Don’t Be Duped: Sure-Fire Ways To Spot A Well-Written Book Or Story
By: R.J. Nimmo
"Here's a good list," my friend and mum-to-be, Charlotte, informed me, reading from a Web site on the Internet.
"It's an annual list of recommended feminist books for youth. Compiled by a project that 'recognizes notable children's books with 'strong, identifiable female characters'."
Hearing that, alarm bells started ringing and I said as much to Charlotte who looked at me, frowning.
"But this is exactly the sort of thing you advocate though, isn't it?" she asked uncertainly.
Well, not quite. (It's actually the opposite of what I advocate.) Clearly, clarification was in order. I sat down with her and reviewed the site. At the risk of appearing to contradict my own stance on gender bias in kids books, I found this 'feminist' (their term, not mine) book list all rather unfortunate.
It was not that I found the obviously good intentions behind the idea unfortunate. What was unfortunate was that this 'project' had evidently concluded that children's story heroes were so polarized between 'strong female characters' and male characters that compiling and publishing such a list was necessary.
Charlotte still seemed none the wiser. I explained. Yes, I wholeheartedly champion books with female heroes, but only where the story dictates they are the appropriate choice. I actively condemn books and stories where heroes are clearly chosen for reasons other than achieving the primary goal of the fiction writer, which is to use characters to fulfill a dramatic purpose.
That is the difference between me and the direction implied by the feminist book list. The wider implications are worth examining.
Such a list of 'feminist books for youth' is clearly redundant; what is worrying is the fact that a reputedly enlightened lobby feels that this is not so. My real concern is: to whom is such a list aimed, and why? Moreover, would readers, particularly younger ones, be any better off for having armed themselves with such a potentially divisive list of 'preferred' hero choices?
I doubt it. It is important to understand that neither implicit nor explicit bias in kids' books is acceptable or productive. Publishing such a list can, if unintentionally, serve to widen a chasm that divides boys and girls where kids' books, stories and entertainments are concerned. It can prove not only unproductive, but potentially counter-productive in communicating a wider message of gender equity. It sets an implied precedent. Despite the best intentions, championing a book because it has 'strong female characters' is no more valid than condemning a book that portrays male characters as strong, independent and assertive. This is because diversity of character traits when examined in a story context that serves a higher dramatic purpose is consistent with overall goals of gender equity anyway.
In other words, if you choose books that are well written with well-rounded characters and stories then the issue of gender will be subordinate to the enjoyment of the book; just beneath the surface, but subtly there all the same
Using the above criteria, then, 2 sure-fire ways to tell if a fiction book is well-written are by ensuring:
Ethical and intellectual ideas bubble to the surface of well-told stories populated by believable heroes with carefully chosen character traits that obey story needs (and not an author's superimposed agenda). An author should handle deeper issues by allowing them to rise out of well plotted stories and dramatic situations. (Hint: when this is done well, the reader should not be aware of it!)
Issues surrounding gender equity arise in a similar way to the above; that is, not overtly but in the subtext of the story. Belabouring subtext is the hallmark of poor writing (and worse film making), and hence the reader will be unreceptive to the deeper message.
In a nutshell, a well-written hero will appeal universally to all ages and genders, regardless of the gender, or for that matter, regardless of whether the hero is even human at all.
What do I mean by this? I am taking my cue here from the continuing popularity of books and stories where animals with human-like characteristics are the central characters. Talking animals have a long history in entertainment from classical mythology to the Cheshire cat in Alice in Wonderland to modern kids' books, comics, cartoons and animated features. They repeat simple, universal themes in an entertaining fashion, thus explaining their enduring appeal.
Think about it: would anyone argue that 'Jonathan Livingston Seagull' is any less worthwhile a book for preferring a non-human over a human (of any gender) as the protagonist? No pressure group or public watchdog has ever stepped in to point out the 'animal bias' implicit in such entertainment. By the same token, you don't find overly earnest 'animalist' sites on the web compiling lists of 'strong bird characters' with Richard Bach picking up the gong?
My point is that successful stories are not about the choice of the hero, but have more to do with the choice of the hero's character traits. The issue surrounding the choice of gender in story heroes is skewed only because it is currently such an emotive issue, hijacked by special interest groups that threaten to plunge kids' books and stories deep down into a bottomless pit of political correctness.
My advice? Compiling lists is for grocery shopping, not for gender preferences in literature.
Young adult and children’s entertainment expert R.J. Nimmo is the author of The Ancient Egyptian Ennead, the latest young adult fantasy novel to be published in the 6-book Mustard Twins series. He has been featured in national and daily newspapers articles, discussing the influences of popular entertainment on children and young adults. He is currently living in London, England. Visit him at http://www.coolkidzread.com/.