I’m jealous of my seven year old daughter. Specifically, of her bookshelf. Following Christmas, and her birthday, and the digging-out of a box of musty paperbacks from storage, it is bursting with chapter books.
God, those books. Surely there is no fiction more exciting than the stories aimed at the middle years of childhood- that time between picture books and adolescence?
The Worst Witch. Little House On The Prairie. Just the titles make me swoon. I could dive into them and stay there forever. I used to suffer from panic attacks; should I ever struggle with them again, I’m going to repeat the titles of children’s novels with each breath: Anne of Green Gables. Little Women. Ramona The Pest. I’ll be calm in no time.
It’s not just the books themselves, but the feeling of the discovering them. I remember it sharply. It’s like falling in love- it is falling in love. That’s what I envy, I think: I can never go back to having not read those books again, and she is just at the start of it.
My girl is falling over herself to read all the books, all the time, often juggling several at once. We encourage her to finish one before starting another, but she doesn’t. She has one on the go by her bed, one on the kitchen table, sometimes one on the arm of the sofa too. I get it. I get the fever of it.
I went into her room yesterday morning, wondering why she was still asleep at 7am (freakish event) to find her with her lamp on. She looked up at me from her bottom bunk, where she was sitting with her knees up to her chest and a book resting on them. Her face was alight: ‘Mummy, it’s so EXCITING, Sophie’s just found ALL THE JEWELS’. Her first mystery book.
Because I can’t just enjoy a feeling without pulling it apart in my mind, I’ve been pondering what it is that is so magic and important about this swathe of children’s fiction (Dick King Smith. Narnia. The Borrowers. I keep thinking of more)- particularly for little girls:
These books help children to understand themselves, to become themselves. When you are a girl of seven or eight, and you’re just starting to figure out who you are, you can enter the pages of a book and recognise yourself, or the person you want to be. In a world that tells you to be Cinderella, you can leave fairytales behind, and find girls in those pages who are different. Clever, clumsy girls who don’t look like princesses, and don’t always say or do the right thing. Mildred Hubble and Anne Shirley and Ramona Quimby. Girls who get cross, and fall over, and get grass in their hair. Through these books I understood that it was OK to be a clever, clumsy girl who didn’t look perfect, and embarrassed herself occasionally (or even most days). And even though my peers, and my own self-critical inner voice, and magazines and the world at bloody large would try to convince me otherwise as I navigated the teenage years, I really believe that this understanding gave me a strong foundation.
And so these stories are feminist without even trying to be. I’ve become increasingly worried and dismayed at the way girls are bombarded with sexualised, passive role models from a very young age- in TV shows and pop songs and films and adverts. I get that when our daughter is a teenager, she’ll need to explore that side of herself, to hold herself up against those ideas (a horrifying thought, to which my current response is: la la la, I’m not listening)- and I’m hoping that at that point, more literary heroines will step in to help when I’m lost for words and strategies. But she is seven right now. So it makes me want to punch the air to rediscover these stories filled with role models galore- finding the jewels, solving the mysteries, and kicking back against convention.
Lucy- the littlest, as well as a girl, is the first one to venture into the cupboard and find Narnia. Arrietty, narky and wayward, is determined to go borrowing just like her dad Pod. Jo March is just, well, she’s everything.
These aren’t stories about feminism, they just are feminist- which, to my mind, is the best way to let those all-important messages drip-drip-drip into little minds and dilute the swill of misogynistic bile they’ll be exposed to as they grow up.
And finally (well, not finally- I could bang on forever, but I have to stop typing somewhere), these books let children create a world that is theirs and theirs alone. We all know the benefits of parents reading to children, and it’s a time most of us treasure- albeit while, sometimes, glancing at the clock and dreaming of Netflix and looking forward to the click of turning the light off. But of all the milestones our girl has reached in her life, seeing her discover the joy of reading alone has possibly given me the most pleasure, especially as she struggled to learn to read. The days spent sweating over sounding out C-A-T are a distant memory now (have hope, parents of reluctant readers, have hope!).
I love the fact that she’ll know how Sophie’s mystery is solved before I do, and she’ll tell me about it, her words tripping over each other in her haste to get them out. I love it that when she is curled up with a book (is there any more comforting phrase in the English language?), she can be safe under our watch but escaping into her own, independent world. I love that through stories, she’ll hopefully find laughter and fun and ideas beyond what we can give her.
And I hope that she’ll learn the same lesson I did: that she need never be lonely, as long as she has good books.