I wouldn't usually suggest looking to John Ruskin for the basics of a non-sexist education system. But here we are today, wise and enlightened and knowing so much better than People Back Then did etc. etc. and whatever else we tell ourselves, and here we are still dividing up reading lists for 14-year-olds into girl books and boy books.

You can see the list of suggestions from the teaching resource site here (it's a PDF file). Girls get, among other things, Amy Tan's The Bonesetter's Daughter, H. E. Bates's The Darling Buds of May, Tracy Chevalier's Girl with a Pearl Earring, Alice Sebold's Lovely Bones, and a bunch of Joanne Harris novels (Chocolat, Five Quarters of the Orange, Blackberry Wine). Boys get Bernard Cornwell's Sharpe books, Terry Pratchett's Discworld books, Tolkien's The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, Nevil Shute's A Town like Alice, Ernest Hemingway's Death in the Afternoon and Julian Barnes's A History of the World in 10 1/2 Chapters.

Hmm.

Okay, this isn't about demanding that children adhere to strict gender roles. This is just about letting them read things they'd be interested in. Right? After all, young teenagers are very adept at segregating themselves into single-sex friendship groups without adult involvement, and the gap between what male students and female students are achieving at GCSE level (and most other levels of primary and secondary education) is a real one. It's only been a real one since the 1970s, but I am led to believe this is just extra extra evidence of how it owes its existence to irreconcilable biological differences first ingrained in our ancestors several million years ago. (Okay, to be fair - the argument is actually that the post-1970 education system has been 'feminised' and now favours female traits like empathy. Why yes, my A-level Chemistry classes were all about writing essays on how it feels to be potassium chloride.) Girls are just interested in different things, and there's nothing we can and nothing we should do about it.

I don't believe that, but let's go with it for a moment anyway. Assume that the suggested-reading list is entirely descriptive, not prescriptive, and that it merely reflects what fourteen-year-olds are more likely to be interested in.

I read Nevil Shute's A Town Like Alice when I was 14, and loved it, literally, to pieces - my paperback copy fell apart in my hands during one of the many re-reads. Loved it enough to roll my eyes at the English teacher who said "Oh, because it's a love story?". Loved it enough to nearly miss a "Boarding NOW, no REALLY!" call at an airport last year, after finding another copy in a secondhand bookshop in the conference town. Loved it that much.

It's not perfect. It was written in 1950, and there are lines that remind you of that in a particularly uncomfortable way, the kind of lines that would, if the book was a party and all the lines were guests, leave you not only walking away from them without reply but discussing them in hushed tones to other guests at other parties for years afterwards. But it's great, and it's the only book on either of those lists that I loved because I was a 14-year-old girl, rather than independently of the fact.

It's about a young British woman living in occupied Malaya during the Second World War, part of a group of women and children marched around the island for years at a time because there aren't any prison camps for them. She survives, negotiates a deal with the elders of a tiny mountain village, and spends the rest of the war working in the rice-fields in exchange for the party's food and shelter. After the war, she moves back to England, learns she's inherited a large sum of money from an elderly relative, moves to the Australian outback to find the POW she met in Malaya, and uses her inheritance to make the tiny, depressed town he comes from into a place where people could live and work. And the book's narrated by the lawyer who still holds her inheritance in trust, because the relative who died didn't believe women were responsible enough to handle their own finances until at least the age of 35.

So. Do you think it's in the 'For Boys' list because the designer of that list gave it to a representative sample of male and female students, carefully weighed their responses against a backdrop of gender expectations and stereotypes, and decided accordingly; or because someone, somewhere, went "Oh, this one's about war. War's a boy thing"?

So to return to Ruskin, who wrote Sesame and Lilies fifty years before compulsory secondary education in England and Wales was even introduced:

Keep the modern magazine and novel out of your girl's way: turn her loose into the old library every wet day, and let her alone [...] Let her loose in the library, I say, as you do a fawn in a field. It knows the bad weeds twenty times better than you; and the good ones too, and will eat some bitter and prickly ones, good for it, which you had not the slightest thought would have been so.

We've come so far.

3 comments

  1. Laz Says:
  2. If someone had handed me that list at 14, I would have picked the "boy books" without a second thought. Had they told me I couldn't have any of them, I assure you I'd have kicked up merry hell.

    HARDY BOYS ROOL! NANCY DREW SUCKZ!

     
  3. Miriam Says:
  4. Jonathan Rose has pointed out that late-Victorian girls and women, when surveyed, much preferred "boy books" (Walter Scott, for example) to "girl books."

     
  5. Autumn Song Says:
  6. What, no 'Sharpe' novels for me? I object. Most strenuously.

    I think it's a good idea to set teenagers of both sexes free in libraries, to discover new things, new authors, different avenues. This fosters an interest in reading (recreational reading, which is not as popular amongst teenagers as it has been), and free choice is more likely to encourage recreational reading than setting girl / boy books, which I'm sure can put teenagers off reading for life. It also leads to that dreadful dismissing of 'Wuthering Heights' as a girly book. I challenge anyone to read it for what it is and what it says and then confirm that it's a girly book.