Tag Archives: kids books

Fairy Tales Are Women’s Tales

28 May

Heyyyyy I have a post up on The Toast which is SUPER EXCITING for me because The Toast is pretty much my FAVOURITE THING EVER. ALL CAPS.

It’s about gender and fairytales, which are two things that I’m pretty stoked about. Also, unlike 100% of the posts on this blog, I actually bothered to edit it and I come off sounding pretty smart and not too ranty. I don’t even think there are any swear words. You should check it out!

http://the-toast.net/2014/05/26/fairy-tales-are-womens-tales/

A brief excerpt:

“The Grimms’ deletion of all things sexy from the second edition could be taken as a sort of Teutonic prudery, but when we look at it in context with some of the other alterations, there begins to emerge a pattern of marginalization and disempowerment of women. Not only did they remove any mention of sex, the majority of it both consensual and premarital, but all sorts of other details defining and limiting the female characters were added in. With each successive edition, the Wilhelm Grimm added in more and more adjectives describing what they thought was the perfect Christian woman; female characters were suddenly “dutiful,” “tender-hearted,” “god-fearing” and “contrite,” where once they had simply been “beautiful” or “young.” Wilhelm also began to alter the structure of the tales, introducing moral judgments and motivations that previously hadn’t been there. Traditionally, fairy tales had seen luck and chance count for more than hard work and obedience, but Wilhelm put a stop to that – instead the sweet, well-behaved, godly women were rewarded, and those who deviated from that mold were punished. Finally, Wilhelm added in all sorts of hints about the domestic activity he felt women should occupy themselves with – for example, in an early draft of Snow White, the dwarves only ask that she cook their meals in exchange for shelter, but by the time the first edition of his book was published, their demands included that she keep house for them, do the cooking, make the beds, wash, sew, knit and keep everything neat and clean.”

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20 books that I hope Theo reads when he’s older, part II

17 Sep

If you liked the first post in this series, maybe you will like this one! Then again, maybe not. There are no guarantees in this life.

So, welcome to part two! Let’s check out the next five books. And again, keep in mind that these are books that I haven’t read in 20+ years, so what I’m giving you is the dominant impression they’ve left on me after all this time.

6. Mary Poppins by P.L. Travers, 1934

First of all, the Mary Poppins books (this one is actually the first in a series) are pretty different from the movie. For one thing, there are FOUR kids in the family, not two, and the book is set in the 1930s, not the early 1900s.

Another thing: Mary is a total badass bitch in the books. She isn’t kind or loving, or, you know, nannyish. She’s actually totally domineering and strict, and she’s, like, really, really full of herself. Like, she can’t pass a shop window without looking at her reflection and thinking about how great she is.

Needless to say, the kids adore her.

Of course, Mary Poppins has the same magical abilities in the books as she did in the movie. Unlike in the movie, she totally pretends that she doesn’t take the kids out on awesome adventures. Whenever the kids are all like, hey remember that time we did that cool thing, she’s all, I’M SURE I DON’T KNOW WHAT YOU’RE TALKING ABOUT. She’s ballsy, is what I’m trying to get at here.

There is one line in the book that basically sums Mary up perfectly:

There was something strange and extraordinary about her – something that was frightening and at the same time most exciting.”

And she is kind of scary in the books, which I love. I’m a firm believer in the idea that kids need to encounter frightening things (within safe contexts) in order to learn how to deal with fear. So high five, Scary Mary!

7. The Giver, by Lois Lowry

So! This is the first dystopian book that I ever read. I like to think that encountering this book in my younger and more impressionable years helped set me up for a lifetime of loving this genre.

This book is so creepy, you guys. So creepy. Okay, so it’s the future and the world is totally devoid of anything that might make life tricky, including but not limited to: religion, culture, war, colour, climate, socioeconomic circumstances, and any and all choice, including who your life partner is and what you do for a living.

Oh, and also there is no sex. Nobody has sex in the future. They take pills to repress their sexual urges, and babies are born from women who are assigned the role of “birth mothers”. I’m assuming that these women are artificially inseminated, but what do I know? Maybe there are some crazy, behind-the-scenes orgies happening.

Anyway, the interesting thing about this book is that there were a lot of things about the dystopian world that appealed to me. I mean, everybody seemed pretty happy, right? Pretty content with their lives. And, possibly because so much is provided by the state (food, clothing, etc.) and there is no socioeconomic gap, there doesn’t seem to be any bullying or cruelty between people. I mean, sure, we find out later that part of the reason for this is that if you’re too different, you get released (i.e. euthanized), but still.

