Winter Boy is just learning to read. He loves Thomas the Tank Engine. I thought he would have grown out of this almost 4 year long phase by now, but he loves is as much now as he did when he got his first Take and Play train. When it comes to books, he’s pretty clear about his interests. If it’s about Thomas the Tank Engine he will try to read it, stick it, colour it, press buttons on it. Although, i will give him his due, he is just starting to read actual words in books, and he eagerly reads whatever books he has from school, and he will attempt to read the words on anything that happens to be lying around.
Even bedtime is Thomas related if he has his own way. We try to break it up, for our sake as much as anything, as reading about a Really Useful Smug Engine can get quite annoying. Outside of the Land of Sodor, Winter Boy has no preference for ‘boy’ stories or ‘girl’ stories, whatever is easily reachable tends to suffice.
Summer Girl has gone through a (big) phase of insisting on ‘girl’ books. Glittery, princesses, fairies in tutus and pink sparkle everywhere; it has adorned her bookshelves since she has been able to read herself and be in charge of the book choosing. She has insisted on having the Rainbow Magic books, which are, in my opinion, dull, badly written and without imagination. However, in the spirit of wanting to encourage her to read, read, read, and not restrict or discourage her, I bought her a box set of 15 from the Book People, to place along with the classics on her bookshelf – Enid Blyton’s through to the complete Roald Dahl collection, and my absolute Favourite Book ever as a child – The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett.
I am unashamedly delighted that she has tried and failed to get to the end of a single one of the Rainbow Magic books, which are deliberately targeted at ‘girls’; the covers are marketed for girls – pink and sparkle and fairies, the fairies in all books are girls, the main characters are girls and beyond the lure of maybe finding your own name it has very little substance. Not surprisingly, she has quickly become bored and has even forgotten which ones she’s started reading.
Summer Girl has on occasions been drawn into the ‘boy/girl’ advertising, struggling to have the courage and strength to choose what she would like. She is only 8 so I wouldn’t expect her to have those skills yet. Instead she has been guided by the glittery lights and pinkness of the bookshops, posters and book covers around her, and by what her friends are reading. She once stopped in her tracks when I suggested she bought a dinosaur sicker book, (having watched her delightfully help her brother do his) and hesitate, before reaching for the Fashion Dressing Up sticker book, again.
I have tried to not dictate to her what she can and can’t read, stick, colour, draw. But R and I have encouraged her to think about what she likes, have the confidence to look beyond the dazzle of pink and flowery, and to read all the things around her that might interest her. Conversations about it being ok to enjoy science, have ribbons in her hair, play with her dolls and playing football have included book reading and it’s starting to sink in.
Last month we all went to London. She dragged me, literally, into an antique bookshop and browsed the dusty old books, and marvelled at them with wonder, while Winter Boy sat himself on the floor, flicking through the solitary small ‘new book’ box tucked in a corner, reading (you guessed it) Thomas. Bella picked a book; 105 years and one day old, from the day it had been inscribed with a message to its first owner. The cover is dark green, with no pictures, with real typed pages. No sparkle, no pink. ‘please? can I have it?’ So i bought her Tom Brown’s School Days. It’s her prized possession, although she is waiting for the Secret Garden to be finished so we can read it together.
If she didn’t have the courage to ignore the mass advertising and inevitable impact on her peers, she would have been denied this experience of choosing a book that has inspired people for years. She wouldn’t be able to enjoy all books to escape on the many journeys they can take us; she would miss out on so much.
Luckily, she is learning that its ok to read what she wants. which, at the moment is everything she can get hold of. But this hasn’t happened with the help of bookshops and publishers, who continually thrust in her face that she, as a girl, shouldn’t be reading Star Wars magazines, but should be reading magazines about make-up and jewellery; she can do those things, but as well as, not instead of. Although if you asked her directly she would probably still chose the make-up magazines if I didn’t heavily encourage her to get something (anything) else.
I will continue to encourage her to push through the constant barriers set around her to define her femininity as one-dimensional. I will continue to encourage her to be anything, and everything she wants to be; to read anything and everything she wants to read.
I shall also encourage Winter Boy to do the same, But, I won’t be encouraging him to read the Rainbow Magic books; not because i don’t want him to read ‘girl’ books, but because they are shit.