Sunday, November 18, 2007

Strong Girls

As I sat down to write this essay, I realized to my surprise, that what I intended to write about was reasonably moot and that this topic, Strong Girls, is really more pertinent to a different subject altogether.

Let me explain. We set these essays many months in advance, taking into account topical issues, themes from the calendar, and other factors. So this particular essay was a counterpoint to last week's Adventure Stories for Boys. When we set it out some months ago, I was sort of thinking in terms of the women's movement, equal rights, etc.

Strong Girls - it almost seems a quaint concept these days. I was raised partly in Sweden, a very progressive country where women as fully equal members of society has been a long established norm. Returning to the US in the late seventies, I found something of a post-1960's stage of the women's movement - a strong and active NOW, a focus on the ERA, Title XI, etc. Starting my professional career in the early eighties the initial institutional barriers had effectively been broken down and we seemed to all be trying to figure out the operational impacts of how to make a promise a reality. We seemed to have come so far.

But the mighty river of equal rights rather lost itself in a delta of branches and divergent streams where the issue is not equal rights but much more nebulous issues of perceived fairness and independence and individuality and personal choices. We seem to have arrived at a point where there are so many choices open to girls and women that the issue is not really any longer so much about barriers as it is about making those choices and taking responsibility for them. Stay-at-home mom, soccer-mom, bread-winner, single parent, single professional, super-mom with full-time career and family; when I look around my peers, I see examples of all those models. And everybody occasionally looking over the fence and wondering if they made the right choice.

As I contemplate the world ahead for my daughter, I find that my concern about institutional barriers, corporate discrimination, societal prejudice, damaging stereotypes, etc. is surprisingly low. We have come a long ways.

So what am I most concerned about for her? Well, to be frank - other girls. What is it with all this mean-girl business? YIKES! I stand prepared to be told that this is nothing new, that mean-girl behavior has been an issue all along. That's quite possible. I cannot claim that my sensitivity to the social dynamics among girls was particularly acute at 12-18. I know there are some that might argue nothing has changed either.

But it seems to be everywhere I look now. Well, that is a bit of an over-dramatization. It is fortunately not everywhere and my daughter fortunately has a wonderful group of friends. But I do hear of some pretty dreadful, malicious behavior among particular girls. I guess it is the premeditated, deeply hurtful intent of the behavior that I find so startling. That and that there seems to a whole genre of girls books that in a way celebrate this behavior. There are, for example, series such as The Clique and The Baby-Sitters Club which basically mull through various scenarios of mean-girl behavior without advancing any sort of condemnation of it.

Humph! There are books for every occasion and some people for every book. Sally explains the popularity of these books among some girls as a function of the story reflecting the reality they live. Perhaps. Still, I feel there is more than enough dysfunction, maliciousness and emotional brutishness in the world without adding to it by passively condoning unacceptable behavior. Especially when there are so many wonderfully positive stories and role models to share with our daughters and sons.

Wherever we are in the experiment of "all men are created equal", we often forget just how egalitarian American history has been. Whether it is the influence of the Scandinavian and German traditions, the independence and autonomy inculcated by frontier living, or some other source, we have in our history, and correspondingly in our children's books a tremendously pervasive tradition of strong girls and women. These role models were evident long before our radical sixties.

Take, as an example, Little Lulu, recently republished by Dark Horse Comics. This comic strip first appeared in 1935, authored by Marjorie Henderson Buell, and ran through 1969, ultimately being syndicated across the US and the globe. Now if there is ever a strong girl, it is Lulu. The setting for the strip is the adventures of Lulu and her friends in their traditional neighborhood. Everyone is in-and-out each other's homes, the boys have a gang (of the old neighborhood variety, not the armed thug version), parents are present but peripheral to the kids day-to-day lives. Lulu is constantly butting heads with one or more of the fellows in the neighborhood and almost always, through cleverness and sometimes brawn, overcomes whatever the issue is.

Think of Lucy Van Pelt and Peppermint Patty in the Peanuts comic strip (running from 1950 to 2000). Charlie Brown would never have thought of them as anything but strong girls. Especially Lucy.

And in the literature itself, at least as early as Lousia May Alcott and the Little Women series, we have always had characterful strong girls. Just think of the roster: Alice from Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, Jo March in Little Women, Heidi, Pippi Longstocking, Pollyanna, Sara Crewe in A Little Princess, and Mary Lennox in The Secret Garden, Dorothy Gale in The Wizard of Oz, Anne Shirley in Anne of Green Gables, Laura Ingalls Wilder in the Little House on the Prairie series, Julie in Julie of the Wolves, Sarah in Sarah, Plain and Tall, Meg Murry in A Wrinkle in Time, Scout Finch from To Kill a Mockingbird, The neat thing is that you would love to spend a meal, or a day, or a summer with any one of these characters and you know that you would have a wonderful time. These are characters you would want by your side when dealing with adversity.

