Top Ten Books I Would Give To My Hypothetical Daughter

Today’s Top Ten Tuesday topic was going to be something different.  It will turn up at a later date.  It’s been a weird few days.  I woke up this morning and the first thing I spotted when I checked the Guardian (I do that everyday before I get out of bed) was that in Afghanistan, a country rated as the worst place in the world to be a woman, some families rebel by raising their daughters as boys to give them some measure of freedom and education during their childhoods.  Later today, myself and the rest of my all-female team had a very extensive training session for our new database system.  The person providing the instruction was a man.  A nice man.  But a man who quite clearly did not believe that our feeble female brains would be able to grasp the operating system and continually advised us to ask the IT help-desk (all-male) to do any editing for us.  Then I checked the Guardian again on my way home.  And I started to feel genuinely angry.

This weekend, I was lucky enough to hear Lord Leslie Griffiths preach a sermon in which he spoke very angrily against class, racial and gender bias, particularly how he hated to hear how churches encouraged women to take on more submissive roles and to be silent.  It was really nice to hear this because I’ve heard a fair few rather depressing sermons on similar subjects; a good number of years ago, I watched a friend get married in a church which had reached infamy within my household the previous year for having preached a sermon advising women to be silent if they felt their husbands were able to answer the question.  It is the urge to keep women silent – to shut them up – that really troubles me.  Yesterday, Emma Watson of Hermione fame gave a speech to the UN which was articulate, informed and considered.  She spoke with warmth and feeling about the importance of gender equality.  Today, she received a barrage of online abuse and was threatened with having nude photographs leaked over the internet.

Thanks to the internet, the world has become a much smaller place.  A photograph can race across the world in moments, reputations can be destroyed within hours.  I don’t know if the photos of Ms Watson are genuine.  It’s not my business.  I don’t care.  Even if they are, stealing images from someone’s computer and then posting them on the internet is very low behaviour.  A few years ago, our own Kate Middleton was similarly caught, the magazines insisted that she was embarrassed and apologetic – but why should she be?  She had been papped by a long-range lens while in the company of Prince William to whom she was legally married.  We can be as stuffy as we like but the succession was never going to be secured if the pair of them spent all their time fully clothed.  Myself, I grew up Presbyterian – I have a feeling that as a race we have evolved to become prudish as a way of surviving the cold temperatures of the countries in which we tend to congregate (Northern Ireland, Scotland, etc.)  Still, I am disgusted at the dirty tactics being resorted to because men don’t like Emma Watson having an opinion.

Yet slut-shaming is not new.  As far back as the middle-ages and no doubt before, the quickest way to discredit a woman was to go after her reputation.  Margaret of Anjou was accused of getting her son via adultery.  Elizabeth Wydville was accused of witchcraft.  Elizabeth I was accused of being a man and a whore.  The list goes on.  It does seem to be the first insult that people reach for – as soon as a woman begins to say things that people do not want to hear, out comes our old friend misogyny.  I was startled to realise how unpopular the term feminism was but participating in the Christian Union while at university taught me a lot.  A good number of years ago now a long-term friendship broke down as the young man in question informed me that I was ‘immoral’.  Looking back, I don’t think he actually meant that – he was embarrassed because he had been caught being rude and threw a temper tantrum to get out of apologising but still, his automatic ‘go-to’ response while arguing with a girl was to impugn her morality.  Hello, misogynist!  Don’t misunderstand me – I am a very girly girl.  I wear dresses and skirts a lot.  I got excited yesterday that it was finally cold enough to try out my new coat.  Like Emma Watson though, I recognise that feminism is nothing more than the acknowledgement that men and women have equal rights.

We deserve equal pay, equal access to education, equal control over our own bodies.  In the words of the wonderful Caitlin Moran there is “a rule of thumb that allows me to judge, when time is pressing and one needs to make a snap judgement, whether or not some sexist bullshit is afoot […] and it’s asking this question; are the men doing it?  Are the men worrying about this as well?  Is this taking up the men’s time?  Are the men told not to do this as it’s letting the side down?  […]  If the answer is no, then some sexist bullshit is afoot’.  Bluntly – a man can make a speech and not have people trying to publicly humiliate him the next day and in fact there is no equivalent on-line humiliation.

So – I got to thinking.  How can we arm the young girls and women of our world to prepare them for a life which will very probably be spent having to deal with all this rubbish?  I have no children and I have just stopped being a teacher but I know that reading opened my mind to thinking about what it meant to be a girl and indeed what it means to be a human.  I’m not thinking about books with an explicit feminist message although All The Rebel Women, Fifty Shades of Feminism, The Vagenda and How to be a Woman are all worth taking a look at.  Instead, I got to thinking on my way home today about what books first got me thinking about what it meant to be a girl – I think that How to be a Heroine may have partially inspired this but the list is my own.  Below is that list I came up with on the bus today, a list of books with positive gender messages for girls because you’ve got to start early.

