Tag Archives: gender stereotypes

Book Review: The Western Tradition and Transgression in The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland

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9781250010193

The title of Catherynne M. Valente’s first in the Fairyland series, The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making, led me to expect a loud and wonderfully brazen feminism. That was not what I got from the story, but I was perhaps even more pleased. I am only as I’m writing this review realizing how feminist the text truly is.

Valente deals in the subversion of stereotypes male and female most prominently in the characters of September (female) and Saturday (male).

The protagonist, September, has long hair, wears a dress, uses the pronoun “she,” and before she leaves home is assigned the chore of washing dishes (all acts stereotypically assigned to women). She is Ravished, carried off by the Green Wind in the manner of Persephone by Hades, taking their another female role, but deprived of her escort, she must take on the hero’s role in her adventure. She uses the jewels from a scepter to buy her passage on her first quest: to steal back a witch’s Spoon from the Marquess, the despotic ruler of Fairyland. The Spoon she keeps for herself on the subsequent quests. The Spoon belonging to a female witch and through its association with the historically and stereotypically female domain of the kitchen and the act of cooking is feminine but it acts in its function as a weapon in a more masculine sphere. September wields the Spoon like a cudgel to break apart a lobster cage, like a grappling hook with which she wrangles an animate bicycle. Conquering her own Death, she wins a new weapon: a sword that manifests as her mother’s wrench. Her mother is an airplane mechanic while her father is away at the battlefront (of World War II), so September follows in a family tradition of women transgressing the feminine sphere to step into the masculine one in the absence of men.

September’s companion, Saturday, is rescued by September from the Marquess, taking the role of the damsel in the tower in the Western fairytale myth. He is quiet, gentle, pacifist, and emotionally vulnerable rather than exuding stereotypical masculine strength and emotional restraint of the Western myth of masculinity. He takes a backseat to September’s heroism, is rescued far more often than he rescues, and at one point presents September with a favor in the tradition of women to knights before battle.

September moves from a more feminine sphere, being Ravished and wielding a Spoon, to a more traditionally masculine sphere, being compared to a knight on a quest, saving others, being the hero, and wielding a sword-wrench, but all of these things without the world are more feminine. It is the Western tradition that she transgresses and not the world’s gender stereotypes, and that is why this is an important feminist book. What September does, the masculine roles she inhabits are not masculine, not feminine, but non-gendered in the world. This is the feminism of equality, the best and paragon of feminism.

There are several other characters transgressing stereotypes that I could examine.  I could rave about Valente’s answer to body shaming, her call to respect the elderly, the deviances from the man-woman marriage (two women, one man-wairwulf witch, then the Nasnas who are probably a paper in themselves and a reference to Plato besides)….

But I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the language of this book. The language is beautiful. It is comparable to Patrick Rothfuss’, particularly to Patrick Rothfuss writing in the voice of Auri in The Slow Regard of Silent Things. As Pat with Auri, much of what Valente says as narrator of this book (and she is a very present narrator throughout the text) seems outlandish but rings true nonetheless. This is the truth stripped of its science. This is the truth we saw before science. And it’s beautiful. Its fresh and timeless. It is the language of wonder and young eyes.

*****

Valente, Catherynne M.  Fairyland, Book 1: The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of her Own Making.  Illus. Ana Juan.  New York: Square Fish-Macmillan, 2012.  Originally published 2011.

This review is not endorsed by Catherynne M. Valente, Ana Juan, Square Fish, Macmillan, or Fiewel and Friends, the Macmillan imprint that originally published the book.  It is an independent, honest review by a reader.

If you’re thinking of purchasing an e-reader copy of this book, why not support me and purchase it through Bookgrail, a new site that let’s you support book reviewers with your purchases?

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Book Reviews: January Picture Book Roundup: Part One

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I read a lot of picture books this January, and so I’ve decided to break the roundup into two parts.

Big Snow by Jonathan Bean.  Farrar, Straus and Giroux-Macmillan, 2013.  Intended audience: Ages 3-6.