And then there are the series such as American Girl, >Trixie Belden, >Nancy Drew, >Cam Jansen, Malory Towers and St. Clare's, Betsy-Tacy.

And we are replete with great biographies of great women; Amelia Earheart, Eleanor Roosevelt, Helen Keller, Helen Keller's Teacher and Joan of Arc just to start with.

So there is a lot to choose from to give our daughters wonderful stories which they will treasure and remember about strong girls and women who make a difference for the better. Why waste time dwelling on the negative when there are these great books to read instead?

Below is a sampler of titles where the female protagonist displays self-reliance, confidence, strength and good humor to overcome circumstances or to achieve something which they value. Critically, these books are 1) great stories that just happen to have a female protagonist and 2) don't preach. While they might have some particular resonance with girls and serve as role-models as they address day-to-day issues, I think you will find that virtually all of these books are thoroughly enjoyed by boys as well, though they might not readily admit it.

There are way too many potential titles for here, be sure to check in booklist in a couple of days where a more extensive list will be included.

Are there others which you might recommend? Please use the comments section to nominate additional titles.

Picture Books

Amazing Grace by Mary Hoffman and illustrated by Caroline Binch Suggested

Brave Margaret by Robert D. San Souci and illustrated by Sally Wern Comport Suggested

Country Bunny and the Little Gold Shoes by Du Bose Heyward and illustrated by Marjorie Flack Highly Recommended

Heroines: Great Women Through the Ages by Rebecca Hazell and illustrated by Rebecca Hazell Suggested

Joan of Arc by Josephine Poole and illustrated by Angela Barrett Suggested

Kate Shelley Bound for Legend by Robert D. San Souci and illustrated by Max Ginsburg Recommended

The Little Ships; The Heroic Rescue at Dunkirk in World War II by Lousie Borden and illustrated by Michael Foreman Highly Recommended

Miss Rumphius by Barbara Cooney Recommended

Queen Esther Saves Her People by Rita Gelman (Out of Print)

Sacagawea by Flora Warren Seymour Suggested

Susanna of the Alamo by John Julius Jakes and illustrated by Paul Bacon Recommended

The Ballad of the Pirate Queens by Jane Yolen and illustrated by David Shannon Highly Recommended

The Bus Ride by William Miller and illustrated by John Ward Recommended

The Gardener by Sarah Stewart and illustrated by David Small Recommended

The Library by Sarah Stewart and illustrated by David Small Highly Recommended

Independent Reader

A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L'Engle Highly Recommended

Alice's Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll and illustrated by John Tenniel Highly Recommended

American Girl series by various authors Recommended

Anne of Green Gables by Lucy Maud Montgomery and illustrated by Jody Lee Recommended

Ballet Shoes by Noel Streatfeild and illustrated by Diane Goode Recommended

Birchbark House by Louise Erdrich Recommended

Boston Jane by Jennifer L. Holm Suggested

Caddie Woodlawn by Carol Ryrie Brink and illustrated by Trina Schart Hyman Recommended

Catherine, Called Birdy by Karen Cushman Suggested

Daddy Long-Legs by Jean Webster Suggested

Helen Keller by Katharine E. Wilkie and illustrated by Robert Doremus Suggested

Ida Early Comes Over the Mountain by Robert Burch Recommended

Island of the Blue Dolphins by Scott O'Dell Recommended

Joan of Arc by Angela Bull Suggested

Little House on the Prairie by Laura Ingalls Wilder and illustrated by Garth Williams Highly Recommended

Little Women by Louisa May Alcott and illustrated by Louis Jambour Highly Recommended

Mary Poppins by P.L. Travers and illustrated by Mary Shepard Highly Recommended

Not One Damsel in Distress by Jane Yolen and illustrated by Susan Guevara Highly Recommended

Pippi Longstocking by Astrid Lindgren and illustrated by Michael Chesworth Highly Recommended

The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett and illustrated by Tasha Tudor Highly Recommended

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee Highly Recommended

Young Adult

A Bone from a Dry Sea by Peter Dickinson Suggested

Founding Mothers by Cokie Roberts Recommended

Mama's Bank Account by Kathryn Forbes Highly Recommended

The Warrior Queens by Antonia Fraser Suggested

To the Heart of the Nile by Pat Shipman Highly Recommended

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