Reading literature has always been considered a vital stage in early child development. As the function of literature changes and emphasis on its importance grows, I look at the thematic elements of both traditional and contemporary children’s literature which drum troubling ideas of sexism into our younger generations.
Since childhood I have always appreciated the importance of reading widely; my mother was always keen to encourage my enjoyment of reading, supplying me with endless numbers of brilliant chunky books as a child, some of which I still own today. One book which stands out in my memory is Winnie The Witch by Valerie Thomas. The sparky illustrations coupled with the comedic and warming storyline stand out as features which were at the forefront of my interest as a young girl. The short story follows Winnie, a witch who lives alone with her black cat Wilbur. As a child my interest resided in the fast paced narrative and humorous characters of Winnie and Wilbur, however Thomas’ book remains high in my esteem for its strong female protagonist and refutation of social family norms.
Winnie The Witch is a book with healthy messages throughout regarding Winnie’s appearance and lifestyle- she has leg hair, she is not classically beautiful and she does not go about any housewife duties during the story. Unlike a lot of children’s literature, Winnie lives alone without children or a partner. In comparison to another modern favourite The Tiger Who Came To Tea (Judith Kerr) which follows a male tiger who storms a vulnerable household (absent of Daddy), stealing all of the food and alcohol, leaving the vulnerable females to deal with the repercussions of Daddy’s non existent dinner. Analytically, the book focuses wholly on the nuclear family structure and traditional family roles, one could argue that Valerie Thomas made a deliberate move against this norm in her book, resulting in the creation of a strong and memorable female protagonist in Winnie. It is difficult to enjoy Kerr’s 1968 classic with a view to gender equality in children’s literature. Modern British culture is witness that Kerr creates an unrealistic structure within her book; while Daddy is out at work, Mummy and Sophie fall into incomprehensible crisis; “I don’t know what to do I’ve got nothing for daddy’s supper!”. The tiger also drinks all of Daddy’s beer highlighting the patriarchal structure in the family; from the outset of this story Kerr enforces prehistoric norms which are damaging to young children.
Aside from the literature itself, there is surely a responsibility on the education system to provide a variety of reading material for young people to read, where The Tiger Who Came To Tea is one of the most frequently mentioned books among some parenting websites, other works such as Winnie The Witch barely see a mention suggesting that the type of literature circulating is that which adheres to unrealistic social boundaries. Both the parenting and teaching rule book are constantly changing, which understandably results in a culture which is terrified to break away from these norms. In an age in which some political groups are blaming boys as young as 10 years old for the exploitation of women in pornography, one must question whether the discrimination buck is merely being passed on. If young children are exposed to such sexist literature before even their fifth birthday, can we honestly expect there to be any effective change in attitude towards the roles of both men and women?
The colossal impact that sexist literature can have on our younger generations is immense and unjustifiable. Of course, sexism is not the only dark mark on children’s literature, there is a severe failure by modern children’s novelists to create literature which accommodates for same sex and single parenting families. Having discussed this with a number of people, I have deduced that much of the reasoning behind this is market based; modern writers are not confident that parents will purchase books which refer to same sex parents or indeed single parents. With many parents arguing that “I am not in a gay relationship, why would I expose my child to one?” or “I think children are too young to know about gay relationships”, this is a saddening signpost in our society which only reinforces the difficulty young children will face in a changing world. It seems a cruelty to deprive young people of the full spectrum of literature, something which has definitely gone some way to guiding me through the political and social forestry of the modern world.