Then there’s the whole being assigned your career at the age of 11. Okay, kind of crazy, but also kind of cool? I mean, who hasn’t felt overwhelmed by the fact of having to decide what you are going to do for the rest of your life? I know that when I was in my teens and trying to figure out what I wanted to take at university, and what high school courses I would need to get myself there, the choice seemed incredibly daunting. And in The Giver, it’s not like the career assignments are totally random – the kids are carefully observed by a committee for years before they’re assigned their job. Plus, free education and training!

But then, of course, you start realizing what these people have given up in order to have their safe, happy society. They’ve given up on everything that makes life really good. They’ve given up anything that gives life meaning. And they’ve totally, totally given up feelings, which, while that concept occasionally seems appealing to me, is basically what makes us human. Oh yeah, and there’s also that whole euthanizing-anyone-who-doesn’t-fit-in-and-also-old-people thing. I mean, that part also sucks.

Writing this whole thing out has made me realize that The Giver is kind of a Brave New World junior, which is amazing. It’s a great book to get kids thinking critically, and a good way to introduce them to the whole dystopian genre. What I really hope that Theo takes away from this is that being different is a good thing, feelings are scary but awesome, and the fact that getting rid of all the bad things in the world would likely mean giving up a lot of the good things, too.

Oh, and that killing people just because they’re old is a bad idea. I also hope he learns that.

8. The Little House Books, by Laura Ingalls Wilder

These books are the best. The best. I re-read them around the time that Theo was born, and they are just as compelling and entertaining as I remember them being when I was a kid. Possibly even more so now that I understand more about their historical and political context.

There is so much to love in these books. First of all, there’s Laura herself, a smart, adventurous, resourceful girl who often chafes at society’s narrow definition of what women should and shouldn’t do. She spends a lot of time in her younger years being compared unfavourably to her older sister Mary (Mary was blond-haired, blue-eyed and well-behaved, whereas Laura was something of a hellion and, in her own words, “dumpy as a French horse” – whatever that means), but Laura is clearly the cooler of the two.

Then there’s her family, and the description of their daily life from their early days of living in a cabin in the Wisconsin woods, to their eventual permanent home on the South Dakota prairies. I used to daydream about what it would be like to live like that, because when I was seven or eight it seemed super lovely and romantic.

In reality, it was a really fucking hard life. Imagine being stuck on the bleak prairies and seeing only your immediate family for months at a time. Imagine moving there with only a few supplies, having to build your own house and then trying to live off the land for long enough that the government will give it to you for free. Somehow, it doesn’t really hold the same appeal for me that it once did. I guess the Ingalls family liked, it though – they kept at it, and in the end they persevered.

And, somehow, Laura made a lot of it sound like fun.

Finally, there’s all kinds of neat, historical stuff in here. Some of it is totally random and weird – like, in the first book, when they butcher the pig (which is basically like Christmas for them), Pa Ingalls blows up the pig’s bladder like a balloon and gives it to Laura to play with. Some of it offers a historical perspective that I’d never considered before, like when Laura is terrified  to ride on a train because they’re so dangerous. Most of the stuff about their daily life is just downright fascinating.

It’s too bad that this series has been relegated to the land of “girls books”, because, other than the fact that the protagonist is a girl, there’s nothing especially girl-specific about them. I really hope that doesn’t stop Theo from reading and enjoying them.

9. The Bruno and Boots books by Gordon Korman

This is a series about a bunch of boys at a private boarding school in southern Ontario. Specifically, it’s about Bruno Walton, his roommate Melvin “Boots” O’Neal and their many, many shenanigans.

I’m a sucker for boarding school stories, possibly because I spent several of my formative years reading any and all boarding school books by Enid Blyton. Except that while all of Blyton’s protagonists were boring and moral, the boys at McDonald Hall (and the girls Miss Scrimmage’s Finishing School for Young Ladies across the highway) are hilarious, awesome and always up to something.

Also, one of the books features a girl playing football on the boys’ team. So, you know, FEMINISM.

10. The Secret Garden, by Frances Hodgson Burnett

Let’s be honest: Mary Lennox is a spoiled, privileged bitch who doesn’t even know how to dress herself. But also she’s kind of awesome?