The illustrations in this one are pretty fantastic, so detailed, so realistic—not just in style, but also in not whitewashing the neighborhood or the surrounding town.  Speaking of whitewashing, a reader on Goodreads commented about how this is an African American family—and that was the first that I’d taken notice of it.  This is an African American in a book with no social message or message of equality.  Better still, Jonathan Bean himself is not African American.  The story is every child’s experience of watching snow fall (and though it’s not explicitly stated in the story) waiting to see if the snow will be deep enough for snowy play like sledding.  It’s a story with which any child can empathize.  The mother distracts her son with household chores and baking.  The father comes home to play with him.  The only thing I can really complain about in this story is that the mother was home, cooking and cleaning, while the father was out at work—but isn’t that the typical American experience.  It would have been a nice choice to break the gender stereotype since Bean so nicely broke the whitewashed vision of the American family.  I do appreciate though that this is a family with both mother and father present and active and interested in the child’s life.

****

The Artist Who Painted a Blue Horse by Eric Carle.  Philomel-Penguin, 2013.  First published 2011.  Intended audience: Ages 3-5.

I think most people know Eric.  The Hungry Caterpillar left quite an imprint on my childhood, though not as great an imprint as did the illustrations of Bill Martin Jr.’s Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See? et al.  I was sadly unimpressed by The Artist Who Painted a Blue Horse.  The prose would have benefited from more zest, though I approve of Carle’s message that a good artist is not necessarily one who sticks to reality, promoting creative thinking and creativity, prompting children to put away enforced ideas of correct and incorrect.  At the same time that message seems self-aggrandizing even though the artist at the end of the book does not look like present-day Carle (it might be a boy Carle).

**1/2

The Grouchy Ladybug by Eric Carle.  HarperCollins, 1996.  First published 1977.  Intended audience: Ages 4-8.

In retrospect, this was not a story I ought to have chosen for story hour.  It begins with two ladybugs who want to eat the same leafful of aphids.  Now aphid is a strange word, so I thought I had better explain it.  And then I realized what was going to happen to the aphids, and I wished that I hadn’t called them “baby bugs.”  And this whole story is about a ladybug that wants to fight—not exactly a great role model.  I tuned my voice to make the ladybug sound at least like it wanted to pick a fight for fun, for the challenge, the way a kid might ask, “You wanna race?”  In retrospect, I may have learned my lesson at least about screening Carle books before I take them to story hour.  As a story hour book too, the clocks in the top corner of the pages were nearly invisible to the children.  I explained where the hands were on the clock faces, at least at first, and was able to work that explanation pretty easily into the prose, but I didn’t really think any of them were there to learn to tell time and stopped after the first few pages.  Also, analog clocks are disappearing, though I think they are still more often in classrooms than digital clocks, so maybe it will be something that they’ll need to learn.  Reading this book makes me feel old.  Not only because of the analog clocks but also because of the political correctness that makes me wonder if such a violent little ladybug would have made it past an editor today.  The kids did pick up on Carle’s lesson that you shouldn’t be mean and that you should share, but it seemed like there were few pages on that.  Most of the pages were devoted instead to the grouchy ladybug asking larger and larger animals if they wanted to fight then dismissing each as too small—and I think at least one my kids was frustrated by the ladybug’s idiocy (she kept commenting that she was pretty sure this or that animal was large enough).  It made a better bestiary than a story it seemed to me as I read the same few words over and over with a slight variation.  That being said, that repetition can be very lulling.  I found it very easy to read and to play instead with my inflection than focus on the words when I was caught up in the repetition.

*1/2

What’s Your Favorite Animal? edited by Eric Carle.  Contributed to be Eric Carle, Nick Bruel, Lucy Cousins, Susan Jeffers, Steven Kellogg, Jon Klassen, Tom Lichtenheld, Peter McCarty, Chris Raschka, Peter Sís, Lane Smith, Erin Stead, Rosemary Wells, and Mo Willems.  Henry Holt and Co.-Random, 2014.  Intended audience: Ages 4-8 (Grades Pre-K-3).

