Reading in children should be encouraged, but..
Is it true what they say about fairy tales- that they set up young minds for unrealistic expectations?
I've been wondering about that lately (especially after renting 'Enchanted' the other day).
Since I didn't grow up on disney movies, I started tracking back to things I read as a child.
Supposedly most girls love fairy tales and want to live in castles and wait to be rescued by their knights in shining armour. But what about if you loved the same tales and wanted to be the knight, like I did? Not so much to rescue a princess (no I'm definitely not attracted to women and totally support women who are) but because the knights seemed to have all the fun!
Maybe there is a reason why 'The Little Mermaid' was my favourite fairytale princess who swam (excuse the pun) above them all. She didn't just wait at the bottom of the ocean- she longed for adventure. She found the prince who 'dropped to the bottom of the ocean', rescued him and then followed him to the land in search of love. Predictably, she got jilted in return and died (original version). One could almost say Anderson punished the 'Little Mermaid' for her audacity. But I still loved her and wanted to be her. Is that the reason I'm hesitant about 'meekly committing' to an arranged match and equally skeptical about 'the one' while dating? Because deep down I know I'll 'follow my prince' and get hurt?
Don't get me wrong- I still love fairy tales. I'm actually a little obsessive about them. Nor do I want to make them 'politically correct' (even thought 'this one' is pretty funny). But I do wonder how much what I read as a child shaped who I am now. In my childhood, along with fairy tales, there were the 'children's adventure' stories in Bengali by Mohd Jafar Iqbal such as 'Dushto Cheler Dol(Bad Boys Gang)', 'Haat Kata Robin', 'Dipu number Two' etc. The only Western parallel to these books that I could think of , would be those by Enid Blyton. Basically they were stories where pre-teen children rode out their own adventures, solving crimes, with minimal adult help. Only in Jafar Iqbal's novels, the children were ALL boys. If women or girls ever made any appearance they were in 'maternal' roles. I read these novels religiously and longed to be a boy every day.
Now, I don't blame Mr Iqbal for writing the novels the way he did- he merely portrayed the reality of the Bengali society which doesn't include pre-teen girls running around having any adventure besides an aggressive round of hopscotch! Nor do I begrudge those books as I would probably re-read them if I still owned them. But it leaves me wondering if that is why I hated boys for so long- because I envied them so much.
It is entirely possible that Enid Blyton books also set out certain gender roles (she has been accused of being sexist apparently), I haven't read them, only heard about them. But the mere inclusion of girls in the fun and adventure, no matter the subordinate role they played (if at all), must account for a different mindset for girls who grew up reading her books.
Of course eventually I did find and loved the Nancy Drew series in my teens but I couldn't really imagine myself in her - she was the 'white' girl I could never be. For years I never allowed myself any adventures and actually felt guilty for wanting to be a 'boy' but still love the pretty red dress. I longed for a female role model and eventually found one while reading the biography of one incredible Bengali woman- Begum Rokeya who was a prominant figure in encouraging education among Bengali women by opening the first school for Muslim girls in the Indian subcontient. Still, I couldnt' help but notice that she might not have been able to do so, without the emotional and financial support of her late husband. The life of a rich inspiring widow held its appeal, but I had to find someone to get married to first!
So, the search for female literary characters that I could relate to, continued...until, at age 18, I stumbled onto Jane Austen. Surprisingly, the cultural difference wasn't such a big issue here because the social makeup in Austen's era is so similar to our current Bengali society. I could easily imagine myself as Elizabeth or even Emma (with a job ofcourse), mainly because as young women, they had such strong personalities and still led seemingly eventful lives. Plus, they just happened to have met wonderful men along the way who fell in love with their independent spirits.
Granted, I might not have appreciated Austen when I was a 7year old, but I think, even reading one book where the main protagonist was a strong girl with a rich fulfilling life would have made me happy to be born a girl, a little sooner.
Moral of the story: Reading in children should be encouraged, but expect them to draw their own lessons from it.