Can books inspire and empower today’s girls?

“Why do people say ‘grow some balls’? Balls are weak and sensitive. If you wanna be tough, grow a vagina. Those things can take a pounding.” This quote, courtesy of Betty White (a brilliant actress notorious now for playing sweet old ladies), is a poignant one for the world today’s girls are growing up in.

Historically, women have had to fight for the same rights as men and, while we may have secured the right to vote, the latest estimates by Deloitte are that women in the UK won’t secure equal pay until 2069 at the earliest (99 years AFTER the Equal Pay Act 1970.

Girl with backpack
How do we make sure our girls are confident in themselves and determined to follow their own path?   Photo by Vladimir Tsokalo on Unsplash

Equal opportunity is still, too, largely elusive; just look at the treatment (a la Weinstein) and lower pay of women in the entertainment industry. This is just one industry and the Weinstein revelations have prompted women from across numerous industries and backgrounds to share their own stories of sexual harassment by male counterparts (just look at the #metoo campaign started by Alyssa Milano). Despite the rhetoric that things are becoming more equal and fair, the reality is anything but.

So, how do parents and carers of children prepare girls for this world? A world where girls and women will need to have the confidence to be who they are and the determination to follow the path they want to follow.

We asked highly-acclaimed Young Adult (YA) fiction writer, Rhian Ivory, for her thoughts on how YA books are changing to meet the needs of girls and women of the 21st century, and how they (and online movements) can empower and inspire girls (and, indeed, boys) to make change.

Teenage years are arguably the hardest to go through in terms of the growth children experience. What would you say are the biggest challenges for children today, and how do these influence the stories you write?

“I think the Internet, wonderful as it is, poses one of the greatest challenges to our teens because there’s nowhere to hide. If you do something embarrassing, it’s captured and posted and commented on. We all make mistakes and teenage years are the prime time in which to find out who you are, what you like, who you like and, if that’s all conducted under a social media microscope, it can be destructive and dangerous.”

“In Hope I write about this never-ending public sphere and how exhausting it can be for someone who doesn’t know who she is yet, let alone what she thinks about the world. I meet a lot of teenagers on school visits who find themselves taking social media breaks, deleting accounts only to set them back up again because this is their world, they live it out under the spotlight and it’s hard.”

There seems to be an increase in what could be referred to as feminist children’s and YA literature, looking to empower girls and young women (Hunger Games and Girl Up, for example). Could you tell us a bit about this trend and why it has become more prevalent (if, indeed, it has)?

“I think movements like This Girl Can and A Mighty Girl are empowering and much-needed and welcomed by women and girls alike. Books like Girl Up, Goodnight Stories for Rebel Girls, Fantastically Great Women who Changed the World reflect social change and the growing appetite in

Mighty Girl
A Might Girl is an online and Facebook movement sharing books and other content that empowers girls

readers to celebrate women, to ask questions about equal pay and women’s rights and to explore the world through a feminist lens.

The Handmaid’s Tale was written in the mid 1980s but we haven’t seen it adapted until 2017, it may be that Atwood has turned down plenty of offers and was waiting for the exquisite Elisabeth Moss to play Offred but I think it’s more about timing. I think the time is right for books like this and Louise O’Neill’s Only Ever Yours (which is also being adapted), we’re ready to hear these stories, hungry for them and empowered by them because they warn us encouraging us to speak up, stand up and have our voices heard.

“I remember reading an article which imagines George Orwell and Margaret Atwood in a room shouting at us all “We tried to warn you!” and thinking, Yes! This!

“Alison Flood wrote about the rise in female stories in The Guardian noting that readers are responding to the darkness of current affairs. I agree, we need these books more than ever and thank goodness writers are rising to the challenge.”

What do you think needs to be fixed in today’s society in relation to the roles and expectations of girls and women, and how can literature prompt positive societal change?

“Where do I start and how long have you got?

“Women and men need to see each other equally. Boys and girls need to be valued in

The Handmaid's Tale - Offred
The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Attwood depicts a dystopian future where women are stripped of their independence and physically oppressed by men.

equal measure. We need to stop saying things like ‘Boys will be boys’ and ‘That’s so girlie/you’re such a girl’ as if it’s acceptable to use the word girl as an insult. Emma Watson’s campaign He For She certainly helps shine a spotlight on the gender divide and helps us try to understand it and break down some of those barriers.

“Literature shows us that change is possible. Holly Bourne’s books for girls are a great example of how to show girls the way to take power back, to make their own choices and become who they want to be not what society thinks they are. Following the publication of Holly’s books girls started forming Spinster Clubs because they wanted to celebrate their single status rather than see it as a weakness.”

Parents may deem some books too ‘adult’ for their children, for teenagers in particular (thinking Junk, Thirteen Reasons Why, etc.). Do you think it is good for teenagers to be exposed to such adult themes?

“As ever it depends on the teenager. No two teenagers are the same.

“I think unless the parent has read the book in question they can’t really form an opinion on it or say it is ‘too adult’. In fact the banning of books only leads to teenagers wanting to read them all the more to see that the fuss is about. Quite often the fuss in unwarranted. Junk has recently celebrated its 20th birthday and there’s a reason it is still being published and read today. Teenagers want and need to read about the world in which they live as well as worlds made up of myth and legend. Teenagers are on the brink of living in an adult world, to not prepare them for that or equip them in any way seems just mean to me and in a way irresponsible. Literature can provide a safe environment in which to explore adult themes.”

What are your three favourite children’s/YA books, and why?

One by Sarah Crossan

One by Sarah Crossan
“Can you imagine pitching this book to an editor and then a sales team and them saying yes? Thank goodness Bloomsbury did because this book is the one that I like to give people just to see their faces when I tell them what it’s about and then sit back and watch them fall head first into Grace and Tippi’s world. The writing is to die for, the story of conjoined twins is unique and to top it all off it’s a verse novel. What’s not to like?”

Forever by Judy Blume
Forever by Judy Blume
“This was the book me and my friends passed around, folded down pages and talked and talked and talked about. Finally someone was talking about sex in a novel. It meant we didn’t have to borrow our mum’s Flowers in the Attic or Lace books anymore, here was a book about people our own age discovering sex for the first time. I’d read every single Judy Blume book I could get my hands on but this is the only one I still have.”

Little Women by Louisa May Alcott
“Again, where do I start with this book? This book has dominated my life ever since I was old enough to read it. I’ve been reading it, teaching it, talking about it, arguing about it, watching it, listening to it on audio

Little Women by Louisa May Alcottand rereading it for as long as I can remember. I love arguing about Jo and Laurie, I’m fascinated by Amy March and reader’s relationships with her, I lose hours reading about Louisa May Alcott and the way in which the book came to be in the first place and more than anything I love the relationship between the four March girls. I see something new in this book every time I reread it and there’s not many books you can say that about.”

Rhian’s new book Hope is now out and available to buy. Her previous book, The Boy who Drew the Future, was nominated for the Carnegie medal and is available to buy here. You can follow Rhian on Twitter and Facebook.

Featured photo by Bruce Dixon on Unsplash

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