Melanie McDonagh

Feminist children’s books

Feminist children’s books
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A friend of mine who commissions book reviews has added a sub-category to the list of titles coming up: ‘femtrend’, books about the female condition from a feminist perspective. ‘Grit lit is over,’ she says wearily, referring to edgy books about the marginalised. ‘Now publishers can’t get enough of the feminist trend about women who for centuries have been airbrushed out of history by toxic masculinity and oppressive patriarchy. Airbrushing the toxic white male. Female tribes. Modern courtesan. Now it’s draining down into children’s books too.’

It started with Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls, a collection of accounts of inspirational role models; Malala, Maya Angelou et al, which was bought by Penguin Random House and became last year’s surprise publishing sensation. It was immediately apparent to me that what I was looking at was the contemporary version of the saint stories I had as a child: modern hagiography, intended to inculcate devotion and imitation.

Every bookshop has its own feminist shrine: a selection of books commemorating important women — Great Women Who Changed the World; Fantastically Great Women Who Made History; Rosie Revere, Engineer; Women in Sport; Rebel Voices — The Rise of Votes for Women; I Know a Woman — The Inspiring Connections Between the Women Who Have Shaped Our World. To some extent this is fine, given this is the centenary of female suffrage. But it’s still groupthink in book form. See the promotional board with a picture of a feisty tot in a headscarf, her biceps curled, saying: ‘We can do it.’ The motto is: books to inspire the next generation of amazing women.

The quintessence of the genre is, as you’d expect, Chelsea Clinton’s latest: She Persisted, Around the World: 13 Women Who Changed History. On the cover there’s one white girl in a wheelchair and two Indian-looking girls, one with a stethoscope, another with a plant. A medic and a scientist obviously. ‘It’s not always easy being a girl, anywhere in the world. It’s especially challenging in some places,’ our author observes. Yes, in Saudi Arabia; we get that. And possibly in Saudi the book may be useful.

Femtrend isn’t only non-fiction. One treat coming up from Bloomsbury is The Restless Girls, a retelling of the Grimms’ The Twelve Dancing Princesses. Except, this is a version in which the brave soldier who finds out what the girls have been up to is a ... whoops! Nearly gave the plot away. The introduction gives a clue too: this is about ‘keeping a sisterhood alive and observing and criticising the status quo’. Of course!

Don’t think that boys are excluded from all this. One new title from Walker Books for younger readers is Julian is a Mermaid, a boy who encounters mermaids in the company of his abuela, or granny-figure; an exciting transgender exercise. Which brings us to the next version of the genre: Boys Who Dare to be Different. So we get Ai Weiwei and Barack Obama. Good Night Stories for Rebel Boys, then.

In other words, what Lionel Shriver observed about publishing for grown-ups, which privileges diversity above actual readability, is equally true of children’s books. This is Gramscian cultural hegemony inculcated on the get ’em young principle. What it doesn’t promise is a good read.