Great Books and Disagreeable Thoughts

What are you reading on International Women’s Day?
I’m loving ‘Girl Defective’ by Simmone Howell. It’s spunky, lyrical and extremely hard to put down.  I almost missed my station because I was reading it on the train into the city today. I’m hoping to finish it tonight and then jump straight into Kate Constable’s latest novel, New Guinea Moon. These novels were launched jointly on Wednesday night at Readings Bookshop in Carlton. It was a great event; crowded and friendly with cupcakes, champagne and eloquent readings.Last night, I attended the CBCA Claytons seminar held at Trinity College in Kew where four different authorities on literature for young people discussed books they thought might feature on the 2013 CBCA awards shortlist. The CBCA host Claytons nights in the lead up to the release of their shortlist but I’d never attended one before last night.  It was actually much more interesting than I’d expected. I’m sorry I’ve missed all the previous years. The speakers were fascinating and articulate, the food was delicious and it was a chance to catch up with lots of folk in the kid lit scene that I haven’t seen for some time.

But on the way home, a disagreeable thought struck me. So many of the judges had spoken eloquently about beautiful books that should speak to all readers. On a couple of occasions, judges held up books with girls on the cover and commented that it was a pity that boys probably wouldn’t read the book because there was so much to gain from the story. I started wondering how many boys will miss out on reading ‘Girl Defective’ and ‘New Guinea Moon’ simply because they are about girls, despite the beautiful prose and the great characters. We live in a gendered world where there are books for boys and books for girls.  Fair enough, to a point. Yet there are so many books, irrespective of the gender of the hero of the story, that speak to all readers. The most disagreeable thought that struck me was how boys are trapped, even more than girls, when it comes to reading.

new-guinea-moonI’ve had a boy reader tell me he had to put one of my books (Walking Home with Marie-Claire) in a brown paper bag so his mates couldn’t see what he was reading a book with two girls on the cover. Another boy, who was vetting a cover for one of my novels, said that if the more feminine cover was chosen, he wouldn’t be able to read the book in public. Boys fear ridicule if they are seen to be interested in girl culture. All this leads to the sad state of affairs we have in the adult world, where few men read books by and/or about women. Possibly it also leads to many of the other problems we have with violence and rage against women. When you don’t understand someone, when their perspective is foreign to you, then you’re more likely to feel afraid, less likely to empathise. In contemporary Australia boys have small opportunity to learn about female culture, to deeply empathises with women and girls, without being harassed. Girls, on the other hand, not only read about boys but are encouraged to do so.

Fiction is one of the best tools we have for inculcating empathy for ‘the other’. If a white child refused to read books that have Asian or black child characters on the cover we would be alarmed by their racist response. But when a boy says he won’t read book because it’s about a girl, we shrug and say ‘boys will be boys’, effectively reinforcing his unease about female culture. Then the boys become the men who won’t read books by or about women.

VIDA, an American organisation committed to supporting women in the literary arts, released some disturbing statistics this week about how books by men and women are received which illustrate exactly how gendered reading affects the lives of writers and readers.

You can’t force boys to read books about girls when the whole culture tells them they are ‘sissies’ for reading about girls. Some of this fear of all things feminine springs out of homophobia, which is incredibly ironic when you consider that its the heterosexual boys who most desperately need to understand the gender they are destined to love. The straitjacket of masculinity is bad for boys and has devastating consequences for girls.

Women cannot overturn this state of affairs. We need our brothers, sons, fathers, husbands, male friends and lovers to set an example to the next generation of boys by being seen reading books about women and girls. Not every book, not all the time. It’s nice to indulge in books about your own gender too. But if next International Women’s Day every male children’s author in Australia was photographed reading a book with a girl on the cover, if every father read his son a book with a female protagonist, if every male teacher shared a story with his class from a book with a girl on the cover, we might move a little further towards building a more confident and compassionate culture for boys and a safer, fairer world for girls.

Barney, Carrie & Sam in Black

One of the most startling aspects of creating a character is the prospect that maybe, if you’ve done your work properly, that character will outlive you. Which makes you wonder, do characters mourn their creators? It’s a kind of idle question to be pondering as the year turns over but New Year’s Day is a good time to be lounging around thinking idle thoughts and writing out lists and ideas about both past and future things. Having your characters outlive you definitely fits into distant future thoughts.

If characters really do outlive their authors, then 2012 was a sad year for hundreds of fictitious souls. Many wonderful writers died last year as was noted by Martin McKenzie Murray (no relation) in an article that appeared in The Age newpaper last week. When I first read the article I was surprised he didn’t mention the death of Ray Bradbury, the American science-fiction writer. Murray chose to focus on the passing of Gore Vidal, Bryce Courtenay and Maurice Sendak. It was great to see both a children’s author (Sendak) and an Australian (Courtenay) included in his notable list. But upon rereading the article, I felt really sad that Murray couldn’t squeeze in a mention of one of the many very fine female writers who we lost last year. There are three women in particular who died in 2012 that have had a huge impact on children’s and young adult fiction authors all around the world.

