This is a guest post from Vee Naidoo. Vee is a freelance writer/editor based in Sydney. She’s also the author of YA novel Fall to Pieces and a law student at the ANU. Follow her on Twitter @VeeNaidoo.
I vividly remember the first time I declared myself a feminist. I was ten-years-old and engaged in a conversation with my grandfather, who simply assumed that I’d be giving up my career after I had children. In not-so-many-words, I told him that I didn’t see why this was the case, that I was a feminist and that when I grew up I would do it all and have it all. To my grandfather’s credit, he made no attempt to dissuade me from my intended path, but he did give me a sad smile, one that didn’t quite reach his eyes. He may have been mired in the gender roles of another generation, but he was a wise and intelligent man and was able to view feminist issues through a prism of nuance that was not yet available to me. He knew what I didn’t at the time: that doing it all and having it all was not the ultimate liberation, but a new form of subjugation characterized by endless, looping tiredness and a high likelihood of caffeine dependence.
I’ve come a long way in my understanding of feminism since that conversation. I’ve read feminist literature and criticism – I’m all up on my Perkins Gilman and Virginia Woolf, my Simone de Beauvoir and Judith Butler, my bell hooks and Gloria Steinem. Strangely enough, however, none of the texts that I’ve encountered as an adult have had as much impact on my feminism and my life as the YA novels that I encountered as young girl and teen.
The following three novels exposed me to new ways of thinking and feminist issues that altered my worldview:
Ella Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine
Ella Enchanted is a retelling of Cinderella that features a beautifully imagined world and a feisty heroine, Ella, who uses her quick wits and storytelling ability to overcome several obstacles on her way to happily ever after. Most people have been exposed to the story via the 2004 film adaptation, which stars Anne Hathaway, but I’ve always been the kind of person who thinks the book is better than the film. Ella’s quick wit and fiery temper don’t come across as strongly in the film, and the subversion of Disney Princess tropes that Carson-Levine so skillfully delivers is also somewhat obscured. Ella Enchanted is the perfect book to teach young girls that they are worthy for more than their looks and that it’s okay to be less than perfectly feminine and submissive.
The Harry Potter Series
This is technically more than one book, but for me it’s impossible to truly view each book in the original Potter series separately. Rowling’s story and world are so strongly interwoven, the cloth of her narrative so seamless, that drawing lines in the sand and picking one book that rises above the others is an exceptionally difficult task. Besides, what really influenced my sense of feminism and idealism here were the character arcs of the women in the series, rather than specific events. From Hermione Granger I learned that girls can, indeed, be as smart as they choose to be. I also learned the value of activism, advocacy, and how to be an ally to others who are also marginalized. From Ginny Weasley, I learned how to take yourself seriously even when others don’t and transform the image of you they hold in their mind’s eye.
The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks by E. Lockhart
This is the most explicitly feminist of the books on this list. E. Lockhart’s incredible YA novel features a quirky, rebellious heroine who, frustrated with gendered power imbalances, decides to break into an elite boys’ club. She succeeds with aplomb and just a hint of ruthlessness. I learned a lot from this book, back when I read it at sixteen. For one thing, it was one of the first books I’d read that really validated female anger as a response to sexism – everything explicitly feminist that I’d read before had always advocated for taking the metaphorical high road – and reading it allowed me to feel my own anger, to stop making excuses for a culture that often marginalized me on the basis of both my race and gender. It also perfectly articulated the reasons why boys’ club culture is so insidious, even though it’s often invisible. As an added bonus, this book taught me what Foucault’s panopticon is better than any University class I’ve ever taken.
We find new thought processes and strengthen old ones when we read. Without these three children’s books, my feminism wouldn’t be what it is today. If you’re a parent, an educator or anyone else who loves a teenager with a feminist streak, I’d highly recommend putting books like these ones into his or her hands.