Listening to a program on Radio National, promoting a new children’s non fiction book, Goodnight Stories For Rebel Girls, which is stories about amazing women of history, I couldn’t help being startled at some of the things said. The lady explained they were beginning each chapter with “Once upon a time” because they didn’t want it to feel like homework stuff. Pardon me? Does she really believe that she’s the only one ever to write non fiction for entertainment? Or that you even need to pretend it’s a fairy tale to make it clear that this is not for homework? I think this lady needs to do some reading of children’s non fiction. I’ve written the stuff! Never once did I use,”Once upon a time...” and believe me, the kids got it that this was for enjoyment. The school had five copies of my book Crime Time and all of them were battered and worn by the time we packed up to move campuses.
There was a serious discussion about how girls are usually shown as weak and passive in children’s fiction. This may have been true once, though not entirely, but these days pretty much all the dystopian YA novels feature a girl saving the world. And not only the dystopians. Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials. Garth Nix’s Old Kingdom. Hermione in Harry Potter. He may be the Chosen One, but she is the one with the brain, whose research saves the day time after time. Even her common sense - at the start of The Deathly Hallows, who is it who packs camping equipment, supplies and even some books into a tiny TARDIS bigger-on-the-inside bag so that they’re ready to go when the Deatheaters turn up? Not Harry or Ron! How about Evanlyn in The Ranger’s Apprentice series? Caroline in Michael Pryor’s The Laws Of Magic? Not to mention the hero Aubrey Fitzwilliams’ mother and grandmother?
These are just some of the ones I’ve read, off the top of my head, and I’ve just noticed that all but one of my examples were written by men.
Fairy tales? Full of stereotypes, says the author. Yes, there’s one kind of story in which the princess needs rescuing or is handed over along with half the kingdom, for a job well done. But that’s only one kind, along with the ones where a pretty peasant girl wins a prince for being - well, pretty.
How about Kate Crackernuts? Which, incidentally, shows two stepsisters as loving each other. So the wicked queen’s daughter saves her stepsister and lands a prince for both of them, while rescuing one of the princes.
How about East Of The Sun, West Of The Moon? That is only one of many stories of its type - Girl has to go on a quest to get back her man when an error on her part has lost him and he has forgotten her and is about to marry someone else, a long way off. Another of this kind is The Singing, Springing Lark, a variation on Beauty And The Beast, in which the girl has to do a lot more than cry over her dying Beast and say she loves him.
How about “The Wild Swans” in which a sister goes through hell to save her brothers and nearly dies herself?
Even the Grimm version of Cinderella has her doing more than waiting around for a fairy godmother to supply a dress for the ball.
There are plenty of clever girl fairy tales out there. You just need to find them.
I’m sure the book promoted this morning is great stuff. What it isn’t, judging by the interview, is new or original and it’s unfair to writers who have done it before to imply it is.