Rapunzel coverAs children clamour to dress up as their favourite fictional characters for World Book Day, should we care about their choices? Will our daughters never strive to be leaders if they spend their childhoods emulating long-haired princesses who can’t even use the stairs? (Yes, I’m talking about YOU Rapunzel!) Emma tells Still You why what we read really can change who we are.

My first trip to the library with my daughter was a beautiful thing: I loved that nostalgic musty smell and the gratifying knowledge that I was being a Good Parent just by turning up at the library doors. This was all part of my grand plan to enrich her life through that brilliant (yet low parent effort) medium of books.

Obviously any sense of occasion evaporated pretty quickly what with toddler-code dictating that she must empty all shelves of books exceptionally loudly (and then I was publicly shamed for failing to control her). But my enthusiasm also dissipated as I began dismissing a whole wodge of (previously much-loved) books on equality grounds. It had never occurred to me before just how limiting some of the traditional stories are for both boys and girls – lots of hapless feather-brained princesses and muscular princes. What makes it worse is that it’s not as if the princes are portrayed as particularly clever is it?!  It just so happens that they have access to a HORSE and can control an ARMY, while the girls only have pretty dresses to their names.

Modern children’s books have thankfully expanded this rather boring repertoire and allowed boys and girls to see themselves in a multitude of characters and roles. But does it really matter? Will what they read have any bearing on their character or future aspirations anyway?

This is something that Keith Oatley, a British professor at the University of Toronto and founder of OnFiction, has spent a lot of time researching.  When I asked him this question he promptly responded: ‘to choose what one reads is almost as important as choosing friends. So choices parents make can be particularly significant before a young person can choose books for him or herself.’

Professor Oatley’s lifelong research suggests that what we read really can change who we are by altering our perception of the world around us and of ourselves. ‘Fiction enables people to imagine their selfhood into circumstances other than the usual.’ He explains. ‘Thereby they extend their sense of themselves. This is not persuasion. It does not occur in a particular direction dictated by the writer of the story. As readers loosen up their own personality, perhaps to become more like a character in a story, or as they mentally enter situations other than those they are normally in, they change to become more themselves.’

Even more interestingly, OnFiction researchers are learning that there is an ‘association between the amount of fiction people read and their levels of empathy,’ which is reason enough to encourage reading. When Dr Dan Johnson (Washington and Lee University) explored this further, he found that the increase in empathy as a result of reading can lead to improved pro-social behaviour in real life. People who engage with fiction are more likely to help others – and they’re less likely to be prejudiced; readers who engage with literature exploring the perspectives of out-groups come away with a more empathetic or tolerant view of out-groups.

And what of limiting gender roles – do these matter?

When my toddler and I returned from our library trip, my husband eyed our pile of pro-girl library books. ‘What’s wrong with princesses and looking pretty?’ he asked – a note of exasperation in his voice. ‘Nothing!’ I declared.

Because of course our daughters are perfectly able to enjoy pretty clothes and simultaneously aspire to be CEOs – just like our sons can be excited about building sites and fire engines and still prefer a cushy office job with tea on tap. But if fiction helps children and young adults to project themselves into the wider world it makes sense that this should be an inspiring, not limiting, experience. So I want to see some of the character traits more commonly ascribed to male heroes – bravery, independence and leadership – attributed to girls too. And similarly stereotypically female traits – being nurturing, caring and creative – should be encouraged among boys.

Surprisingly, on this point, Professor Oatley found that ‘high-school girls were able to empathize with both female and male protagonists, whereas high-school boys were generally only able to empathize with male protagonists. So if you are a writer it makes sense to have male protagonists, because books with female protagonists may have only half the potential readership. J.K. Rowling probably made the right decision with her Harry Potter books.’

I felt uneasy with the idea that the majority of heroes should be boys for the sake of marketing; and I couldn’t ignore the feeling that if girls are portrayed as the weaker party, surely this would have some detrimental impact in the long run. So I asked Professor Oatley: ‘what if the male protagonist is a brilliant, smart hero and all the girls in the books are simpering wimps. Does that do any damage? ’ He replied that – according to one study – some girls are likely to identify with a strong male protagonist rather than a wimpy female one – but typically only girls with a strong sense of self-belief.

This is a bit trickier: so we have to build high self-esteem in our daughters before they’ll relate to strong characters? Well I’m no expert but aren’t positive role models – fictional and real – essential to building that self-confidence?

And what of boys? Will reading stories in which girls are the weakest link lead to a sexist mindset? Well the wrong kind of reading might, says Professor Oatley, ‘contribute in boys to derogatory feelings about girls, but they have these kinds of feelings anyway.’ So again – no easy answer, just lots more work required!

So while books most definitely have a role to play in broadening character, fostering empathy, encouraging pro-social behaviour and even in reducing prejudice they don’t quite go the distance in developing gender equality. As parents we’ll have to put a whole lot more work in on that one. Which rather foils my parenting plan of letting the library do the legwork for me…


Did you like this? Check out Emma’s new website here.

What do you think? Does it matter what kinds of books your children read or do you think anything goes, so long as they’re reading?

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