1) The Paperbag Princess, Robert Munsch
I thought this book was hilarious when I was a child – Prince Ronald and Princess Elizabeth are engaged to be married but Prince Ronald is dragged away by the dragon while Princess Elizabeth is left to go and rescue him dressed only in a paper bag (the dragon burnt everything else).  Upon reaching him, Prince Ronald tells her that she looks a fright and not like a princess at all.  He does not want to marry her.  Princess Elizabeth responds that he may still look very handsome and well-groomed but in fact he’s just a pathetic weasel.  I think this book is terrific in the way that it encourages girls to answer back and also in underlining that Prince Ronald had no right to try to control Princess Elizabeth’s appearance.  This is what women are mostly judged by even as adults – a recent boyfriend of mine repeatedly criticised me for having highlights in my hair even though it was my hair.  Another friend’s boyfriend complained about her wearing jogging bottoms around the house because he found them unattractive.  We should have both taken a leaf out of Princess Elizabeth’s book – literally!
Bravo Elizabeth!
2) Bill’s New Frock, Anne Fine
 
My mother and I read this when I was four.  A lot of the feminist sub-text passed me by but I appreciated the fact that poor old Bill was having something of a bad day while wearing this dress.  To be honest, I sympathised.  At roughly that age, an older boy put his hand up my skirt and I refused to wear a dress or skirt for about the next five years.  In a very child-friendly way, Anne Fine explains all the ways in which girls are treated differently.  They don’t get picked to carry things, they don’t get to try out for the same teams.  They don’t get to play the same games at play-time.  People tell them off for ‘being bossy’.  Gender bias starts young and it’s useful to learn to spot it.  Interestingly, a friend and former colleague put this on the syllabus for her year group and attracted a stream of parental complaints, specifically from mothers of boys.  Myself, I think that this one is an important read for both sexes.
3) Pippi Longstocking, Astrid Lindgren
Pippi Longstocking is an amazing heroine – she is financially independent and has an apparently unlimited supply of gold coins, she is stronger than the strongest man in the world, she is kind and generous but takes absolutely no notice of what society expects of her.  When there is a sign in the local chemist’s asking “DO YOU SUFFER FROM FRECKLES?” Pippi wanders in happily and assures them that she doesn’t.  When the chemist exclaims that her face is covered with them, Pippi simply responds, “I know but I don’t suffer from them.  I like them.  Good morning!”  Although Pippi is written to be unusual rather than a feminist icon (the books also feature the rather dreary Annika), her high spirits and love of adventure make her an active and engaging heroine that is head and shoulders (literally) above most of what is available.  Go, Pippi, go!
4) Ella Enchanted, Gail Carson Levine

As a small child, I loved Cinderella more than any other Disney movie.  Then The Lion King was released and I loved that instead.  Not only were the songs catchier, Timon and Pumba were a lot funnier than the mice and also by the age of seven I had really begun to question whether Cinderella was someone I wanted to aspire to be.  Surely she could have sorted herself out rather than waiting for a fairy godmother/prince to rescue her?  As I grew up, rejected dresses and discovered feminism, the more the idea of the submissive princess heroine bothered me.  Why did these personality-free vacuums just do as they were told?  Why was their reward for being good just being married off to some equally boring and insipid prince?  What was so good about being obedient?  Did marriage vows seriously have the word ‘to obey’ in them?  (NB – these are all questions that I expressed out loud by the age of ten, usually posed to my mother while we were walking around the supermarket).  I did not discover Ella Enchanted until I was about fifteen when I bought it intending it to be a birthday present for my cousin.  Then I started reading it and kept it.  I think I did end up getting her another copy a few years later.  I know there’s a film too but it’s awful – just ignore it and read the book.  In this version of the old story, Ella was visited by a fairy godmother at birth who gave her the ‘gift’ of obedience.  It has plagued her existence ever since.  Ella has no choice but to do as she is told, hence how her new stepmother is able to make her into a drudge.  Although Ella loves the prince as he does her, she cannot allow herself to marry him because she knows that her curse would make her a national security risk.  She can be ordered to do anything, even if it endangers her own life or that of someone she loves.  Levine emphasises the perils of mindless obedience – hers is a story of wit and intelligence set in the land of fairies but in the real world too it does not do to give up one’s own mind and opinions to another.  The earlier we learn that, the better.

