My daughter is five and while one of her three best friends is a boy, she identifies most strongly with girls. She draws pictures of girls, and she like stories and films about girls. She’ll tolerate a certain amount of boyness, but usually this needs to be offset by a few girls. This had never been a problem – for Edmund there is Lucy, for Moomintroll the Snork Maiden, for Danny Fox the princess. (Winnie the Pooh, however, was fine, perhaps because the characters are animals; still, it hasn’t become a favourite.)
Then, the other day, I found my old copy of Lucy Boston’s The Castle of Yew. I felt sure my daughter would enjoy it.
‘Is Joseph a boy?’ asked my daughter. ‘Is Robin a boy?’
She looked unimpressed. I had a feeling that she was about to reject the book.
Now, not very long ago I came across an article by Michelle Nijhuis in which she explained how she had read The Hobbit to her daughter, but had changed Bilbo Baggins into a girl. Her daughter had insisted that Bilbo was a girl and so, after a couple of chapters, Michelle agreed. Her daughter was satisfied, and Michelle was slightly surprised to find that her own expectations of a heroine were subtly challenged. The article is very interesting and well worth reading, and luckily I remembered it at this moment.
‘We could make Joseph into a boy this time, if you like,’ I said.
She thought that was a good idea, and we romped through the entire book despite my occasional lapses into ‘he’ (all of which were swiftly corrected by my audience). The fact that Margery Gill’s wonderful pictures all clearly showed two boys didn’t trouble us in the least.
It is a magical book and we both enjoyed it a lot. However, I found that I regretted switching Joseph’s gender but not Robin’s. Robin is older and in charge: he is the knight in their fantasy and Joseph is his page. Joseph, therefore, was often rather passive and subservient to Robin in a way that perhaps wouldn’t have irritated me had they both been boys or both been girls but did annoy me now that Joseph was Girl Joseph but Robin remained Boy Robin. Far from challenging gender stereotypes, as Girl Bilbo had done, Girl Joseph in fact slightly reinforced them, and because I had half-created her and thus this otherwise needlessly gendered situation, I was a bit cross with her. I also felt that I’d let Lucy Boston down somehow, throwing her sensitive characterisation out of balance and introducing a complication which was not present before. Next time we read this book, we might decide to have Girl Robin too, I think that would work very well. Or who knows, maybe we’ll be up to reading a story about boys... In any case, if we do any gender-switching of literary characters again (and I feel that this is quite likely) I will approach the exercise with more care.
Have you ever done anything similar to this, either in reading aloud to someone else or reading a book to yourself?
(Cover of Puffin edition of The Castle of Yew, the illustration on which is by Margery Gill, found here.)