children’s books from feminist readers: Anna (part 2 of 2)

The second half of Anna’s guest post (part 1 is here).

a children’s book worth sharing enthusiastically now

I’ve already pitched Swallows and Amazons like it’s going out of style, so that would obviously be one. The other book I picked to talk about today is technically YA lit, but I discovered it for the first time at age twelve, so I decided it counts. Not a Swan (also known by the alternate title Just a Little Love Song) is another little-known novel by another English author, Michelle Magorian.

Set during World War II in a tiny coastal village, Not a Swan is a coming-of-age story about an adolescent girl named Rose, the youngest of three sisters who have been sent on summer holiday to the seaside while their mother is busy with war work. Feeling overshadowed by her older sisters, Rose is mourning the recent loss of her father (killed in action) and has just failed her exams meaning another year at a school she despises. Full of self-doubt, she dreams of being a writer but cannot imagine what stories she has to tell. Yet the girls’ newfound independence — free of parental and other adult oversight for the first time in their lives — encourage them to step off the narrow path their family (and class) has set for them. Diana, the eldest, falls in love with an “unsuitable” man (“not quite our class dear”), and Letty enlists as a Land Girl.

Rose, meanwhile, makes friend with a working class girl named Dot from the local confinement home for unwed mothers, and begins to muse about her own sexual desires. When she finds, in a locked room of the cottage, a secret memoir written by the previous tenant — “Mad Hilda” — and begins to read the life story of another upper class woman who defied convention for the sake of love and independence, Rose begins to question her self-assessment and wonder if both writing and romance aren’t beyond her grasp after all.

what that says about this reader’s evolution

I discovered Not a Swan on the cusp of my adolescence, on one of my first forays into the “young adult” section of our public library. At the time, I was into historical fiction in a major way, and was also obsessed with World War Two. I was a serious Anglophile (see: Arthur Ransome, E. Nesbit, C.S. Lewis, Brian Jacques, et. al.)  And I wanted to be a novelist. In short, Not a Swan felt like it had been written for me in more than one way.

book cover

the cover of Not a Swan bearing its alternate title, A Little Love Song

If I checked it out of the library because of keywords like writer, World War Two, and England, I kept checking it out over and over again because of another (and wholly unexpected) word altogether: sex. Not a Swan was one of the first novels I read that (scandalously! deliciously!) offered me a plot that turned on a young woman discovering her sexual agency. Without giving major plot elements away, I’ll try to sketch out a few key aspects of sex in Not a Swan. First, we have several women (Dot, Mad Hilda, Rose) who are sexual beings, and — ultimately — unapologetically so. Dot shocks Rose, at first, with her bawdy humor, her unmistakable pregnancy, and her frank descriptions of the pleasure she experienced with her boyfriend. Yet it is, in part, Rose’s friendship with Dot and her doula-like role during Dot’s labor, that gives her the courage to embrace her own body in positive and sexual ways. Hilda’s diaries offer another window into independent, sexually desiring womanhood, and Hilda’s own agency in the past leads (in ways I can’t detail here without spoilers) in some fairly direct ways to Rose’s ability to break free of familial expectation, sexual shame, and self-doubt into a young adulthood of self-direction, self-confidence, and sexual pleasure.

Rose herself, her sexual curiosity encouraged by what she learns of Hilda’s and Dot’s experience, first has a giddy flirtation and unenjoyable sexual debut with a young man who pressures her into sex for the wrong reasons, absent her own desire. This negative experience, though, rather than turning Rose away from sex, actually pushes her in the direction of sexual agency. She ultimately makes a romantic connection with a young veteran who encourages her both in her writing and in her sexual self-discovery — a friend whose support and openness creates an (emotional and literal) refuge within which she is able to find the courage to move forward of her own volition toward an unknown future.

Nowadays my taste for sexually-explicit literature is perhaps a bit more … explicit than the sex scenes in Not a Swan, but overall I think the core romantic narrative in Magorian’s tale has more than stood the test of time. As a twelve-year-old, Not a Swan modeled a vision of young adult sexual agency that didn’t require perfection. Rose experiences bad, awkward sex. One might even consider it rape, given the way she is emotionally manipulated into consenting. Yet this doesn’t stop her from going on to claim good, pleasurable, consensual sex — with a man who is a dear friend, and demonstrates throughout the novel that he understands her as a whole person, not just as a “girl” or potential lay.

Rose’s story was thrilling. It was hot. And I think in many ways, it either spoke to my kinks or helped form my kinks, because it I look at what erotic narratives I’m turned on by today many of them share the same themes. I read (and write) erotica where good sex is grounded in honest and open friendship and mutuality. Where sex and romantic relationships at their best enhance, rather than restrain, self-exploration and agency. Where people who are told they don’t have the right to own their sexuality and enjoy themselves as sexual beings defy convention and forge a life path that is meaningful to them and their loved one(s) — screw the opinion of Polite Society.

This either means I was an weirdly mature and radically-minded twelve-year-old … or that I haven’t matured much in the last twenty years! Or perhaps a bit of both.

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