside the confines of marriage. However! This image of suburbia, illustrated in bright, sunny pastel colours by Chris Van Dusen, is a genuine utopia. You’ll find nothing rotten in the basements here. This is a parody of the era, in which everything can be fixed with hot buttered toast.
The pink cadillac convertible seems to be a 1959 model. This is an iconic car that you would’ve seen in the movie Grease. And Elvis had one.
Mercy is a hedonist who enjoys good food and simple things in life, such as driving at high speed with the wind in her ears. But, like Mr Watson, she needs adventure outside the domesticity of a suburban house.
Mercy wants to drive the convertible.
Mr Watson is in love with his convertible and won’t let her drive it.
Mr Watson’s opponent is the policeman who wants to give him a ticket for speeding, and for letting a pig drive a car.
Baby’s opponent is her older sister, who has babied her her whole life. This relationship is well-understood simply from the fact that her name is Baby.
Since Mercy is an impulsive pig, and simply plonks herself on Mr Watson’s lap when she wants a go at the wheel, diCamillo created a personified Mercy in the form of the old maid Baby, from next door. Henpecked by her elderly older sister, Eugenia, Baby craves freedom and adventure herself, so she plans to stowaway in the back seat one Saturday so she can go on a ride in the convertible with Mr Watson and the pig.
When Mercy takes over the wheel we have a high-speed chase scene. It ends with Mercy flying into the air and landing hard on the ground.
Mr Watson gives Mercy a lecture about pigs driving. “Mercy sighed. She was glad the ride was over. She felt a tiny bit dizzy. And a little bit dazed. She wanted, very much, to go home.” Mercy has had enough adventure, for one day at least. But because this is a series, we don’t want Mercy to stop having adventures altogether!
Baby, perhaps for the first time in her life, saves the day by stepping in and taking action. “Hooray!” said Baby. “She is fine!” But I’m sure she’s pleased at the discovery of her own cool headedness, too.
After Mrs Watson offers Officer Tomilello hot buttered toast he decides not to issue any tickets. The pig and the policeman look at each other as if they are now firm friends.
Eugenia has softened just a little towards Baby and admits that the toast has been ‘expertly buttered’, and so they stay for supper at the neighbours’.
Those portraying animals in their natural environment and only partially allowing them human-like abilities
Those portraying anthropomorphic animals–talking, wearing clothes, thinking and behaving like humans–in separate communities, with or without contact with humans
Those portraying anthropomorphic animals living among humans, as friends or intelligent pets
Those which are humanized or semi-humanized
LET’S NOT MENTION THIS BUT…
One enduring problems with pigs as characters is that many humans eat pig meat. A Saturday morning feast for Kate diCamillo’s semi-humanized pig, Mercy Watson, does not include bacon and eggs.
Charlotte’s Web is a different matter. From the first chapter the young reader is keenly aware that the lovable pig is for it.
If the story is a funny one, it’s highly likely that at some stage the pig character will end up airborne, making use of the English idiomatic expression: “And pigs might fly!”
POLICEMEN AND PIGS
There are a number of dual audience jokes going on in this book but one of them is the ‘pig = policeman’. You can often tell when a policeman is going to be kind/lenient in a children’s book — he’ll be plump. (Another example is the policeman in Make Way For Ducklings, who has an enormous pot belly and a pocket full of peanuts.) Like Mercy, the policeman here can be won over with hot buttered toast. On the final page we see a mirror image of the pair — the policeman’s blue uniform reflects off Mercy’s ears, and Mercy’s plate is blue. They both have the same rosy cheeks. These are kindred spirits.