Girls Literature and the Culture of What’s Wrong With Me?

I have a daughter and I care what she reads. From her earliest days, books have been an important part of her life. She’s ten now and I still read to her regularly, though she reads voraciously on her own (and far more than I ever was able as a child, since she reads like lightning when left to her own device-free devices). That kid can devour stories, though lately has taken to being very choosy with her time. If a book doesn’t hook her, it goes back to the library unfinished. She wants to be sucked in; once she is engaged she absolutely must finish. Because it matters, I am always concerned with the messages in the stories she finds most enticing.

When she chooses her books, her mother and I try to be aware of the content and whether there is an underlying theme of “what’s wrong with me?” running through the pages. More and more, it seems easy to identify this theme almost as its own genre in children’s and specifically girls’ literature. The seeds of necessary therapy are sown implicitly between the lines as books for these young readers guide them to feeling less than adequate, training them for a life of unnecessarily pursuing products to fix themselves. This is a predictable byproduct of corporate America, where publishing is largely controlled by conglomerates that feed revenue streams in any way possible. Branding and downstream profits are the backbone of our consumer culture. But feeding this beast is optional.

The books I grew up reading in the 70s were, perhaps, marketed more toward boys, though certainly not all of them. I eschewed many of the “classics” that my mother wanted me to read. Not interested in the Little House series, nor the Secret Garden (though I have a deep appreciation for that book now). Eventually I gave in on a few titles that lingered from her girlhood library, but as my father had not held onto any books of his youth, I mostly paved my reading way in relatively contemporary books. Beverly Cleary, Judy Bloom and a range of other writers with fewer accumulated titles traversed my shelves.

I devoured Bulfinch’s Mythology and lesser retellings, anything I could dredge up on vampires and their historical origins (though Stoker’s Dracula stayed safely on my parents’ shelf for many years). I wove my way from mysteries to mild fantasy to science fiction and eventually to horror, preferring the otherworldly visions of these genres well into my adulthood. Nothing in the books I loved pandered to who I was or who I was expected to become. Even books where the protagonist was a female kept the images strong, the possibilities endless. This was my experience, perhaps colored by being a boy, perhaps by being a product of my time. My daughter’s experience, on the other hand, really began with Rainbow Fairies.

For those unfamiliar with the literary blight of the Rainbow Fairies, this (virtually endless) book series typifies the factory ethic of 21st Century publishing. Go to any bookstore and the shelves will be littered with “series” books for emerging readers. Mostly targeting the early grades, the titles include things like “Rescue Princesses,”  “Magic Kitten” and “Magic Puppy” in addition to the horror of so many different types of Fairies. Publishers were no doubt spurred on by the success of the Magic Treehouse series that has over 50 books to its credit, and has spawned something of a deserved empire — I say deserved because, in spite of the formulaic stories, the characters in the Magic Treehouse books actually evolve somewhat over the series and each book manages to include real information about historic figures and events. (In fact, the Magic Treehouse served as a model of sorts for my own five-part children’s novel.) But my daughter was drawn to the colorful fairy book covers and wanted to grab every one she could from the library shelves. It seemed harmless at the time — she wanted to read chapter books that she picked out, we wanted to encourage her to read on her own. So, sure, read some fairy books.

But then we read the fairy books. It took exactly one book to realize that the author of the series could not be a real person. This is not a new concept: the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew (among other contemporaries of theirs) were written by groups of authors working under contract for publishers. Plot formulas and style guides can go a long way when nothing needs to build between books. And the Rainbow Fairies (and the Dance Fairies, Color Fairies, Music Fairies…oh my god, the list goes on) certainly never build anything between books. In fact, they really don’t even change plot. But even worse, the writing is insultingly stupid, repetitive and… and… it’s giving me pain just to think about how awful those books were. For me. My kid loved them. But they were a gateway to bad lessons. The girls in those books were dumb as bricks, made ridiculous choices that allowed the books to continue (none of them should have been longer than a chapter or two if the heroines had made the obvious choices), and basically never learned anything that was not entirely superficial. And superficiality was perhaps the greatest evil of those books. They encouraged reading without care of subtext because, simply, there wasn’t any. None. Nada. The entire collection was without consequence.

It should not have been a surprise when my daughter graduated from fairies and magic kittens to princesses and eventually cupcakes. These things are sold, sold and resold to little girls in endless supplies of vacuous forms. But as she proceeded from wide-eyed kindergartener to a slightly more narrow-eyed ten-year-old, her fingers grasped at books that were geared toward ever older kids, with messages designed to shoe-horn girls while offering the appearance of bright fun.

