We have seen a shift from old Disney movies in terms of the portrayal of women, from damsel in distress, in animations such as Snow White and Cinderella, to Merida and Moana. Also, before we all forget, Wonder Woman and Captain Marvel have set the stage in recognition of women as brave and independent models for the coming generation.
We know that education starts early and young, and one of the ways in which children are taught about the world is through Fairy Tales. This is because, essentially:
“What you read, you become.”
The central character in most of children’s books has been male, whether human or animal, as found in study done by Florida State University (2011). Well, you might be wondering ‘what does it matter anyway?’. But the thing is, it matters, and it matters greatly because the problem is that of ‘gender norms’. By assigning the lead roles to only male, it reinforces the hegemony. In simple words, men become ‘default’, and women become underrepresented. Therefore, it is increasingly important that gender neutrality be discussed, and taught at a young age, because one is always born a human first, before being assigned with gender roles by society. This ‘society’ is not something invisible, it is each and every one of us, and each of us have to educate ourselves enough to perhaps bring about a more equal ‘society’.
Despite being a university student, I love reading children’s books, because I love to see the changes over time being brought to these books. I used to get infuriated over Snow White and Cinderella, thinking why wouldn’t they fight if they want to be respected. However, after a length of time I realized that they are how they were created.
Keeping this in mind, you can’t imagine how surprised and happy I felt finding Frances Hardinge, a gem of a writer. Frances Hardinge has authored multiple children books focusing on ordinary young female protagonists with extraordinary mettle, not unlike the children who read her books. I will be discussing some of her books and would recommend them highly for people of all ages, because surely every one of us is somehow still a child at heart in certain ways.
1. A Face Like Glass
The underground city of Caverna is full of legendary craftsmen who are experts at their trades. They can make cheese to induce hallucination, wines to erase memories, and even perfumes which can persuade you to trust the enemy, anything you like! However, this book is not so cheery and airy-fairy. In fact, it is set in a twisted land where the elite live lives aesthetically but are forever finding ways to slit each other’s throat. While, the drudges are kept out of sight, working bone-tiringly to keep Caverna going in inhumane conditions. Moreover, people don’t have expressions that show emotions. The Face-Smiths come up with various expressions to teach the babies at birth. These expressions must be bought as a set, and the drudges, being poor, are always deprived of the ‘faces’ and are left unable to show their disapproval of the authority.
In this world of viciousness lurking under one ‘face’ of the wearer, little Neverfell steps in with a face like glass, which truthfully conveys whatever emotion she feels in her heart. Therefore, Neverfell is a threat to some, while others want to make her a pawn in their game. So Neverfell with a face like glass, has to navigate around these people and discover the truth, as well as finding an escape. It is a bit like Alice in a whimsical, twisted wonderland finding a way out. Although comparing this to Alice in Wonderland wouldn’t do it much justice, the world of Caverna is far too manipulative and dangerous, and Neverfell has to make decisions which affects not only her but all those who suffer.
“It was all very well being told that she could do nothing to make things better. Neverfell did not have the kind of mind that could take that quietly. She did not have the kind of mind that could be quiet at all.”
― Frances Hardinge, A Face Like Glass
2. The Lie Tree
Faith Sunderly, a 14-year-old girl, wants nothing more in her life than to follow her father’s footstep and become a respected scientist. Unfortunately, for Faith, in the male-dominated Victorian society, she is seen not as a potential but as a burden by her very own father. When her father is found dead under mysterious circumstances, Faith is determined to find the truth and also uncover his secret. As she makes decisions to reveal the truth, she comes upon a tree which feeds off of whispered lies.
Faith treads on a thin line between betrayal and trust, and of course her fierce determination to fulfill her dream and defy authority to create her own person. As bleak as the world of Vane is painted, this book aims to not only empower girls in their endeavours to become successful, but also reveal, in unfaltering truth, the psychological impact that affects Faith, when she is treated less than able compared to her little brother. However, Faith breaks all conventions and uses her smarts to uncover the truth and find her self-worth. This book should certainly be read by people of all ages.
“This is a battlefield, Faith! Women find themselves on battlefields, just as men do. We are given no weapons, and cannot be seen to fight. But fight we must, or perish.”
― Frances Hardinge, The Lie Tree
3. A Skinful of Shadow
This story is creepy, whimsical, heartfelt and emotive. Also, there are ghosts! Twelve-year-old Makepeace has to defend herself from the ghosts trying to enter her mind and making a space there. It takes place during the English Civil War. Makepeace is raised by her mother in secrecy. After the mother’s death, Makepeace is no longer welcome, and so she was sent to live in Grizehayes, where her father’s noble family, the Fellmottes, live.
The fellmottes are a queer bunch of people, and Makepeace has her own secret. Makepeace plots to escape from this place and gain her independence, supported by the ghosts living in her mind, and also facing betrayal from some of them. Makepeace plots with the patience of a mastermind, making bold steps with resourcefulness as well as kindness. The most fitting description for the whole book would be- wild and beautiful. A book of a headstrong and fierce bear-hearted girl.
“They understood something together at that moment, Makepeace and Bear. Sometimes you had to be patient through pain, or people gave you more pain. Sometimes you had to weather everything and take your bruises. If you were lucky, and if everyone thought you were tamed and trained… there might come a time when you could strike.”
― Frances Hardinge, A Skinful of Shadows
Suffice it to say that these books have found their space among my most favourites, not only because of the honesty with which the suffering and sorrows are realistically depicted, but also because of how each character is breathed into life. The depth of the three heroines the author created could, in the long run, inspire girls and boys of various ages to see and respect each other as equal, fellow human beings capable of proving their mettle, should the need be. Because once again, education starts early…
Written by Namita Suberi