I often feel like I talk about this series too often.  But never mind – I’m going to talk about them again. With their frontier wholesomeness, many people confuse this with the ancient television series which was light on the narrative integrity and heavy on the mealy-mouthed moralising.  The two are very different.  First of all, I think this series is important because it celebrates the domestic courage of frontier women.  We think of the cowboys roughing it on the Wild West but the women just sit quietly on the edges of the drama.  Caroline Ingalls is firm in her determination that her girls are going to be educated, tidily dressed no matter where they are (she irons the girls’ dresses while on the wagon trail).  Early in the series, Caroline Ingalls has to confront a bear and she does.  The whole family works to get the eldest Mary to a college for the blind.  Laura does field work with her father to help him since there is no son to share the load.  Laura stands up for her sister Carrie in front of the mean teacher (her own future sister-in-law).  She also sticks up for herself when she has to act as a teacher to children who are older than her.  When Almanzo Wilder tries to put his arm around her when they are out for a drive, Laura startles his horses to make sure that he does not do it again.  Most memorably of all for me though, when the two finally decide to get married, Laura asks Almanzo if he wants her to promise to obey.  He replies no, that he never knew a woman who would do that nor a decent man who would expect it.  The Wilders got married towards the very beginning of the twentieth century.  The sense of this reasoning has always had a real resonance for me.  I also think that people can get unnecessarily squeamish about certain aspects of Little House on the Prairie (the death of Willie the pig) and it’s good to read it early in life – meat becomes from animals and there’s no good pretending otherwise.

6) His Dark Materials, Philip Pullman
 

Lyra is another one of my favourite fictional heroines – she is not afraid to speak up.  I have always found the central mythology of Pullman’s world to be fascinating; the external construct of the soul is such a beautiful idea.  In this imagining, the daemon represents a part of the person’s true nature and is usually of the opposite sex.  I loved this notion of an expanded concept of the self.  I also just love Lyra – she is a heroine who confident in her own self.  Her power is her brain, she seeks the truth, she fights for what she sees as right and it is her quick-wit and silver tongue that gets her out of trouble.  There are some very interesting female figures in His Dark Materials and the whole series rests on the idea that self-knowledge, the Dust, is the most powerful and important and beautiful thing in the universe.  His Dark Materials rejects the notion that ignorance and innocence are in any way synonymous and reminds us to work constantly towards building a better society.  I need to write a full review of this one day.

There are many reasons why I love Catherine but the main one is this; Catherine spends most of this novel trying to be someone else, to please others or even just to please herself.  She realises though over the course of events that this is not the right way.  Catherine comes to understand that at the time of her judgement, God will not ask her why she was not born a boy or born cleverer or prettier or any other thing but rather why she did not accept her own self.  It is not an easy lesson to learn but it is one well worth considering and pondering and returning to.

I only discovered Ruby in later life but I adore her.  Ruby’s insights into social leprosy, the behaviour of boys and gradual shift into considering her own behaviour is always a joy to read.  Having started to have panic attacks after a horrendous week which saw her lose her boyfriend to her best friend and then alienate all her friends and gain a hideous reputation, Ruby has been sent to a shrink by her parents.  Without ever seeming didactic, Doctor Z guides Ruby to moments of epiphany and increasing self-awareness that are very useful for the reader too.  Girls are conditioned to be ‘reactive’, to wait for the boy to ask them out, to not make the first move, to make excuses for the boy – to reject control over their own emotions.  The Ruby Oliver series is an intelligent and very original take on the teen angst genre.

 

This is a beautiful book but although we think we know what we can expect from it – a poor family is visited by their rich American landlord – there is far more going on here than a simple marriage plot.  Dodie Smith subverts the expectations of the genre and instead delivers this tale of Cassandra, a girl who is still deciding what kind of woman she wants to be.  I read it repeatedly as I grew up and re-reading it this year reminded me again about a very warm-hearted story it is.  There are no villains, simply people who make understandable mistakes and the ending is surprisingly uplifting as Cassandra chooses herself.

Rose is another rather awkward heroine – she was the first girl I ever read who actually had sex.  I never read Judy Blume’s Forever but I think that this one filled that gap instead.  Still, although Rose’s discoveries were rather eye-opening for a sheltered eleven year-old such as I was way back when, that is not what I mostly remember her for.  I cherish Rose because she was a girl who was successfully emerging from an unpleasant adolescence, something that I was just beginning when I read it.  When Rose was finally able to say out loud – to shout even – that she liked being female, I was delighted and hoped that one day I would feel the same.  And I do.  It took a little while but now I think it’s brilliant.  And I would like that message to be shared with as many people as possible.