As a student and lover of children’s literature, I personally loved this book.  Some of the illustrations in this are amazing.  A lot of the memoirs are truly sweet and endear readers towards either the animal or the author.  Some of the poetry was humorous.  The book provided an interesting view into the minds and lives of some of my favorite illustrators.  The kids at my story hour were less enthralled.  I knew more of the illustrators than they did (many of them having not recently produced any bestsellers), and taken all together, this is a long book.  The eldest of my story hour friends was maybe eight.  Much beyond eight, it’s hard to see a child being thrilled with being read any picture book.  This book lacks the cohesion that can hold a younger child’s attention.  There’s not a story.  There’s no conflict.  The book includes flash memoirs, poetry, and cartoon panels of facts about octopi.  I think only the one (Nick Bruel’s) got a laugh out of any of my friends and that because of Bruel’s interaction with Bad Kitty, a familiar face for some of the kids, I’m sure, and the humor of Bruel’s entry.  Bruel’s didn’t read very well aloud, though, I thought.  There were so many individual panels and I don’t know how many of my friends were able to follow my eyes across the pages as I read.

****

Knight Time by Jane Clark and illustrated by Jane Massey.  Red Fox-Random House UK, 2009.

I loved this book, though I was biased towards it from the beginning as the cover was of an adorable towheaded young knight and a young dragon, each looking terrified into the dark forest.  Towheads and dragons, how could I not love this book?  It was cute in the way that I expected.  The knight fears dragons.  The dragon fears knights.  They meet and become friends after each seeing that the other is not so frightening.  I did not anticipate the inclusion of the knight’s and dragon’s fathers.  Both wander into the woods looking for their fathers and are each found by the other’s father.  The book is lift-a-flap.  If anything this made the book too interesting, too intriguing, too busy, but I loved that there was so much to look at and explore in this adventure.

****

Smile, Pout-Pout Fish by Deborah Diesen and illustrated by Dan Hanna.  Farrar, Straus and Giroux-Macmillan, 2014.  Intended audience: Ages 1-4 (Grade Pre-K).

I’ve never read the original Pout-Pout Fish so I think this book meant less to me than it is supposed to.  I think this would be fun to quote at young kids.  “Smile, Mr. Fish.  You look so down, with your glum-glum face and pout-pout frown.”  Followed immediately by, “Hey, Mr. Grumpy Gills.  When life gets you down do you know what you gotta do?”  I do dislike that the implication seems to be that a peck on the cheek by a strange should illicit a smile from someone who’s down.  I don’t really think that’s true, and I’m not sure it’s something that we should be teaching our children.

 **

Little Owl’s Orange Scarf by Tatyana Feeney.  Knopf-Random, 2013.

The trick is in the details with this one.  There’s a lot of humor from a careful inspection of Feeney’s illustrations, from the attempts of Little Owl to send his orange scarf to Peru to how he finally rids himself of the hated scarf.  While I sympathized with Little Owl’s plight and I really want to like this book even more than I do, I had a kid pipe up during story hour that he liked orange, and there’s was such sadness and hurt in his tone.  The scarf of course could be hated for being any color, and Feeney had to choose some color. There’s something so implicitly realistically childlike about Owl’s dislike of the scarf not only because it’s too long and scratchy but especially because it’s orange.  It reminds me of friends who hated and refused to wear anything pink simply for its color—and I’m glad that Feeney chose a color other than pink.  Pink would have seemed cliché.

***1/2

Buzz, Buzz, Baby!: A Karen Katz Lift-the-Flap Book by Karen Katz.  Little Simon-Simon & Schuster, 2014.  Intended audience: Ages 1-4.

This lift-a-flap book is all about insects and bugs—perfect the adventurous and outdoorsy child in your family.  Katz’s protagonists are not strictly male even though the book is about bugs.  Katz’s illustrations and the use of flaps are what really appealed to me in this book.  The insects peek out from behind foliage making it easy to see where a child being read too could be prompted for an answer to the questions that the text poses.  The colors are bright—as are all of Katz’s.  Rhymes help with the rhythm of the text.

