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BOLD GIRLS for International Women’s Day

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In the centenary of Irish women’s suffrage, Children’s Books Ireland‘s BOLD GIRLS initiative is a multi-faceted celebration of brave, intelligent, strong women and girls in children’s books. BOLD GIRLS is highlighting twenty female Irish authors and illustrators who have made an exceptional contribution to the canon of Irish children’s literature – including author Celine Kiernan, who gives her thoughts on the project here. For further information see http://childrensbooksireland.ie

‘Children’s Books Ireland’s BOLD GIRLS initiative is a celebration of the positive contribution that women have made over the years’ – Celine Kiernan

The main thing that occurs to me when I read the above line, is how much I could have done with something similar to the BOLD GIRLS project when I was a child. Well, not quite a child – as a child I was actually quite well catered for. I can recall quite a lot of ‘bold girls’ in the stories I read back then. There were brave, competent, interesting rabbits, teddy-bears, dolls and toys in the books and comics that I read as a toddler. There were brave, competent, interesting girls in the books and comics I read as a young girl.

But after a certain age, the girl characters that I found most interesting (i.e. – those who were not connected to romance story-lines; those who got to have physical, adventurous lives; those who had some modicum of independence) were almost always connected with British boarding schools. No matter how hard I wanted to, this working class Dub could never quite connect with that particular setting. I tried – Lord knows I tried – but they weren’t for me. Then I got older and even those scraps dried up as the ‘girl’ stories I found myself presented with began to revolve almost exclusively around romantic relationships.

I’ve nothing against romance but I wasn’t interested in those kinds of stories.

I was a girl who wanted to read about ghosts, about spaceships, about monsters and other dimensions. Once I’d left Enid Blyton, and the Twinkle and the Judy behind, I found nothing to cater to my tastes except comics and books that were populated almost exclusively by male characters.

For a brief glorious few years in my pre and early teens there was a comic called The Misty and I got my first and practically only glimpse of girls and young women inhabiting the kind of stories that I grew up thirsting for. Stories where that main character got to go on the type of adventures I wanted to go on. Most specifically stories in which the MC (a girl!) had to Fight Monsters! Overcome Supernatural Threats! Fly Spaceships! For a brief, glorious moment I got to enjoy that thing which boys take for granted every time they pick up a story – a protagonist having a cracking adventure in which their struggles had nothing to do with their gender.

Then The Misty went under and I was left bereft.

I wish I’d had the BOLD GIRLS project back then to pick me up and point me in the right direction, because if these stories existed elsewhere I certainly didn’t know where to find them. And worse, I never really noticed that these stories had been stolen from me. No-one explained to me that girls had been removed from my interior landscape. No-one pointed out that my heroines had been erased and that a boy had been put in their place. And so, I just took it for granted that girls didn’t exist in the kinds of stories I loved to read – that they had no place in those kinds of stories.

So what happened for me was that, at a very early age, I soaked up the idea that these kinds of adventures were simply a thing that boys did. I soaked that up and I went on reading the kinds of stories I loved, but this time with no girls (or none to speak of; occasionally someone would need rescuing, or explaining to, or falling in love with. Girls seemed to fit quite nicely into those roles – i.e. the bits of the story I wasn’t interested in. The bits I’d usually skip.)

I stopped looking for girls in my stories at all. In fact, I actively avoided stories with girls in them. Why? Because they weren’t the stories I was looking for, of course!

When I read, I read about boys. As a consequence, when I started writing, I wrote about boys.

Why? Because boys did the things I was interested in, of course! That’s just how the world was! If there was a girl in the story, she’d have to spend the whole time justifying why she deserved to be there! Hah. Imagine wasting all that time explaining how you’d managed to go to space-ship school whilst also being a girl! Imagine wasting all the time constructing some excuse as to how a girl happened to end up also being a cowboy. Or how a character managed to become an exorcist while also being a girl. Boy stories were interesting. Girl stories were boring. That’s just the way it was.

God.

The time I wasted having to undo all this stuff in my own head, just to get to the point where I could write a female character into the type of story I wanted to read. I’m still struggling with it, because the world is still struggling with it. Despite all the very many progresses we have made, women are still having to justify taking up space in stories that don’t specifically orbit around their ‘femaleness’ or their struggle to prove themselves ‘as good as’.

But what would have helped, what would have got me there sooner, was something like Children’s Books Ireland’s BOLD GIRLS initiative. A bright, honest, positive voice in my ear which would have told young me ‘You know there are women scientists, right? Just because the comics and books don’t show them to you, doesn’t mean they don’t exist.’ Or, ‘You know there are and always have been women who fight to protect victims of injustice, right?’ Or You know a woman character can be the centre of her own story, right? And that story can be anything – right? – anything at all. Just like for boys.’

Maybe then I wouldn’t have had to travel so far just to get to the starting place. The place where I understand that every story can have a woman at its heart, and that the horizons of a girl’s possibilities are limited only by her own imagination.

(c) Celine Kiernan

The twenty BOLD GIRLS are all highlighted in the Children’s Books Ireland BOLD GIRLS Reading Guide, an 88-page publication reviewing 173 children’s books (in English and the Irish language) which feature strong women and girls, for readers aged 0–18, including classics and non-fiction. These are stories from Ireland and around the globe, featuring pirates, politicians, ponies, polar bears, pilots, princesses and pretty much everything in between, from authors and illustrators ranging from Marita Conlon-McKenna to Roald Dahl to L. M. Montgomery. The Reading Guide is available from 8th March online from childrensbooksireland.ie and good bookstores while stocks last.
 
Children’s Books Ireland have also produced a free BOLD GIRLS Resource Pack, based on 20 books from the guide, catering for both primary and secondary schools.  This pack invites students to engage with books and reading in creative ways, asking important questions around gender, equality and stereotypes, providing teachers with the resources and opportunities to engage with themes around the centenary of Irish women’s suffrage. The pack is free to download from childrensbooksireland.ie from 8th March. 
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