Yes, there were delightfully subversive entries along the way. I love the Ivy and Bean series, for example, and discovered a wonderful book called Everything On a Waffle that cleverly defied all sorts of expectations. Great books are out there, even targeted directly at young girls; but the majority of the dreck on those bookshelves, that is the problem, because that is what is seen first and disingenuously marketed to the eager young reader.

My wife made a list of five topics that tend to be sold to girls and I find it to be very telling. Here they are, in no apparent order:

  • Cupcakes and Sweets
  • Friendship Troubles
  • Looks or Body Image
  • Fashion
  • Getting Approval from Boys

Why would stories for girls focus so predominantly on those five themes? Books marketed to boys certainly don’t tend to limit themselves in this way. But by focusing on these limited themes, girls are taught to believe less of themselves. They are essentially sold on the need for therapy long before anyone should need to explain what therapy is. This is where the culture of “What is Wrong With Me?” begins. This is where girls are first trained to consume products designed to fix them, to make up for their inadequacies, to make them more attractive to boys, to make them acceptable to their friends, to themselves. Where girls are introduced to the concept that body image is going to be a struggle for them, boys are just treated as being okay as they are. Where girls are offered story after story about how tricky it is to navigate friendships, boys are just treated as being okay with their friends. Where girls are sold the notion that they will have to modify their behavior or personalities to attract boys, boys are just treated as being okay being boys, and if they want a girl’s approval, well, it will probably happen because, well, boys can just be boys. The fashions and the confections are all there as a distraction, as a sugary façade, to make the books seem safe and fun while also ensuring they protect against substance.

For every Harriet the Spy or Ramona, great, iconoclastic characters that don’t pander, there are dozens, probably hundreds, of two-dimensional figures designed to be easily marketable but completely lacking in soul. I am grateful that my daughter has moved well past her Rainbow Fairy phase (and all that other nonsense, too). I do still take issue with some of the books she is attracted to (Goddess Girls? Really?!), but she has become more demanding and wants stories that, whether she realizes it or not, reflect a greater complexity from their characters and plots. And joyfully, I know we are not alone in this.

While the sad reality of our day is that kids are reading significantly less than they are playing digital games or watching videos, with many kids not reading at all, there is still hope. Libraries still carry quality books. Yes, the popular titles that are inundating the masses are on the library shelves — and that is good insofar as it allows families to sample them without feeding the money machine. But any decent library will have significant space devoted to books that have stood the test of time, that have proven their value, or are newer entries that genuinely speak to the current state of what it is actually like to be a kid.

It is these new voices that I find particularly exciting. As a parent, I  very much want material that speaks to where my daughter is right now. I want it stripped of commercialism, existing to delight and excite her, to remind her that her potential is looming large before her rather than locking her down before she has a chance to express it.

 

Bright Lite Magazine for pre-teen girls had balloons all over the ceiling at their launch party.
Balloons decorated the ceiling at the Bright Lite Magazine launch party.

Bright Lite Magazine, specifically for pre-teen girls, is a new periodical that offers a glimpse into what is possible when the focus is really on girls and not on selling to girls. Over the weekend, we had the opportunity to attend the launch party for the magazine. Bright Lite was an ambitious undertaking, but the result is a very slick, professional periodical that is almost more of a book than a magazine. There are no ads, and virtually no editorializing; beyond the general theme of “animals,” the magazine is guided by the contributions of many young girls. It nails its audience because it is written by its audience. But it never looks like it was put together by kids. In fact, the adults behind the project are serious professionals, doing their best to serve the material. My opinion of the project may be influenced by the pride I feel for my daughter’s photography, which she contributed to the premier issue (and our reason for being at the party), but it goes much deeper than that.

The best part of the magazine is that — in something like 200 pages — it manages to avoid pandering while also being empowering without an explicit message. It empowers simply because it is. Because girls are allowed to be girls, be themselves, and to be okay.

We can’t police everything that our kids read. But we can stack the odds in their favor by making better stuff available. Gentle encouragement goes a long way, I hope; when it doesn’t work, I’ve resorted to deal making, I admit that I’m not above it. But what I have discovered through my daughter is that she craves the same things I did as a young boy: good stories that set my imagination free, stories that gave me bigger things to ponder. Kids are not really any different today, but what they are fed will affect the way that they grow. That plays out just as true for feeding the mind as it does the body. Balance and moderation are always important rules, but never skimp on the healthy stuff. It is worth the extra time pondering the bookstore shelves, culling through the library stacks or perusing iBooks or the Kindle store. These children may just grow up and take back the publishing industry that has largely sold them out.

 

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