Totally invented or – um – slightly real?

I posted this on Girls Heart Books last month, so as keen recycler, here it is for a slightly different audience…

GirlsHeartBooks

Whenever I’m asked if I base my characters on real people I always reply firmly ‘Nooo!’ But when I was creating a key character in my next book, I found my knowledge of a real person creeping in. Not someone I actually know, but a girl who lived in Victorian times, when the book is set.

Agnes Glass is one of the leads in The Dangerous Discoveries of Gully Potchard. To start with all I knew was that she was lonely and isolated, over-protected and ‘in delicate health’, as they used to say. I tend not to work out everything in advance. Once I begin writing I find that the characters muscle in of their own accord, giving me information about themselves that I’m not necessarily expecting. (I love this aspect of writing!)

When I wrote Agnes’s first scene, it suddenly became clear that her favourite time of day is when…

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Shock horror! All animals are boys!!

After I’d chosen my Top 10 Animals in Children’s Books I realised that all of them – every single animal I loved and sometimes heavily identified with – were male. And I hadn’t noticed, not at the time of reading the books they appear in (and sometimes reading them over and over) nor when I chose them for my blogpost.

But although I’m embarrassed to find that I’ve totally ignored and left out female animals, I discover it’s easily done. It seems that male is the default setting for animals in literature everywhere, and male characters not only dominate the cast-lists in children’s fiction but usually take the biggest and most exciting parts too. This was true not only in my childhood, and long before (Beatrix Potter* and Kenneth Grahame were first published around 1900 and A. A. Milne’s children’s books in the 1920s) but right through the 20th century. And now we’re in the 21st apparently it’s not much better.

Here is some lovely low-tech research carried out this year by Rhino Reads in response to the question “Why are crocodiles only boys?” April | 2013 | Rhino Reads

In another post Rhino Reads talks of reading Dear Zoo many times before spotting that the zoo has nothing but male animals. (And a very unsuccessful breeding programme, I imagine!) And I’ve done just the same, even though I credit myself with being fairly aware and usually not letting people get away with sloppy gender stereotyping.

Around the same time Alison Flood wrote an article about recent research from Florida State University here Study finds huge gender imbalace in children’s literature | Books | theguardian.com

And some detailed research from 2007 – Gender Stereotyping and Under-representation of Female Characters in 200 Popular Children’s Picture Books: A 21st Century Update – is here http://www.centre.edu/web/news/2007/2/gender.html

So I’d have had to search far and wide to find key and beloved female animals. What seems odd to me is that

  1. I didn’t notice, so used am I to males being given the lead roles, those the reader expects to identify with, and to all-male cohorts of characters.
  2. I had no problem identifying with all these boys as a young girl reader.

*To be fair to Beatrix Potter, she did give us Jemima Puddleduck and Mrs Tiggie-Winkle and more, but her male characters by far outnumber her female ones.

The Library of My Childhood

A Traveler In Time by Alison Uttley Puffin paperback

For some reason, I possess only two or three of the books from my own childhood: a couple of well-worn and well-loved Winnie The Pooh hardbacks and – somewhere – a Beatrix Potter. In the loft there’s a box of picture books my children had, but we couldn’t keep everything, and I have a horrible feeling that the paperback chapter books all went to school bookstalls and jumble sales. I keep hoping that there is another box in the far stretches of the loft, but so far it evades us.

So I have decided to try and restock the library of my childhood – mostly the fiction I read on my own – and I’m gradually acquiring random E Nesbits and Just William books, Narnia and Noel Streatfeild, Rosemary Sutcliff and Green Knowe. I’ve also picked up a few titles I always meant to read and somehow never did. The only problem will be deciding what to read first.

Here is my latest find, A Traveller In Time by Alison Uttley. My best friend read it then lent it to me when we were about 11 or 12, and we both fell in love with its mix of time-slip mystery, genuine history, and the dash of romance along the way.