THERE’S a new book out. It argues that there aren’t enough clever female characters in children’s fiction, which means that girls are still cast as unequal stereotypes. The stolid assistant rather than the mad but genius professor, the trusty sidekick instead of the pioneer.
No doubt the new Doctor Who, played by Yorkshire-born Jodie Whittaker, would have something to say about that. However, this is holding back half the population from aiming high and reaching its potential, says the author, a professor herself. She’s found that while 25 per cent of her fellow professors and 45 per cent of academic staff at UK universities are female, only nine per cent of picture book academics are women.
She has a point. My 13-year-old daughter, Lizzie, has reached that awkward age in her reading life. She’s growing out of her beloved David Walliams, whose hugely-entertaining books she has devoured, she’s read all the estimable Horrible Histories series and now she’s wondering where to turn. She wants something with girls in it, but she won’t read the copy of Noel Streatfeild’s Ballet Shoes her aunt gave her for Christmas last year because she says it’s “wet”.
Not being a teenage girl in 2018, I’m at a bit of a loss as to what to recommend next. I faced a similar impasse at the same age. Having graduated from Enid Blyton’s Famous Five and Secret Seven, I spent a year or so flailing about with James Herbert, Catherine Cookson and Jilly Cooper before I discovered DH Lawrence, George Orwell and my social conscience.
That’s what we had in our house, so that’s what I read. It would have been considered trash by those of a higher mind, but at least I read something. And for the information of the erudite professor, you don’t get many stronger female role models than a Catherine Cookson heroine.
This is the thing about children, young people and reading. At one end of the scale we have academics debating the finer points of feminism, at the other we have millions of children who rarely see a book of any description at all outside of school hours.
In their homes, books are for other people, just like vegetables and healthy food are for other people. It’s yet another indication of the sad polarisation which divides us into haves and have-nots. And although the blame is usually laid at the feet of less-than-privileged parents who would (apparently) rather mess about on their mobiles and watch TV, I think we must look at the bigger picture.
Literature has become fetishised by those who consider it their moral right to preach to everyone else. I do know people who judge others on how many books they have in their homes. I even know people who pride themselves on reading only hardbacks, because they consider paperbacks “common”. I also know teachers who ban their own children from reading comic books in case they become “corrupted”.
In this moral climate, is it any wonder that the idea of “reading for pleasure” is becoming a hobby almost as archaic as stamp-collecting? A recent report by The Reading Agency campaign group found that almost half (41 per cent) of 11 to 15-year-olds in England do not participate in reading and writing activities that are not required for school in their spare time.
I’ve no scientific stats to back this bit up, but I certainly know from anecdotal evidence that the habit of reading is hard to keep up once the routine of the bedtime story has been outgrown.
When my children were in Foundation class, every child in their class received a lovely bag of books under the Sure Start initiative. I remember almost all the parents at the school gate being thrilled with this gift, and it’s fair to say that many of these mums and dads were not exactly enjoying advantaged lives.
Fast forward almost a decade and that love of literature so tenderly fostered at an early age has been knocked out of most children because they have been obliged to commit to memory lists of frontal adverbs for SATs and 18 full-length poems for GCSEs. Those in charge of education policy in this country are guilty of prioritising literacy over literature. And then they wonder why young people don’t read any more.
And the Government has also presided over swingeing cuts to local library services which has cut off this lifeline for countless families. The poet, writer and former Children’s Laureate, Michael Rosen, argues that every child should be given a library ticket at birth. Great idea, if there were still libraries to take it to.
As for Lizzie, I keep leaving my battered copy of A Testament of Youth, Vera Brittain’s memoir of her time as a nurse in the First World War, in her room in the hope that she might pick it up. If she’s looking for a proper heroine, especially as we get ready to commemorate the centenary in November, she could do far worse.