A Mighty Need

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I love a good list, and I’m a sucker for book competitions. So I was excited to see that the New Zealand Post Children’s Book Award finalists have been named.

I was not excited to read some of the conclusions of the judging panel (Bernard Beckett, author of the very clever Genesis, Lynn Freeman from Radio New Zealand National, and children’s literature expert and author Eirlys Hunter). As well as saying that many excellent stories were let down by insufficient editing or poor design – so didn’t make the cut – the panel said:

We were also surprised to see how few strong female characters there were in these pages. Young girls are in danger of seeing themselves once again as serving only decorative roles in stories, and we hope this is more a blip than the beginning of a retrograde trend.

Remind me what year we’re in? 2013, right? Ach!

If you are a children’s book reader or buyer, you may want to check out A Mighty Girl, a resource site dedicated to showcasing all kinds of media (but especially books) that feature strong, capable, inspiring girls and women. Our boys and our girls need to be exposed to them.

I thought I’d take this opportunity, too, to get some discussion going on your favourite New Zealand books (fiction and non-fiction; picture books up to young adult) where girls and women have more than ‘decorative roles.’

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Off the top of my head, I really love:

  • The Changeover, a young adult/senior fiction book by Margaret Mahy – and indeed, all of Mahy’s work comes from an assumption of gender equality, as well as infinite imagination.
  • Clubs, by Kate de Goldi and Jacqui Colley, a previous winner of the NZ Post book awards, and the first in a series of Lolly Leopold picture books about school life, with a supporting role for a remarkable schoolteacher, Ms Love.

Moata, blogging on Stuff, writes this about reading The Changeover as a kid:

If you’d asked me at the time what if anything I had “learnt” from that book, I would probably have said “to avoid creepy old men who run antiques shops” or at a push “to trust your instincts”. But now that some time has passed, what I understand is that what I really learned from that book, what Margaret Mahy was good enough to want to teach me, was that a part-Māori girl living in the Christchurch ‘burbs could still be the heroine of her own story. She could be brave and scared but achieve extraordinary things.

It’s a sad fact that some kids, particularly Māori kids, don’t have that self-belief. That you can be things. You can do things. Most important, that you can save yourself.

I didn’t know what I wanted to be then. Even with my notoriously good English grades, being a writer wasn’t something that I imagined was possible for me. That didn’t even occur to me until I was well into adulthood but I think that Margaret Mahy (along with my family and some of my teachers) helped sow the seeds of self-belief in that book that would eventually lead me to try things that seemed a bit impossible. And that doing those things led me here.

We need Mighty Girls in literature. We need Mighty Boys too, of course. It’s just that there really are quite a lot of them already on the shelves.

Your turn: New Zealand children’s books that are Mighty, please!

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0 comments on “A Mighty Need”

  1. Frank Reply

    Hmmm picture books are hard, because so many of the ones I like are about animals! But a special shout out to Duck’s stuck – because the rat who saves the day is female. I remember being slightly surprised the first time I read it that she was a she! And another recommendation to Barnaby Bennett by the lovely Hannah Rainforth – although the only young girl is called Sissy Girl, Barnaby’s Nan who whips up a wondrous creation is herself a wondrous creation. And of course the Man Whose Mother Wanted to be a Pirate.
    Young adult books are a lot easier. Here’s my non-exhaustive list:
    Under the Mountain, The World Around the Corner and The Halfmen of O by Maurice Gee
    The Dreamhunter series by ELizabeth Knox
    Hunter and Bow Down Shadrach by Joy Cowley
    No Safe Harbour by David Hill
    The Alex series and Night Race to Kawau by Tessa Duder
    Kaitangata Twitch by Margaret Mahy
    Juno of Taris and I am not Esther by Fleur Beale
    The Tomorrow Code and Maddy West by Brian Falkner
    The Lake by Jack Lasenby
    There are two more that i can’t for the life of me remember the names of, but were pivotal in my childhood! Maybe someone will recognise them. One was set during the war and a young girl convinced her younger siblings to hide when her family went for a holiday on an island near Auckland because she thought the Japanese were going to invade. The other was a dystopian back before they became cool, in this world their was a hierarchy based on looks where Women were at the top and people with blue eyes at the bottom. Anyone know the names of them?

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