Tomboys and Little Pickles - Views of Childhood in Children's Fiction by Pauline Chandler

On Facebook this week, Guardian Teen Books was asking ‘Where are all the girls in adventure-ready trousers ’ in children’s books today. If you can think of any, they want to know.  Why? Thought we’d won that battle.

I recommended my battle-ready girls, Joan of Arc’s friend, Mariane, Viking girl, Beren,  and Aoife, my Druid elephant keeper

but I don’t think they meant our heroines from past ages.  

No, what they had in mind, I think, was feisty tomboys, girls ready to explore and jump from rock to rock and light fires, capable, brave, self-sufficient and hardy. That sort of thing. 

Well, where are they, then, and why is the Guardian asking? Are they suggesting that writers practise some kind of social manipulation, by inventing a certain kind of female role model?  Mm.  

It set me thinking about the role children’s books play in children’s lives. Do they reflect them, exploring real problems, or do they actually mould them, to promote desirable social values?  If they do that, should they?  

These are the words of a song in a 19thc. book called ‘Children’s Voices’.

Little Pickle

I am a pickle all the week
To Saturday from Monday
But beg to state I am sedate
When I’m in church on Sunday

I bang my gingham all the week
To Saturday from Monday
But beg to state I hold it straight
When I’m in church on Sunday

I cry and grin
Week out, week in
To Saturday from Monday
But please observe I never swerve
To right or left on Sunday

I love this for its show of affection for the child, but there are things about it that I don’t like at all. It strikes me as a form of indoctrination, adults’ rules couched in the child’s own words, in the deceptively pleasant form of a little song.  Of course the Victorians are well known for taking a didactic approach in children’s books: Mrs Do-As-You-Would-Be-Done-By, I remember you well.

What about the books of my own childhood, all those girls’ annuals of the 1950s and 60s?  Judy, School Friend, Bunty and Girl.

I was given Girl annuals for Christmas, but it’s only now as I look back at them, with a more critical eye, that I can see what they were really all about. At the time, aged 14 or so, I just lapped it up, all the stuff about ballet and horses, how to iron your clothes and make pretty ornaments for the home, along with stories of fine role models, such as Helen Keller and Michaela Denis, African wild life photographer, who, I see is at least wearing trousers (men’s) in her picture.

Did it do me any harm?  Maybe, in the promotion of men, as the protectors and sine qua non of women’s lives.  At 16, I loved the idea! I wanted to be a secretary, with frilly skirts and a bouffant, and have my hair done every week at the hairdresser’s, until my father put a stop such notions.  (Bless you, Dad!)  

The stories showed a glamorous life, one I was being encouraged to aspire to, but not the academic one I was heading for. The careers depicted for girls, in these books, made a short list: nursing, ballerina, secretary, working with animals, mother and housewife.

Was it the same for boys?  Probably. Now i can see what a hard load that might have been for blokes to carry, having to be the responsible sex, making all the decisions, having to ‘be a man’, win the bread and steer the ship.

Have things changed?  I hope so, but if the Guardian are raising the issue, maybe they haven’t so much. And do children’s writers really think about such things when they invent their characters?

Pauline Chandler



Mari Biella said…
I remember receiving quite a few annuals myself, Pauline, and they were much the same. I wasn't aware of it at the time - and if I had been, I probably wouldn't have cared much - but they did tend to promote certain roles and occupations as being suitable for women. Then again, I remember a few characters that broke the mould: a superheroine, a brilliant female footballer (even though her main aim in life was to win the love of her coach, let it be said).

There's no way of knowing how such conditioning affects people. Not much in my case, I think, though I can't be sure. It would be interesting to hear other children's authors' opinions about this.
Susan Price said…
It's a difficult one because all adults 'condition' children all the time. If you write books about girls who're studying to become engineers, army officers and car mechanics, that's conditioning. (Not that I'm objecting to that: it would make a refreshing change.)

If a child grows up in a violent home, it's being conditioned. Mrs. Do-As-You-Would-Be-Done-By is surely an example of benign conditioning - I can certainly think of worse attitudes to condition a child to.

And how can a writer ever escape their own time/beliefs/social conditioning? Even if you think you are writing a book with very edgy, new, advanced ideas - then you're acting on, or reacting to your own time/beliefs and social conditioning. - In another 50-100 years, the pendulum will swing and the 'obvious truths' will be something else.
AliB said…
Hi Pauline - I loved my Girl comics and was so annoyed when it folded and was merged with Princess which I thought was much too girly (!) although it did have good things in it, eg serialisations of John Wyndham. But all my friends read Jackie by then and looked down on Princess.
How much do these things matter? I don't know. I was a huge fan of pony, ballet and girls' school stories, none of which bore any realtion to my own life circumstances. (Not to mention those odd 'career' books like 'Cherry Ames Student Nurse)' But I don't remember ever wanting to emulate the heroines - or rage against them. I just liked the stories!
Lydia Bennet said…
There is more blatant girl/boy stereotyping in commercial products than ever before, imo - not just in colours of clothes, pens, anything, but words used on packaging or on actual clothes, jobs suggested, anything. I do think these are harmful because our awareness of our gender is so fundamental to our identity,and being given the idea you have to follow certain tastes and abilities to be true to your gender is limiting to say the least. In the 20s and 30s there was a huge surge in stories about feisty gels catching burglars and trekking through jungles, as women for the first time ever had clothes and hair which allowed free movement - we are sliding backwards at the moment I'm afraid. Facebook has been full of examples, and also, more cheeringly, people are writing hilarious Amazon reviews on 'girly' products such as the bic pink pens.
Hi AliB. I loved the stories too. I just wonder if I absorbed their values without realising it, and grew a little self-conscious because my life too was quite different! So lovely to have more variety and choice for teenage girls nowadays, though, as you point out Lydia, stereotypes are still as widespread as ever. It's a huge topic.

Umberto Tosi said…
My daughters were those kinds of "adventure-ready trouser" girls, who, not surprisingly, have grown into the strong women. Your blog made me smile. Thanks. Researching my historical fantasy novel, 'Ophelia Rising", I found that the heroic feminine literary model goes back a long way. Girls and young women of Ophelia's time (i.e. - renaissance) looked to female knights in epic poems like Bradamante in Orlando Furioso, and to a rich literature of popular romantic comedies - often read aloud at home - about young women who assumed male identities to get what they wanted in the world (and vice versa, boys who dressed as women.). Shakespeare himself emulated such popular plays, many written by women, including Lucrezia Marinella and Moderata Fonte - for example, in 'Twelfth Night.' The cross-gender literary tradition, in fact, goes back to Roman times. I recommend 'Lelia's Kiss: Imagining Gender, Sex, and Marriage in Italian Renaissance Comedy,' Laura Gianetti's entertaining and scholarly examination of 100 Renaissance plays. (, also 'The Prodigious Muse by Virginia Cox (

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