****

Book Review: Tooth and Claw Tears Into Social Conventions

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Some spoilers.

I first read Jo Walton’s Tooth and Claw for a graduate class in children’s literature entitled Men, Women, and Dragons: Gender and Identity in Fantasy Literature.  I raved about it then to anyone who would listen, including the professor’s wife.  This January I reread it I’m pretty sure for at least the second time.  It has safely wedged itself in among some of my favorite books.  It won’t ever offer me the thrill of Riordan’s books nor the fandom and life experiences of Rowling’s, but it might find very good company among Sharon Shinn’s Twelve Houses series.

Jane Yolen describes Tooth and Claw as Pride and Prejudice with dragons, though I have been corrected to think of it as Trollope with dragons (in her author’s note Walton cites Framley Parsonage) and have, since being corrected, longed to settle down with an inexpensive and not too lengthy book of Trollope’s but have yet to have the pleasure.

So I can’t compare Tooth and Claw to Trollope, but I can compare it to Pride and Prejudice and odds are that more of you will understand that comparison better anyway, Austen being more often assigned and having been made into more mainstream movies than Trollope.  Tooth and Claw holds all of the romance of an Austen novel with quirky heroines who aim to find themselves a comfortable home with a man whom they love and who loves them back and run into difficulty because of their social statuses and the finicky framework of their society.  The heroines find heroes of a higher social class and excellent character.  They are exposed along the way to men of less excellent character, even an annoying parson very like Mr. Collins.  Like Austen, the story explores gender inequality, social convention and faux pas, and the differences between the upper echelons and the country estates and parsonages.  Where the story strays from Austen is in the exploration of the fixture of servitude and classism within the society, the theater of the court system, the fallibility of a church, and race relations, and in the inherent violence of dragons.  Victorian-like rules rein in the violence and supposedly give pomp and ritual to it, but Austen explored very few duels, murders, or ritual cannibalism and euthanasia.

The story ends “And there […] we shall leave them to take refuge in the comfort of gentle hypocrisy” (292).  [SPOILER] It ends with all who deserve to getting a happier ending than they could have foretold and the most villainous dragon being defeated. [END SPOILER]  It was exactly the type of novel I needed to restore me when my once romantic silliness is slipping towards cynicism (it may not have been able to rescue me entirely from reality, but it made a good case for chivalry and the existence true love and companionship).

The well-written and –composed book plays host to a complex world of politics, religion, and social conventions both mirroring and deviating from our own and accounting for the differing biologies of men and dragons (which Walton expands by creating a biological meaning to the coloration of dragon scales).  It is not a fast-paced adventure, and if the reader is seeking such, she might seek elsewhere, but it is does not read at a snail’s pace to me, the text being clipped enough and enough adventures puncturing through the tête-à-têtes to keep the story rolling pleasantly at least at the pace of Pride and Prejudice if not faster.

*****

Walton, Jo.  Tooth and Claw.  New York: Tor, 2003.

This review is not endorsed by Jo Walton or Tor Doherty Associates, LLC.  It is an independent, honest review by a reader.

The latest editions of the book are published by Orb Books, an imprint of Macmillan Publishers.

Challenge: Legal Theft: The Unforeseen Trial of a Woman in Man’s Armor (903 words)

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I am a thief!  I stole this line from Gwen of Apprentice, Never Master.  Her original piece, “Run Away,” can be found on her blog now.  I actually did have this one ready yesterday, but then WordPress was acting up, I went out to enjoy friends’ company, and I came back exhausted after midnight.  So this is the legal theft that ought to have gone up Thursday, September 26.

Danneel looked down at the knife in her hands and the long, thin blade made her stomach twist.  When she had taken up her charade, she had thought only of the thunder of Sunflash’s hooves beneath her and the weight of the lance in her arms, the thrum of the wood as it struck its target, and the prizes that a victory would win her.  While a victory would have pleased her, it would have surprised her too, and she had hoped only to remain unhorsed, not to unhorse veteran knights.  Certainly she had not thought to wound any of them and certainly not enough that the knife would be put in her hands by his squire.