Mary has kind of a shitty childhood in India before her parents die. Sure, she gets just about anything she asks for, but she spends basically zero time with her parents, whose main goal in life is to pretend that they don’t have a kid. Anyway, then there’s a cholera epidemic (leading to a nightmare-inspiring scene in which Mary is the only person left alive in a house where people have become ill/left town so quickly that they’ve literally left their dinner on the table), Mary is orphaned and sent to live with her uncle in England.

Things are kind of terrible in England at first, but then Mary learns how to put her own damn clothes on, starts exploring the great outdoors and befriends her maid Martha’s brother Dickon. Mary discovers the so-called Secret Garden, which has been locked up since her aunt died, and discovers the magic of Growing Things. Oh and her bitchiness totally fixes her hypochondriac cousin and her depressed uncle. Score one for bitchy girls!

I dunno, you guys. This book is just so lovely. Like, check this out:

“One of the strange things about living in the world is that it is only now and then one is quite sure one is going to live forever and ever and ever. One knows it sometimes when one gets up at the tender solemn dawn-time and goes out and stands out and throws one’s head far back and looks up and up and watches the pale sky slowly changing and flushing and marvelous unknown things happening until the East almost makes one cry out and one’s heart stands still at the strange unchanging majesty of the rising of the sun–which has been happening every morning for thousands and thousands and thousands of years. One knows it then for a moment or so. And one knows it sometimes when one stands by oneself in a wood at sunset and the mysterious deep gold stillness slanting through and under the branches seems to be saying slowly again and again something one cannot quite hear, however much one tries. Then sometimes the immense quiet of the dark blue at night with the millions of stars waiting and watching makes one sure; and sometimes a sound of far-off music makes it true; and sometimes a look in someone’s eyes.”

Ugh. You guys. My heart. I am such a sucker for Victorian prose about nature.

This is another book that’s usually considered a girlish book, but you know what? For one thing, I don’t care about that stuff, and for another, TWO of the damn protagonists are boys. I hope Theo reads and loves this one as well.

Anyway, that’s all for now. Stay tuned for part 3 of 4! I’m sure I’ll get to it. Someday.

20 books that I hope Theo reads when he’s older, part I

20 Aug

It’s not exactly a big secret that I love reading (also – that would be a pretty weird thing for me to keep secret). I’m 30 and I still get crushes on fictional characters, although maybe I have better taste now than I did as a moony teenager in love with Holden Caulfield. One of my greatest hopes for Theo is that he will grow up to love books even a fraction as much as I do. In light of that fact, I’ve created a list of 20 books that I loved when I was a kid as a sort of starting point for Theo’s future reading career. Because it’s never too early for this sort of thing, right?

Keep in mind that I haven’t read some of these books in, like, 20 years, so my reviews/descriptions might not be entirely accurate. However, what I can offer you is the dominant impression these books leave me with so many years after the fact:

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1. My Side of the Mountain by Jean Craighead George, 1959

This is a book about a 12-year-old boy, Sam, who gets sick of living in his parents’ crowded New York City apartment with his 10,000 8 brothers and sisters. His solution to this problem is to take off for the Catskill Mountains and find this piece of property his family abandoned years before (they used to have a house or something there, like, three generations ago, but then they moved to the city I guess).

Sam tells his parents that he’s going to run away to the mountains and basically says that he will go whether they’re cool with it or not, so they totally let him go. Um, amazing! How come my parents weren’t that cool when I was 12? Anyway, he apparently learns some wilderness skills or whatever at the public library (TAKE THAT, ROB FORD), and then is all, see ya, giant family and tiny apartment.

My main memory of this book is that this kid was fucking SERIOUS BUSINESS. He finds a peregrine falcon that he trains to hunt for him. He lives in a tree. He almost dies, like, fifty times. At one point he is skinning a rabbit and is like, hmmm, I really want to eat his liver. So he does, and then he’s like, welp, I guess I was vitamin D deficient. I don’t know why, but that scene struck me as especially hardcore. HE ATE A LIVER, YOU GUYS. A LIVER. I guess liver really grossed me out when I was young?

Another big impression that this book left on me was that I was a huge wuss. I would never, ever go off and live in the mountains by myself in a house that I had to dig with my own hands. I could never be that self-sufficient. Also, I could never go that long without seeing another human face (even if occasionally I fantasize about it). In spite of my wussiness, though, I still managed to identify with Sam because, hey, who doesn’t want to run off and leave everything behind sometimes? Who doesn’t want to push themselves to the limit to discover how much they can endure, and how much they’re really capable of?

