From Pippi Longstocking to Tracy Beaker, a new campaign for young readers is raising awareness of strong female characters in children’s readers, writes Áilín Quinlan
What does Lyra, the flagrantly dishonest heroine of The Amber Spyglass, have in common with Roald Dahl’s mischievous and defiant Matilda (Matilda) or the hot-tempered, tomboyish Jo of Little Women?
They’re all Bold Girls!
However these fictional ‘bold girls’ share other powerful characteristics — they’re strong, interesting, intelligent and ultimately courageous.
Celebrating the galaxy of Bold Girls or strong female protagonists in children’s literature — from Pippi Longstocking to Tracy Beaker — is a dynamic new campaign which, from next month (March), aims to nurture confidence in girls and young women by showcasing the complex and powerful female characters who populate the world of children’s books.
Long before its planned launch on March 8, International Women’s Day, the word was out about the colourful Bold Girls Campaign, sparking strong interest from parents, teachers and others, says Aoife Murray of Children’s Books Ireland, which is running the campaign, in partnership with Trinity College, KPMG and Dublin City University, among others.
“There’s been huge interest both on social media and in terms of the phone calls we’ve been getting,” she declares One of the most eagerly anticipated elements of the campaign is the publication of a BOLD GIRLS Reading Guide, an 88-page publication, which reviews 173 children’s books for readers aged 0-18 featuring strong women and girls.
“The books were chosen by Children’s Books Ireland and reviewed by a special panel of independent reviewers — it’s is the first time we have done something like this,” says Murray who adds that the Guide, which costs €2.50 from the CBI website, will also have special feature pages which focus on 20 top Irish female children’s authors and illustrators
who have made an exceptional contribution to the canon of children’s literature.
As part of thecampaign, a free school resource pack will be produced based on 20 books from the guide, catering for both primary and second-level schools.
Bold Girls live literature events will also take place in the coming months in partnership with festivals and venues island-wide and internationally, while school-related events will take place in the weeks around the launch.
A Bold Girls exhibition will go on display in the Long Room at the Old Library in Trinity College Dublin celebrating the achievements of Irish women writers and illustrators, from the 18th century to the present day — the three-month exhibition is expected to serve as a refreshing visual contrast to the all-male busts of writers and thinkers that currently line the Long Room.
The campaign is also firmly positioned in the context of the centenary of the Irish suffragette movement, whose members secured votes for women over the age of 30 and those who had property rights or a university education in 1918.
“We consider them Bold Girls in the best possible interpretation of the phrase and we wanted to reflect their courage and strength of character in a campaign focusing on books with strong female characters,” explains Murray, emphasising that that Reading Guide is open to boys and girls.
“We’re not excluding anyone. These books are books with strong female characters,” she says, adding while all the titles are widely available in this country, not all are by Irish authors.
“Some people think ‘bold’ means brave, while others see it as cheeky or naughty but whatever way you choose to interpret it, it does imply a strong personality.
“We’re tapping into what people are talking about, in terms of highlighting what women are doing, creating opportunities for women and celebrating women’s stories and voices.”
For children’s writer Anna Carey, one of the featured artists in the guide, the Bold Girls campaign is about complex characters who are not necessarily perfect or heroic, but interesting personalities who are very active in their own lives.
“They go and do things — they don’t just let life happen to them, but at the same time they’re not perfect or all-powerful; they’re very human,” says the author of the successful The Making of Mollie, which focuses on a little girl from Drumcondra who becomes involved in the Irish suffragette movement. [The sequel, Mollie On the March hits the bookshelves in early March.]
“The campaign is showing that there are a lot of different ways to be a girl and that there is no need for girls to limit themselves and fit into a box, because the world is their oyster,” she says, adding that her popular child protagonist is no Perfect Miss.
“Mollie tries, but she can be bad-tempered and jealous and she gets annoyed. She is not heroic but she is brave,” says Carey, who explains that her interest in the Irish suffragette movement was sparked by the discovery that she had attended the same school as Hannah Sheehy Skeffington, the Dominican College, formerly in Eccles Street.
“Mollie is determined, she’s interested in things and she wants to do things. She doesn’t want to sit there and just let things happen,” says Carey, who explains that the book is set in 1912, the year the Irish suffragette movement took militant action.
“If you can show girls that they are more than what they look like or what people think of them, and show them that it’s possible to do things that are meaningful and on your own terms, it’s a positive message.”
Children and young adult writer Siobhan Parkinson, another of the guide’s featured writers, and publisher of Little Island Books, has just written a non-fiction collection of 20 essays, Rocking the System, focusing on real-life Irish Bold Girls, or female achievers. She believes the Bold Girls campaign will put children’s literature “out there” as a ‘cool option for children alongside entertainments such as social media, TV and Netflix — and offer them a wider perspective on their world.
“You don’t always have to be on your phone. Reading is something that’s enjoyable and gives us the opportunity to get into someone’s else’s head.
“There are people in literature you can emulate and that you know are like you,” she says.
“The kids you know in school are not the only ones in the world. Around the world there are children who think like you and have the same desires as you and enjoying reading just as you do.”
The Bold Girls campaign contains a crucial message for today’s girls, believes writer Claire Hennessy: “It’s saying girls are not this niche category, that pretty and pink is not the only way of being a girl. There are different ways of being a girl — girls can be brave or mischievous or difficult,” she declares.
“Nowadays there is increased pressure on girls to be ultra-aware of how they look, but literature shows girls that life is about more than how you look.”
After all, she observes, if you’re putting all your energy into how you look you’re not thinking about the things you can do — and, adds Hennessy, a fan of Roald Dahl’s popular character Matilda: “She is very mischievous and smart; she’s a reader, she’s strong and she stands up for herself and for other people so she’s a very powerful model of girlhood.”
For more information visit: childrensbooksireland.ie/watch-bold-girls-2018
1. I’m a Girl! By Yasmeen Ismail, Bloomsbury Children’s Books.
2. The Princess and the Pony by Kate Beaton, Walker Books.
3. Hilda and the Troll by LukePearson, Flying Eye Books.
4. Rosie Revere, Engineer byAndrea Beaty, illustrated by DavidRoberts, Abrams Books.
5. Anna Liza and the HappyPractice by Eoin Colfer, Barrington Stoke Books.
6. The Making of Mollie by Anna Carey, The O’Brien Press.
7. Like Other Girls by ClaireHennessy, Hot Key Books.
8. The Hate You Give by AngieThomas, Walker Books.
9. Tangleweed and Brine by Deirdre Sullivan, Little Island Books.
10. Rocking the System by Siobhán Parkinson, Little Island Books.
1. I’m a Girl! By Yasmeen Ismail, Bloomsbury Children’s Books.