Some of the eagle-eyed among you will have noticed that LittleBear is a LittleBoyBear. And that he is the only LittleBear that I have. Those who've been assiduously paying attention will also have noticed a bit of a feminist streak in my views on life. So why would I consider writing about "books for girls" rather than just "books"? Well...
I was recently pointed towards a little video clip* advertising a book called Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls. The video showed a mother and young daughter winnowing a set of shelves in a bookshop - removing books that didn't have female characters; removing books in which the female characters didn't speak; removing books in which the female character's sole aspiration was to be saved by a Prince. And they were left with a pathetic heap of books.**
And this got me thinking. Because I suppose I am a Rebel Girl. I never aspired to pink. I didn't assume I couldn't do stuff. I never felt that women couldn't be whatever they wanted to be. I didn't perceive the books around me as showing me a limited world view. But maybe that comes down to all the other elements of my childhood. My mother, aunts and grandmothers were all intelligent, educated (and in some cases terrifyingly formidable) women. So it didn't really matter that I liked reading my brother's Tintin and Asterix books, despite their paucity of female representation. (Impedimenta may indeed have been a powerful female character, but she wasn't exactly a role model.) On the other hand, I've always had a tendency to immerse myself in the world I am reading about, to imagine myself as a character in it, and I certainly never imagined myself as a Princess in need of a Prince, so what did I read, and who were my female alter egos?
I don't think I can really remember that much of my early reading, though I know that Mister Men and Beatrix Potter featured, as we still have those books. And neither are particularly endowed with girls. But on the other hand, the gender of frogs and rabbits, or amorphous blobs, didn't really seem to matter at the time, as I wasn't imagining myself into their worlds. I may be odd, but I've never pictured myself as a squirrel or as a spherical yellow being largely made of smile.
Later on I read Swallows and Amazons, where (to my mind) Titty was clearly the most important character, and Nancy and Peggy ran a close second/third. Or the Narnia books, where it was Lucy who was the real leader of the Pevensey children. Or Anne of Green Gables, which describes itself. And the girls, even when they got married, were feisty, determined, self-assured and adventurous. And then Anne McCaffrey, where there were plenty of women and dragons I could imagine I was. And I'm sure there were others too, but the more I think about it, the more I realise that it doesn't really matter if there were. Because even reading the Wizard of Earthsea books, I was quite capable of imagining myself as the (male) wizard Ged. And the fact that Dick Francis had some pretty unreconstructed views, and wrote exclusively about men, didn't stop me imagining that I was the champion steeplechase jockey. And I could be one of Gavin Lyall's adventurers with no problems, or le Carre's spies.
So it turns out that I probably didn't have a surfeit of literary female role models, it turns out I had a family of strong, determined, intelligent, competent women and an imagination that was quite capable of flexing the world to accommodate my place in any story, no matter the author's original intent. Which is probably a reassuring thing for any of you raising slightly peculiar girls with an overactive imagination and an ambivalent view of gender. But perhaps not much of a counter argument to the issue of a lack of decent female characters in books.
I'm not sure I really had a point here, since most of the children's reading matter I'm currently exposed to is firmly in the category of dinosaur or wildlife reference works, which don't seem to place much weight on the sex of the dinosaurs, sharks or leopards involved. I can't really claim to be much of an expert in current trends in children's literature, and it turns out my own recollections of my reading habits as a child (which have persisted into adulthood) are that if I want to "be" the protagonist in my own mind, I will be, no matter whether they're written as male, female or dragon. I have a sneaking suspicion that this fluid approach to gender and species might not be completely normal...
*The link might, or might not work, possibly depending upon whether you are a Facebook person or not.
** Accompanying the video are statistics about the distribution of these features in published children's books.