And I guess that’s the main message I got from this book: if you really want something, and you really prepare for it, you can achieve it. And also maybe you will get a sweet pet falcon out of the deal.

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2. Warrior Scarlet, Rosemary Suttcliff, 1958

This one takes place in Britain, during the Bronze Age. It tells the story of Drem, a kid with only one functioning arm. The thing is, Drem really, really wants to be a warrior (in case you were wondering, this is kind of a Big Deal in his tribe). At first everyone is all, no way can you be a warrior, your arm doesn’t even work! You’ll have to go live with the sheep-herders. Have fun with the sheep, Drem! And then they’re like, well, I guess you can train with the other youth. Maybe.

So of course Drem goes to train with the other boys his age, seems to prove that he’s able to keep up with them, and totally starts to get over the fact that he’s different. He even starts to bond with his peers! BUT (you totally knew there was a but coming here), in order to become a warrior he has to kill a wolf. And of course the killing gets all fucked up (the wolf injures him really badly, so his friend steps in to help, which is TOTALLY NOT ALLOWED according to the tribe), and it looks like Drem will be spending the rest of his life with the sheep people. Of course, some other stuff happens, Drem ends up somehow killing the exact same wolf he failed to kill years before, and there’s a happy ending where he completes the super seekrit initiation ceremony and becomes a full-fledged warrior. Yay! Everybody wins! Except the wolf, I guess.

My main memory of this book is how insanely fascinating, beautiful and bad-ass it made Bronze Age Britain sound. I remember poring, practically drooling, over passages about midnight bonfires and sacred rituals and ancient magic, and whoa, did I ever want to live in that world. I remember this being a book that I daydreamed about a lot, and that’s something that I want for Theo. I want him to have books that he loves so much he ends up spending hours and hours imagining what it would be like to exist within the confines of that story.

Plus, you know, super seekrit initiation. SO AWESOME.

3. A Wrinkle in Time, Madeleine L’Engle, 1962

First, can we all just agree that Meg Murry is awesome? She’s not conventionally attractive, she has self-esteem issues, she’s socially awkward, she beats other kids up, and she’s super smart. I mean, sure, she’s not as smart as Charles Wallace, but then who is? Anyway, she’s someone that a lot of people can identify with. And she ends up kicking major ass.

The book takes place in small town America (I want to say somewhere in New England, but I’m not sure) during the cold war. The Murrys are a family that includes two super-smart parents, their super-smart daughter Meg, their super-super-smart son Charles Wallace and their totally boring and average twins, Sandy and Dennys. Mr. Murry disappeared during some kind of secret science mission, and now everyone in their village thinks that he just ran off and abandoned his family. Oh and everyone also thinks that Charles Wallace is developmentally delayed, even though he’s a genius like whoa.

Anyway, Meg and Charles Wallace end up teaming up with some extraterrestrial-type ladies, Mrs Whatsit, Mrs Who and Mrs Which, and Meg’s hot schoolmate Calvin O’Keefe (who is super popular but ALSO has issues) in order to go rescue Mr. Murry. They travel through space and time in a sort of “wrinkle” called a tesseract (SCIENCE!!!!) and have some adventures before finally arriving at the planet where the force of ultimate evil darkness is keeping Meg’s dad prisoner. Even though you would think that it would be Charles Wallace who ends up saving the day (because he’s so frigging precocious), it’s actually Meg’s badass contrariness that gets everyone out of there alive. HIGH FIVE FOR SMART, CONTRARY WOMEN.

My main impressions from this book were: a) whoooaaaa I think I like science fiction and/or fantasy (it was probably the first sci-fi/fantasy book I read) b) I wish I could be part of the Murry family and c) I triple wish that Calvin O’Keefe was my boyfriend (he is seriously so nice, you guys don’t even know). It’s a book about a smart, resourceful young woman who realizes that she’s strong and awesome and ALSO she gets a hot, nice boyfriend without even changing anything about her looks. He even tells her he likes her in glasses! Aw, you guys, I love this book so hard.

 

4. The Great Brain, John Dennis Fitzgerald, 1967

This is actually the first of a series of books about Tom Fitzgerald, the titular Great Brain. The books, which are set in late 19th century Utah, are narrated by Tom’s long-suffering younger brother, John. See, Tom is a genius, but he only wants to use his powers for evil, i.e. “swindling” people out of their possessions and thinking up get-rich-quick schemes. He also does things like trying to frame the schoolteacher for being “a drunk”. You guys, these were THE BEST BOOKS EVER, basically.

