children’s books from feminist readers: the other Molly

A guest post by my friend Molly Remer, who is in my head “the other Molly.” She is, among other things, a doctoral student focusing on women’s spirituality, a childbirth educator, an ordained priestess, a college instructor, and a homeschooling mother. Molly writes at Talk Birth.

a beloved book from childhood

Books have always been a huge part of my life, and I have many favorite and noteworthy books from my childhood. When considering the question though, one quartet immediately came to mind since two of my children are in fact named after one of the characters–the same character, no less! The Song of the Lioness quartet by Tamora Pierce is the tale of Alanna, who disguises herself as a boy in order to train as a knight. Alanna is a very kick-ass girl, and though she is small and petite, she learns to be an awesome knight, in fact the very best. She develops close friendships with the other squires while managing to guard her secret from most, even through the changes of puberty, until her final test of knighthood. These books have magic and battles and bullies and evil sorcerers and a talking cat and a Great Mother Goddess who takes a special interest in Alanna.

I always imagined naming my own daughter Alanna. When I found out midway through my first pregnancy that I was having a boy, we actually ended up deciding to name him Lann–apparently a Celtic word for “sword,” conveniently snagged right from the middle of my favorite name AND connecting to the name of a character in one of my husband’s favorite series of books from his own adolescence: in The Wheel of Time, the serious, protective “Warder” evoking images of Strider from Lord of the Rings is named Lan. This name for our first son was the most carefully chosen and considered of our children’s names and still feels like our best pick.

During my second pregnancy I thought, “oh no! If this baby is a girl, I won’t be able to name her Alanna now!” It was obviously ridiculous to have both a Lann and Alanna, so we decided to shift the pronunciation and spelling and chose Alaina as our girl’s name instead. I knew the whole time that I was having a boy though, he told me over and over in dreams that his name was Zander (and, yes, we were Buffy fans) and so his name is Zander and Alaina waited …

It felt odd to me to “save” the name and recycle it during another pregnancy, but save it I did, and my Alaina was born in 2011, finally fulfilling my girlhood imagining of having a daughter named after my favorite book series!

what that says about that child

It tells me that I’m very persistent ;) I also like looking back and seeing that this book encapsulated values and ideas about women that I internalized. I always love seeing the slender thread of connection that weaves its way from childhood into my present life. The Alanna books are very feminist tales. And imagery of the Goddess and her role is very potent in the books. Alanna protests the injustice of women being denied knighthood and ends up changing society. She defends those in need, stands up to bullies, and is a gifted healer as well as an unmatched warrior.

Something I did not really notice as a girl, but that warms my present-day feminist sensibilities, is that Alanna is also in control of her own sexuality. She obtains birth control when needed and ends up “sharing her bedroll” with several men during the course of later books, with no sense of “shame” about doing so without being married. There is no whiff of virginity being a precious treasure to be guarded at all costs and to be regretfully or significantly “given” to one special man. It was a surprise to me when re-visiting the books during my pregnancy with Alaina, that present-day Amazon reviews are packed with “shocked” mothers saying they would never have their daughters read these books because Alanna is so “immoral” or, that it bothers them that she is held up as the heroine and as someone with strong morals, when she, gasp, has “casual sex” with more than one person and without being married. In case anyone is now thinking these are soft-core porn books for the twelve year old girl set, don’t worry, the bedroll sharing scenes are extremely minimal, infrequent, and very non-explicit, essentially just passing references … hmm, normal rather than sinful OR excessively romanticized.

I’ve noticed that books set in the medieval-fantasy era for adults often include fairly heinous victimizations of the main female characters, which they then overcome to become kick-ass. The Alanna books have no such sexual victimization of the main character. She faces many trials and does not emerge unscathed, but she is never raped or threatened with it, and I appreciate that, since I tire of how common that story angle seems to be with strong, female characters in fantasy fiction.

a children’s book worth sharing enthusiastically now

I had a bit of a hard time with this question. My habit of reading to my boys every night at bedtime slipped after Alaina was born, and I’ve only read a handful of novels to them during the last two years. That makes me really sad as well as feel bad about myself. Reading, and being read to, were integral, formative influences on my childhood, and I don’t want my kids to be missing that same opportunity.

As a result of this question and my feelings, I bought several more kids’ books on Kindle and have started reading aloud to the boys every night again. While we are currently reading Alanna as a result of the questions above, I also bought and am reading the second book in a series that my boys love–and so that is my recommendation now. Eve Hallows and the Book of Shrieks (and Eve Hallows and the Books of Shadows) is about a human girl adopted as an infant by monsters and raised in the monster world, in which Halloween is the major holiday, chocolate donuts are the healthiest breakfast, calling something “adorable” is an insult, and one’s mother can be a gorgon and one’s brother a ghoul. Eve is smart and funny, and she investigates and takes care of mysterious situations. She makes friends with humans and monsters both and is capable of “saving the day” when called upon, but not alone, because there is a subtext of “counting on your friends” as well. The concepts this book enjoys playing with and twisting around are not notions of sex roles or gender, but human versus monster and what makes something “monstrous” or not. It is presented as very normal that Eve is the main character, without cutting boys down (as some contemporary stories with girl main characters seem to need to do) or calling particular attention to the fact that she is a girl at all—no need to make a big scene about having a “kick ass girl” in the lead, she just IS.

what that says about this reader’s evolution

I still seek out stories with girls in leadership or heroic roles, and I prefer to read my own kids things that just don’t make a big deal about the sex of the main character, that are non-gendered in their presentation (i.e. Eve Hallows‘s black cover has nothing to indicate that the book is intended for “boys” or for “girls”).

My primary lesson from this exercise, though, was more about how my own children’s lives have a different orientation from mine. Their first pick of activity is Minecraft or drawing or live-action play, where mine was always reading. I don’t know if it is a function of personality or of time and place, but books are playing a much less central role in their childhoods than mine thus far, and I have struggled with that, felt disturbed by that, and felt guilty about that. My ideals about the “best” activities for children–i.e. reading equals “good” and a productive use of time whereas “screens” equal “bad” or wasteful/nonproductive–have been challenged and refined by living with my boys (and their dad!) and their attraction to, investment in, and relationship with technology and computer games. I’ve come to see that computer game play can actually be more cooperative, relationship-building, interactive, and imaginative than solitary time with a book. And who am I really, to decree that books as a solitary, often-isolationist/escapist leisure pursuit are more “worthwhile” than playing their favorite computer game together … I certainly wouldn’t have appreciated someone taking my Alanna books away from me and telling me I needed to do something “real” with my time instead. What on earth would I have named my kids?!

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  1. Posted 3 May 2013 at 10:49 PM | Permalink

    Fun that you scheduled it on my birthday! :)

    • Molly
      Posted 3 May 2013 at 10:52 PM | Permalink

      And a very happy birthday to you! Hope you’ve had a great day with your family.

  2. Sarah
    Posted 4 May 2013 at 12:17 AM | Permalink

    I loved reading the Alanna books! I remember feeling like I’d found such an awesome secret when I started reading them. Thanks for the reminder, I’ll have to read them again.

2 Trackbacks

  • [...] Then, on my birthday last week, my contribution to a series of guest posts by feminist readers about children’s books appeared on First the Egg: [...]

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