The American author Jean Craighead George died last year at the age of 92.  During her lifetime she wrote many award-winning children’s books but one of her characters was a particularly important imaginary companion of mine during my childhood. Sam Gribley, a teenage boy who runs away from his cramped New York City apartment to live alone in the Catskill Mountains, changed my life. Sam was the protagonist in Craighead George’s classic novel My Side of the Mountain (1959). Through reading about Sam, I became interested in the works of Thoreau and read Walden when I was too young to understand Thoreau’s message but the ideas that underpinned both books influenced me to sign up as a junior ranger in Canada in my late teens. I wasn’t quite as adventurous as Sam when I was eleven years old but not long after I read George’s novel my Grade Six class was taken to see the film version of the book. A week later, three of my classmates were taken off a suburban train by the police  while running away from home, emulating Sam Gribley. They were supposedly heading into the wilderness but they only got as far as the suburb of Broadmeadows on the edge of Melbourne. Through Sam Gribley, Jean Craighead George inspired a generation of children around the world to take an interest in both nature and adventure. I’m not sure she was so pleased that so many of them ran away from home.

Nina Bawden was a British author who died last year. Like the amazing fantasy author Diana Wynne Jones who passed away in 2011, Bawden was a child evacuee sent to Wales from London during WWII. Bawden’s novel Carrie’s War was inspired by her time as an evacuee. It’s a British classic and has twice been made into a TV series by the BBC. I’m not sure there’s a direct connection between me and Carrie apart from the fact I loved her story when I was a teenager. I did wind up living in a Welsh village when I grew up so perhaps Carrie really did get under my skin. When I p and was living in Wales in the 1990s, I read Bawden’s adult novels and particular loved her book Circles of Deceit. Sometimes authors lead you full circle.

I didn’t start reading the work of Margaret Mahy until I was an adult so her characterz Barney Palmer and his sister Tabitha from the very scary The Haunting were of more interest to me as a parent than a child. But Margaret Mahy’s books influenced many fantasy authors around the world including the very talented Australian author Penni Russon. Mahy’s body of work is impressive and the example she set of working solidly across a lifetime while also bringing up children on her own is inspiring. The struggle to balance writing and family is a particularly difficult challenge that women have to tackle differently to men. It’s one of the reasons that’s it’s important to honour the work of the generations of women who have made it possible for young women writers today to be able to write professionally. It’s worth celebrating that young female authors no longer have to hide the fact that they are women nor do they have to write under male pseudonyms as was the case in the 19th and early 20th centuries. It’s great for young authors of both genders to be able to look forward to not only creating a family of their own but also a family of unforgettable imaginary characters.

Pride and Prejudice

I now have a list of seventeen things that I’ll be writing blogs about in the next few weeks, not taking into account the fact that new inspirations turn up every day. I missed posting a blog yesterday as work, travel and internet problems conspired against me. After a three hour drive back from Bunbury to Fremantle, a late dinner with the charming Reeces (Bob Reece makes a mean fish pie) and unpacking my bag once again at the Fremantle Children’s Literature Centre, I lost another day of blogging. Sigh.

The Bunbury kids were fabulous. They were bright, focussed and full of good ideas. The sixty-five Year 7 and 8 kids who turned up on Friday for their writing intensive were particularly impressive.

At the end of every day, when they each have a draft of a story underway, an assortment of the students get up in front of the group and share their stories. It’s a nerve-wracking exercise for many of them but one thing that always strikes me as worrying is how few of the girls are willing to risk reading their work in public. Though the majority of the participants in the workshops are girls, out-numbering the boys by two to one, most of the boys are keen to share their work while the girls sit back, their hands folded in their laps, watching and listening politely but shyly refraining from going public. It drives me crazy.

It’s not to say there aren’t forceful, confident girls who have no reservations about putting up their hand for attention. But in general the girls need more cajoling than the boys. I rarely have to cajole boys into sharing their work and more often than not, when I call for volunteers to read what they have written, half the boys raise their hands enthusiastically while only a tiny proportion of the girls are willing to overcome their self-consciousness without prompting. I love the boys’ enthusiasm and confidence. Sometimes, I feel guilty choosing a girl to do a reading when there are six boys waving their hands for attention, busting to share their work. But on the rare occasions when the situation is reversed and the boys are silent while the girls are forceful, I always try and balance the representation. I want to hear stories from both genders, from both male and female perspectives.

Some people argue that girls are more confident in single sex situations. But the world is made up of two genders. If girls can’t feel brave enough to be heard in a safe environment where they are in the majority, in an environment where only a handful of bright, literate and sympathetic boys are present, what hope do they have of being heard in the wider world? I don’t believe it has to be this way but passivity is deeply enculturated for young women.

This morning, my daughter, Ruby, had an opinion piece published in the Melbourne newspaper, The Age. I’m very proud of her. I was proud of her on the cold Sunday mornings when she ran out onto a muddy field to play soccer as a teenager and the way she was never shy of participating on debating teams, in musical bands or any public forum. But I saw the ways in which she was subtly discouraged too and I have felt that same discouragement myself.

I’ve lost count of the number of literary events that I’ve attended where the men on stage outnumber the women two-to-one, or the literary festivals where only a third of the writers on the program are female while the audiences consist almost entirely of women. As often as not, at least in literary circles, it’s not a conscious prejudice. It’s a subtle, insidious and pervasive assumption that the way things are is the way they should be. So little pride and so much prejudice.

Kirsty is an Australian author of books for children and young adults.

“Every adult was once a child and the child inside them never completely disappears.”

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