No, but seriously, even though Tom occasionally receives his comeuppance, he still gets away with a lot of stuff. When I was a kid, I mostly wanted to hang out with him and stir up shit and learn how to swindle people out of their possessions because, hey, it sounded like a lot of fun! Plus, they had so many whacky adventures. If these books are anything to go by, Utah is way more fun than any place I’ve ever lived.

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5. Le Petit Prince, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, 1943

There is some kind of law that every French-speaking person has to read this book at least once over the course of their childhood. Now, let’s be totally clear: no kid is going to understand this book. They might enjoy it, but they won’t understand it.

Plot-wise, the book is about a pilot who crashes in the Sahara and is struggling to survive. One day, a young boy, the titular Little Prince appears. Now, this Little Prince is from space (!!) where he lives on his own personal asteroid (!!!) that has three active volcanoes (!!!!) and one rose. Weirdly, the humanoid prince falls in love with the rose (to be fair, I guess he didn’t have a whole lot of options in terms of life partners), who then lies to him because she’s super vain and kind of rude. They break up for a while, but then I guess they get back together.

The Little Prince decides he needs to explore the universe, so he sets off to visit a bunch of other asteroids, each of which is populated by a single, ridiculous adult. One of these adults, a geographer, is all, hey, you should totally check out the planet Earth! And the Little Prince is like, okay cool!

On Earth, the prince meets more ridiculous adults, and discovers that his rose isn’t beautiful or unique after all. He’s pretty bummed about this until he meets a fox (who totally steals the spotlight and gets the best lines in the book) who convinces him that yeah, dude, your rose IS special because she’s the one you love. Whoa! Revelation!  The prince also meets a weird snake who tells him that he can send him back to his home asteroid, but the prince is all, no, that’s cool, I’m good for now.

Anyway, the prince tells this whole story to the pilot, and then helps him find a well so that he doesn’t die of thirst or whatever. Then the prince is like, welp, I guess I’ll go find that snake again! The pilot realizes that the Little Prince will have to let the snake kill him in order to get him back home, and tries to convince him to stay on Earth. The prince totally ignores him and lets the snake bite him. Sorry, pilot! The story ends with the pilot looking for the prince.

As a kid you read this book and you’re like, hmmm, I guess this is fine. It’s kind of funny or whatever. Then you read it as an adult and you’re like, oohhhh, I get it. Adults are boring and totally sucky, while kids are awesome (fact). Also we have to appreciate the people we have in our lives who love us, and not spend time comparing them to other people (double fact). And finally, you realize that you want to spend all day hanging out with the fox, who says things like, “On ne voit bien qu’avec le cœur. L’essentiel est invisible pour les yeux.” (One sees clearly only with their heart – the essential is invisible to the eyes)

As an adult, I’ve read Saint-Exupéry’s other books, and have realized that he is this crazy amazing poetic philosopher. Wind, Sand and Stars is, in particular, my favourite. But I’m glad that I read The Little Prince when I was a kid, even if I didn’t understand it. I’m glad to have my childish impressions so that I can compare them to how I see the book now – I think that’s especially important given that it’s a book about the magical worldview children have that we lose as we age.

I’ll finish off here with a quote from Wind, Sand and Stars:

Old bureaucrat, my comrade, it is not you who are to blame. No one ever helped you escape. You, like a termite, built your peace by blocking up with cement every chink and cranny through which the light might pierce. You rolled yourself up into a ball in your genteel security, in routine, in the stifling conventions of provincial life, raising a modest rampart against the winds and the tides and the stars. You have chosen not to be perturbed by great problems, having trouble enough to forget your own fate as man. You are not the dweller upon an errant planet and do not ask yourself questions to which there are no answers. You are a petty bourgeois of Toulouse. Nobody grasped you by the shoulder while there was still time. Now the clay of which you were shaped has dried and hardened, and naught in you will ever awaken the sleeping musician, the poet, the astronomer that possibly inhabited you in the beginning.

Stay tuned for parts II, III and IV. And please feel free to leave book suggestions in the comments – if I get enough of them, I will do a whole post about your suggestions. I would write about books all day every day, if I could.

p.s. Can we all just agree that Holden Caulfield would be, like, the worst boyfriend in the history of ever?