Stories fit for feminists – the early years

In Meg’s monthly blog, she’ll take a look at the wide range of books – from pre-school stories to the classic texts – that have inspired her as a feminist. 


Remember this?

The small girl smiles. One eyelid flickers.

She whips a pistol from her knickers.

She aims it at the creature’s head

And bang bang bang, she shoots him dead.

God, I loved those lines when I was little. Listening to Red Riding Hood – so cool! so clinical! – dispatch the wolf was a revelation for me after the sappiness of Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty and co.

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Roald Dahl’s Revolting Rhymes is just one of many glorious picture books which debunk the old Disney clichés: most recently, I’ve been steering my own proto-feminists (one female, one male) towards The Worst Princess (Anna Kemp and Sara Ogilvie) and The Paperbag Princess (Robert Munsch and Michael Martchenko).

But, sucker as I am for any story about girls who don’t fancy being locked in towers, I’ve come to think it might better if our children had a few prelapsarian years in which they are unaware that our story-culture likes to puts princesses (and almost by definition girls…) in towers in the first place.

bellaIf anyone encapsulates nonchalance in the face of patriarchal oppression, it is Bella, Dave’s big sister in Shirley Hughes’s masterpiece Dogger. Standing louchely in her groovy 70s clothes after winning the three-legged race with her friend Barbara, she remains for me the epitome of unselfconscious strength and grace.


There’s another Bella – less perfect but equally appealing – in My Big Shouting Day (Rebecca Patterson). She has an awesome bowl haircut, chubby knees, a shapeless toddler dress, and she’s in a filthy mood. Unlike her simpering baby brother or the prim, goodie-goodie girls at ballet, this Bella is an admirable antidote to niceness.

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I like to imagine her growing into Emily Brown (the heroine of the stories by Cressida Cowell and Neal Layton), who has guts, backbone, an imagination to die for, plus a similarly unprincessy hairstyle. Emily Brown can’t stand wetness, worrying, whinging or whining, but she understands that other people (or rather Things, silly naughty queens, mummy elephants and teddy bears) might occasionally succumb, and wastes no time putting everything to rights.

A little older again, and more real, is Mairi Hedderwick’s Katie Morag, who hurtles around a Scottish island paradise, drenched in dreamy watercolour, in big black boots. Much as I like Katie, I read her adventures mainly for the basalt-faced, dungaree-clad, no-nonsense Grannie Island – a strong female role model if ever there was one.

For something a little softer, I turn to Irene Haas’s beautiful Maggie B.

North Star, star of the sea,

I wish for a ship

Named after me,

To sail for a day

Alone and free,

With someone nice

For company.

Margaret gets her wish, and I love the way her adventure reflects the quiet rhythms of a young child’s life. The picture of her wrapping her baby brother (the someone nice) in a towel after his on-board bath reminds me how my own children’s play veers between fighting all sorts of baddies and cosseting all manner of babies.

I’ve also always appreciated how Julia Donaldson avoids what can be an automatic ‘he’ for non-human characters, especially in The Snail and the Whale. A snail travels the world on the tail of a whale, only to save him when he becomes stranded. Her courage—

The snail felt helpless and terribly small.

Then, ‘I’ve got it!’ she cried,

and started to crawl.

‘I must not fail,’

Said the tiny snail.

—brings me finally to my four favourites: Black Dog (Levi Pinfold), Outside Over There (Maurice Sendak), The Tunnel (Anthony Browne) and The Wolves in the Walls (Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean).

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They’re quite scary. Actually, scratch that, they’re really scary, but they are some of the most rewarding books we’ve read, showing girls at their tenacious best. And they mark a point of departure from bedtime stories populated by the familiar cast of cosy anthropomorphs, towards the more perilous adventures of Lucy and Titty, Lyra and Hermione, Katniss and Éowyn.

Of whom more next time …

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Meg Clothier
Meg is the author of two historical novels, The Girl King and The Empress, set in Georgia and Constantinople in the seriously pre-feminist 12th-century.