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Women browse at the international book fair in Cairo.
Women browse at the international book fair in Cairo.

Literal heroines

Have the girl characters in children's books radically changed in the past 25 years? I'm inclined to believe they have.

"Imagine growing up knowing your father murdered your mother." Savannah's eyes are wide with the horror of it. "Then Elizabeth had to keep her head down while her sister was ruling!" Yara, a grade five classmate, interrupts: "Karana is alone on the island. She has to hunt, even though women on the island are not allowed to make arrows. She's a risk-taker." "Jo's a tomboy. She's not afraid to do anything," Megan, another classmate chimes in. "Cam Jansen is always solving mysteries," says Kleo, grade two. "She's not weak, but she's not a bully. And she has an amazing photographic memory." "I think Hermione's one of my favourites," interjects Elaine Fortune, working her way around the large table. "She's so smart and she's not ashamed of being smart." They might be talking about their best friends, the companions they most admire, except that Jo, Cam and Karana live only on the page. At the American International School in Abu Dhabi (AISA), Fortune, one of the librarians, has gathered 23 girls from grades two to seven, to talk about their favourite heroines in books. Elizabeth I from The Royal Diaries, Karana from The Island of the Blue Dolphins, Jo March of ­Little Women, Cam Jansen of the Mystery series, and Hermione from the Harry Potter books. These are the girls they would like to be like: take-charge, smart, independent, good-hearted, altruistic. And ­human. "Judy Moody always wants to be first," admits Sarah from grade two. "She's a bit pushy." So is Junie B Jones, they agree. Have the girl characters in children's books radically changed in the past 25 years? Raising two daughters in two rather different decades - the Eighties and the early "zeros" (as my youngest calls this decade), I'm inclined to believe they have. Junie B, Clarice Bean and DW from the Arthur books get away with more than Nancy Drew and Peter Pan's Wendy ever did. These girls have more attitude, more guts. Times have changed. Girls in books must have changed, too. But after talking to an editor at Random House Children's Books in New York and Lauren Child, author of the Clarice Bean books, as well as two school librarians in Abu Dhabi, and after spending a morning with two dozen enthusiastic readers, I'm not so sure. "We are seeing a huge explosion of books with strong, independent heroines," says Marla Soroka, librarian at the American Community School (ACS). "But we had them, too: Harriet the Spy, Trixie Belden." Take the Magic Tree House series which started in the early Nineties, she says, and flips through one of the books. "Jack and Annie are brother and sister. She's younger, but she's the leader. This one breaks the mould." "And take Francine from the Arthur books," she goes on. "Francine is such a strong character and is always giving Arthur a hard time. She's an example of girls in charge, an example that things have changed since Little Women and princesses locked in towers." Heroines like those, she believes, tended to be more passive. "They needed to be saved. Even if they were strong internally, they weren't allowed to be strong externally." The Happy Hollisters, one of Soroka's favourites, featured a sister who always ended up deferring to her brother. "Not like Jack and Annie," she says, with a grin. Not that all of today's female characters are built of strong stuff. Soroka was disappointed by the girl characters in Madonna's recent series, The English Roses. "Bina is a helpless female. A boy has to rescue her. I thought, 'Shame on you, Madonna!'" And Fortune is less than enchanted with the ultra-popular vampire love story Twilight. "Bella is the most vapid, insipid character. On every page there's a description of how Edward looks at her, kind of like 'Oh, now my life is worth living.'" But where's the line between strong and bossy, determined and difficult? I ask Shana Corey, the editor of the Junie B Jones books, published by Random House. What does a stubborn, outspoken character tell our daughters about what is acceptable and unacceptable? For those unacquainted with Junie B, she's an in-your-face first-grader who's always at the centre of a ruckus, even if the ruckus, as in the case of Junie B Jones is Not a Crook, is over lost mittens. "I think Junie B Jones appeals to so many kids because she doesn't have an internal censor," Corey wrote in an e-mail. "She says exactly what most kids are thinking, but even at six or seven, often know not to say out loud. Anyone who's ever had a kindergartner or watched the dynamic on a primary school playground knows how high and fierce emotions can run at that age - it's not all bunnies and sunshine!" Corey believes that if anything has changed over the years "it's a willingness to validate that inner naughtiness. Junie B doesn't present a perfect girl ideal as a role model, but speaks directly to real children and tells them that everyone messes up, everyone gets mad at their teacher, and that it's OK to have those feelings." A couple of years ago my youngest daughter came home talking about a girl named Clarice Bean. What a character. She spoke her mind, could be quite annoying, a little obsessive and was often hilariously, unintentionally funny. When I listened more closely, I discovered Clarice Bean wasn't a quirky new classmate. She was literally a character. Every day my daughter's grade five classroom would beg their teacher: read more Clarice Bean. My daughter and I spent the rest of the year collecting and reading Lauren Child's series: Utterly Me, Clarice Bean, Clarice Bean Spells Trouble and Clarice Bean, That's Me. Child was a featured guest at the recent Emirates Airline International Festival of Literature in Dubai, packing a full house of parents and kids in a ballroom at the Intercontinental Hotel. Huge video screens displayed the first scribbly versions of Clarice (Child is both writer and illustrator). "I wrote about a girl, just because I was a girl," she told the audience, admitting later that she thinks of Clarice Bean "as being a real girl". So apparently do her readers. Interviewed by e-mail, Child wrote that "the main thing the girls tell me is, 'I am just like Clarice.'" It's hard not to identify with Clarice Bean. In a rush of words - some of which are made up, like exceptionordinarily - Clarice takes us straight into the life of her family and her worried little soul. In Don't Look Now, the latest novel, an older Clarice deals with change, and the heartbreak of her best friend moving away. Is Clarice tougher emotionally than, say, Ramona Quimby in Beverly Cleary's series from the 1970s? Perhaps the girls in today's books just express themselves, their needs and their desires, differently. They have an emotional vocabulary not available to Louisa May Alcott's or Lucy Maude Montgomery's characters. Still, Child herself acknowledges the heroines of her own childhood reading. "I remember some of my childhood books, characters like Anne of Green Gables and Pippi Longstocking, Laura from Little House on the Prairie, Mary Lennox from The Secret Garden. And I would say they are extremely gutsy girl characters with interesting personalities - both profound and funny." Gutsy, interesting, funny and profound. The female characters that the girls at AISA love so dearly fit the description. "She has really bad luck," says Laila, grade six, of Jinx, a creation of Meg Cabot. "But she doesn't really care what other people think." "And Violet in The Series of Unfortunate Events is really unlucky, really smart and really inventive," adds Fatemeh, grade six. Mathilde, grade five, has been waiting patiently to speak. "Rules," she says, "is about a girl who has an autistic brother. You think in the beginning that it's going to be about how she copes with him, but it ends up being more about her getting on with her own life and challenges." Perhaps, at the end of any story, that takes the greatest courage of all. And whether it's Jo in 1868 or Jinx in 2008, she's probably up to the job.

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