Reading, part II: If she can see it, she can be it*

*Motto of the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in the Media

A few weeks ago, I wrote about Katie’s exciting first foray into the world of novels. As I was writing that post I was also thinking about Lily’s reading habits, and about the lack of female protagonists and heroes in the types of books she likes to read. And, as I was thinking these thoughts, it transpired that Lily herself was thinking exactly the same.

Currently, Lily is working her way through the Alex Rider series by Anthony Horowitz. Before that, she read all the Harry Potter books and she’s also a big fan of Percy Jackson and has asked for more of those for Christmas.

So, when she got out of bed one night a few weeks ago to come share her thoughts with me, I realised we had the same concerns. ‘There are no girls in the Alex Rider books’, she announced. ‘And, apart from Hermione, there are no girls in Harry Potter. It’s all boys.’ She backtracked a bit, explaining, ‘Well, there are girls, but they don’t do anything. They don’t do the stuff the boys do.’

A couple of weeks before this, Lily had a sleepover at her friend Luisa’s house, and accidently left her Alex Rider book there the next morning. Going to bed the next night, with the book still at Luisa’s, she didn’t know what to read. Not wanting to start a new book while in the middle of another one, I suggested she read Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s essay ‘We should all be feminists’ (here’s a link to the TED talk of the same), that I had left on her bedside locker some weeks earlier, when she’d moved into her own bedroom. She shrugged and, unconvinced, took the book from my hands for want of anything else to read. An hour later, she was out of bed, wanting to talk about the essay with me, about the hotel reception scene, about men assuming Chimamanda couldn’t have money of her own. The essay exercised her already feminist view of the world and added a new layer to it.

So now, here she was, complaining that her action/adventure/espionage books were devoid of female heroes.

I had been thinking the same thing, while also contrasting those books to another favourite author of Lily’s, Jacqueline Wilson. Although Lily is no longer as interested in Jacqueline Wilson’s books as she once was, there was a time when she devoured everything that the prolific Wilson produced. And I realised that she was, on the one hand, reading books with girl protagonists in domestic settings, with domestic problems involving families, school friends, mothers in bad romantic relationships (a recurring Wilson motif) and, on the other, boy protagonists charged with saving the entire world, involved in international espionage, the sons of gods and wizards.

She reads all sorts of books, of course, and I’m being reductive to some extent, but the more I’ve thought about it, the more I see the domesticity of girls and the world-saving of boys in the books that my 10-year old daughter reads. Even Susan, Lucy, Peter and Edmund, in their equal roles as kings and queens of Narnia, conform to gender stereotypes when Aslan confers on them their symbols and tools/weapons.

Because I haven’t, as either a child or an adult, ever been interested in those genres of action/espionage/fantasy that Lily is currently so fond of, I am in no position to advise her on books with female protagonists. I know the Skulduggery Pleasant series has a girl hero (who is Irish, to boot). Apart from that, I’m at a loss. Therefore, if anyone can recommend books in those genres with girl protagonists, I’d appreciate it.

Alternatively, as I’ve suggested to her, she may just have to write those books herself.

 

Reading, part I: Wonder

BloomKatie, nine-years old, is reading her first novel, Bloom by Nicola Skinner. She reads it aloud to me, a chapter a night before she goes to bed. We’re almost 90 pages into this delightful 350-page book about a play-by-the-rules girl who finds a packet of magic seeds that turn her world upside down.

A few nights ago, Katie stopped reading mid-sentence and turned to me with a look of wonder and bliss on her face. ‘I can really see all the people and places’, she proclaimed. ‘Can you?’

I got a lump in my throat. You’ve got it, I thought to myself. You’ve cracked the joy of reading, words creating entire worlds in your imagination of people and lives and places.

She’s read before, of course, but short books that can be read in one sitting and that don’t involve the immersion of the imagination that comes with reading a lengthy novel. She’s invested in the world of this book far more than she’s been invested in any story she’d read before.

What particularly made me emotional about this epiphany of Katie’s the other night is that she’s long held this misconception that she’s ‘bad at reading’ or ‘not very good at reading’. These are her own descriptions of her reading ability and, try as I might to dispel them, they have persisted. It’s probably younger sister syndrome (if such a thing exists). Lily, who is only 17 months older than Katie, was an early reader, and by the time she was the age that Katie is now, she had read all but two of the Harry Potter novels, most of the Narnia series, as well as a huge number of Jacqueline Wilson books (more on all of this next week). Lily is a voracious reader with very particular tastes and has been reading beyond her age level (if such a thing exists, which I doubt) for a long time. Katie, by her own comparison, is ‘not very good at reading’.

My past attempts to instill confidence in Katie’s reading ability have fallen short. She simply wasn’t ready. Her frequent mistakes, her slow reading pace and her lack of understanding frustrated her and deterred her from wanting to read more.

But something about this book has flicked a switch. She bought it herself, for one thing, choosing it and paying for it with her own money at Easons when we were passing through Cavan town earlier in the summer. Reading it every night, she has become highly invested in the characters and in the place. She is the one dragging me to her bedroom each night so she can read the next chapter.

At first, she read slowly, stumbling over words and ignoring punctuation. But chapter-by-chapter, her reading speed has increased, her word recognition has improved remarkably, her ability to understand new words based on context or pre-existing knowledge of similar words has improved, and she now reads with correct intonation and timing (most of the time). Her confidence has grown in leaps and bounds. Listening to her read is a joy. Her joy in reading is a joy.

She’s now got a pile of books on her desk, stacked in order of what she wants to read next. If this carries on, we’re in for a cozy winter ahead filled with adventures of the imagination.