Perhaps Kellin had really been too old to joust.  Perhaps he had never fought against such a small knight (unlikely in a man of so many famous battles and bouts) and hadn’t been able to adjust his balance to counter the hit of her lance against his shield.  A small voice in the back of Danneel’s mind whispered, Sabotage, but she ignored it.  If a felony had been committed, it was not for her to suss out.

Kellin’s foot had caught in the stirrup as he fell, and the horse, spooked perhaps by the clanking of the armor or the sudden unexpected weight, had bolted.  The gray had gone perhaps seven good, long strides, Kellin’s head striking the ground with each stretch of the horse’s legs, before the weight had ultimately unbalanced the horse.  The gray had crashed down onto Kellin, who had been trod upon too while the horse struggled to rid itself of Kellin’s weight and right itself.  It was while the horse struggled that the squire and two of the watching and waiting knights had freed Kellin.  The gray had gone as far as Danneel knew, taking the knight’s saddlery and heraldic caparison with it to flaunt the knight’s defeat.

Kellin’s helmet had maybe saved him from immediate death, but he had been slow to come around.  The chest plate was badly dented from the horse’s hooves.  At least one dent may have been caused when the horse had put its weight upon the knight’s chest in trying to stand again.

“Do it,” the fallen Kellin croaked at Danneel.  Another spittle of blood boiled out of his lips on the command.

“You—”  Danneel cleared her throat, pitched her voice lower to better match a man’s tone.  “You could live.  With a surgeon’s help.”

Kellin jostled his head and winced.  “No,” he groaned.

“Do it,” the squire parroted.

“You’ll have to, my lord.”

This was her own squire, Dickie, whom she had taken into her confidence.  Of them all only he knew her secret.  At least only he would think less well of women for her hesitation.  But Dickie looked at her with pity now.  Danneel had a half-mad thought to hand the knife to Dickie to do the deed, but that would be seen as the greatest insult to Kellin and to all watching.

Danneel shut her eyes, took a breath, and knelt down beside Kellin.

Another mad thought crossed her mind, to lift her visor enough to kiss Kellin and at least let him leave the world with a woman’s kiss on his lips—as no doubt he would have liked to have gone if he could not have gone in war.  But with that kiss, he would take too the knowledge of his defeat by a woman’s lance.  It was a favor she could not bestow without bestowing too great embarrassment upon the knight.  She instead said, not bothering to mask her voice overly much in the whisper, “Would you like to watch, or shall I shut your visor again, Sir?”

“I will watch.”

Kellin was too proud.

“I will be quick,” Danneel promised.  “Remove his plate, squire,” she said to Kellin’s boy.

The squire was beside her quickly with his knees too in the dirt.  His fingers shook as he fumbled with the straps.  Danneel looked away to spare him the shame of having his fear spotted and to hide what little of her face was left exposed by the helmet too.

When the boy had done, Danneel said to him so that Kellin would hear, “You bring your master’s arms to his family.  The horse too if it can be caught.  He returns home with all that he brought with him.”

The squire nodded and backed away, holding the chest plate like a shield before him, as if it could protect him from the death about to come for his master.

Kellin’s chest exposed, Danneel took another deep breath and poised the knife above a weak point between two ribs.  It would still take two hands to drive the dagger down to his heart.

She whispered the ceremonial farewell, “Ride well in the sky, Sir Kellin,” and pushed with both hands.

Kellin had time only for a quick gasp before the loosed blood of his pierced heart drowned his life’s fire and blocked the light from his eyes.

She drew the blade out.  It emerged bloody.

And she dropped it in the dirt to cover her face with her shaking hands.

It wouldn’t be seemly for a man to cry on his knees in the jousting arena.  A woman who had just had to kill a great knight, an idol of her childhood, might be forgiven for it.