Philobiblon: Now girls and boys ...

Thursday, November 11, 2004

Now girls and boys ...

... sit down and I'll tell you a story.

Once upon a time, there were no "girls' books" with pink covers and princesses on the front, and "boys' books" with green and brown "camouflage" covers and a man with a spear, there were just children's books.

The genre of "children's book" is generally said to have begun in the 1740s, when three publishers, including Mary Cooper, "began to provide children with books designed to delight as well as instruct them. Increasing middle-class literacy and prosperity set the stage for this development, along with the gradual popular dissemination of John Locke's educational philosophy, which advocated teaching children through play." (p. 166)

In the late 18th and early 19th century, "all featured children of both sexes as characters and were intended for readers of both sexes. {They} ... taught obedience, submission to authority, and selflessness as the cardinal virtues of both girls and boys." (p. 167)

The sudden change, Elizabeth Segel suggests, occurred in the 1850s, with the market growing large enough for specialisation, with a desire to provide "suitable" reading for young misses past the childish literature stage but considered to innocent for "adult" reading, and the increasingly sharp differentiation of the genders in adult life (p. 169-170)

Boys' books sent them out into the world, having boundless adventures, with only the occasional moral message tacked on almost as an afterthought, while girls were being trained to accept their confinement in the home, as classically represented by What Katy Did (1872), in which a her exuberance and disobedience leads to her being crippled, by which she enters the "School of Pain", but in it she learns to be kind, virtuous and a replacement mother for her younger siblings. "The disturbing message that the ideal woman is an invalid is scarcely veiled". (p. 174)

I had a copy of What Katy Did, and the two (?) sequels, which had been Mum's, but remember not liking them much - I can see why now. If you want to depress yourself you can read it here.

By the time I "should" have been reading this I was in the "adult" section of the library - as I recall reading first Westerns, then romances (yes Mills and Boons, but I was only about 12), then war books ... what all of that did to my head I dread to think. (And of course the Harold Robbins's - I was about 12 when Dad said: "On no account should you read this book, which he'd got from the library; well you can guess the rest. It was "The Pirate", and it must have made quite an impression on an impressionable mind, because I remember it still quite well!)

From E. Segel "As the twig is bent ... gender and childhood reading, in E. Flynn and P. Schwickart (eds) Gender and Reading: Essays on Readers, Texts and Contents, John Hopkins Uni Press, Baltimore, 1986.


Blogger Susoz said...

I read the 'What Katy Did' books as a girl and have a vaguely positive memory of them, unlike the 'Little Women' series, which made me anxious (I didn't recognise it as anxiety at the time of course, but I now see that the restricted femininity and Jo's death did make me anxious).
Children's books, like children's toys and clothes, are incredibly gendered these days, even more so than when I was a child in the 60s, I think. Buying a 6th birthday present for a girl recently in a major bookstore, the choices were quite stark - between the princess and fairy range and the dinosaur/animal range. I found the one book that was remotely 'unisex' and bought it for her. (The latest Alison Lester.)

11/12/2004 02:17:00 am  
Blogger Natalie Bennett said...

Interesting. I only have one child to buy for, my now seven-year-old godson, so I don't have much experience of the modern condition. (And he is a very "boyish" boy, so I guess the books I have bought him have been pretty gendered, at least in the sense of having boys as heros.)
It sounds like there's a gap in the market here for someone!

11/12/2004 02:05:00 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Pony books! My god, I read so many pony books as a kid. Which were just full of active girls, well, going outdoors and doing stuff with their ponies, and that was just the way it was (yep, books for tomboys). Oh, and I loved the ones with the (relatively) poor girls and their mongrel scruffs beating the snobby rich girls and their fancy expensive ponies, which was quite a common theme when I come to think of it. You know, I never thought of them before as subversive (in terms of gender or class)... Or that maybe that was the reason for their popularity; they were certainly girls' books but without any of the pink covers and princesses. Romance and boys didn't figure; only love for your pony (and beating the rich spoilt girls).

Sharon, getting nostalgic now.

11/12/2004 11:39:00 pm  
Blogger Natalie Bennett said...

Yes, I was thinking of my reading when slightly older, but from ages probably seven to 10 pony books were also my favourites, and you are right, they did provide spaces where girls got to go out and be physical and active.

And the rich girl who had an expensive pony and a groom for the mucking-out always got her comeuppance, as I recall, but I think the heroines, although often relatively poor, were distinctly middle class in terms of culture ...

Did you know the "Jill" series? Wasn't Jill's mother a writer?

Also great propaganda for the hunt lobby - that was nearly always an important part of the story as I recall.

Are pony books still big for that age-group, I wonder?

11/14/2004 08:12:00 pm  
Anonymous Jo Manning said...

Beth, it was Beth who died in Little Women, and, yes, it was a downer. She was the saintly one, the third daughter, after Jo and before Amy. Meg was the eldest, the maternal one. Jo was the tomboy, the rebel; Beth, the quiet one, the saint; Amy, the blonde, blue-eyed pretty one, the artist, with not a brain in her head.
I loved Little Women -- a classic read for girls of my generation in America -- but hated that Laurie -- the boy who is Jo's soulmate -- ends up with the vapid Amy. Makes no sense. It would make some sense, maybe, if Jo had never married, but she winds up married to a cypher, a German professor with no personality. This ruined the book for me. (There is a sequel, Jo's Boys, which goes into the subsequent marriages of the sisters, and is beyond terrible. I do not recommend it.)

8/22/2005 01:34:00 pm  

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