11) A Gathering Light, Jennifer Donnelly

This book has the distinction within my family of being the only novel which ever led my grandmother to endorse higher education.  Set in the 1900s, Mattie Gokey has gotten in to college but a rather good-looking young man has also asked her to marry him.  She’s working in a hotel over the summer and finds herself reading the letters of a young woman who recently drowned in the lake.  Through the letters, Mattie comes to certain realisations about her future and that of those around her.  This is a novel packed with women having to look after themselves, from Mattie’s friend Minnie who married young and is now expecting twins to Mattie’s own family of sisters who embarrass their father with their monthly sufferings.  Times are tough for girls and choices between domestic and personal fulfilment are not easy but this novel explores the issues with sensitivity and consideration.

 
I have stated before that I want to be Flora Poste but it will never happen (not because it’s impossible to travel into fiction but rather because I lack the necessary organisational skills as indeed does the rest of the world).  Flora strides briskly into Cold Comfort Farm and tactfully explains to each member of the Starkadder family where it is exactly that they have been going wrong, gets everything sorted and then calls her boyfriend and he comes to collect her in his plane.  End of story.  I like Flora best because she never factors in the possibility of failure.  She gains her happiness because she never imagines that things might be otherwise.  She is living with the Starkadders because she wants to prove that she is beholden to nobody for their charity but when she is ready, she recognises when to move on.  It is so rare to find a heroine who retains that amount of control over her personal life and given that Gibbons manages to weave such an effective story around this one, I can’t help feeling that fiction could do with a few more Flora Postes and a few fewer Bella Swanns.
So thank you very much for listening to this week’s Top Ten Tuesday – it has certainly left me in a much better mood – please read these books to your daughters and indeed to your sons, thank you and good night!
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2 thoughts on “Top Ten Books I Would Give To My Hypothetical Daughter

  1. So it seems that around 230 years since Mary Wollstonecraft wrote A Vindication of the Rights of Women things have not moved on far, and in some ways are reverting to the days of feudalism.
    I’ve worked in IT for over 30 years and your anecdote of the IT trainer annoys me but doesn’t surprise me. If you encounter this Neanderthal again ask him who the first computer programer was – Lady Ada Lovelace, daughter of Lord Byron (not that I need to qualify her existence by her connection with a male, it is just an interesting connection.) She was a brilliant mathematician who worked with Charles Babbage on his difference engine in the 19th Century, and has a programming language – ADA – named after her. Then ask him about Grace Hopper, a rear admiral in the US Navy who worked on the development of the programming language COBOL in the 1960s and is usually credited with coming up with the term ‘bug’ to describe a fault in a computer program. Lastly, ask him about Steve Shirley – founded a software company, FI, and employed 3 male programmers out of a staff of 300. She called herself Steve, as male business men would not take her seriously when she told them her name was Stephanie.
    Fifteen or so years ago I taught computer related courses in adult education (evening classes) and in the main it was nearly always women who grasped the concepts first. The common view is that to be good with computers you have to be mathematical, but there is a long-standing argument in the world of programming over whether it is an art or a science, for me it has always been an art.
    As a man I feel sometimes I’m in no place to talk about feminism, yet it was interesting the Emma Watson directed her speech at the UN to men just as much as women.
    When I was younger I read Germaine Greer and other feminist works including the more extreme such as Andrea Dworkin, and at the moment Catlin Moran’s book is on my pile of books to read next.
    As to the books in your list, I’ve not read any of them. I feel it is up to parents to point children to good books, sometimes they will encounter ideas and attitudes that are just nonsense, but if you bring up children to question and think the will discard the nonsense.
    Sorry there here is little about books in my comment but I had to let you know I agreed with you.

  2. Thank you for your thoughtful comment – I always worry that I come off as a bit extreme when I have a 'feminist' post but at the end of the day, I run this site to write what I feel. Your remarks about women in computing were fascinating – I tend to think of myself as fairly IT literate (running this site has really helped to be fair) and as a team we were none of us slow on the uptake so did express some quiet irritation. I think that what makes Emma Watson's speech different was that she really was reaching out to men. I suppose I should try and think of a list of books for a hypothetical son … to be fair, when I was teaching, most of the time the boys and girls were willing to try the same sorts of books. I've never really been a pink for girls, blue for boys kind of person (I am knitting something blue for my cousin's future baby boy but only because the child will be becoming an Everton supporter). I think that parents have an enormous power and responsibility to shape their children's attitudes and reading has such a potential to help them see the world differently, to see it as it should be.

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