How to Be a Heroine by Samantha Ellis and Laurel Snyder on Books for Boys

heroineWas there ever a book so meant for me to read?  It’s been a long time since I’ve finished a book and wanted to get right to the computer to write about it, but this book gave me that wonderful sense of urgency.  I must spread the word.  Others must know how wonderful this book is. 

I heard Samantha Ellis read from and discuss her book on The Guardian books podcast.  I ordered the book right away, but had to wait for its publication date in Canada.  It arrived this week.  I devoured it in a day.

Ellis begins the book on the Yorkshire moors, with her best friend Emma, and they are arguing about who they’d rather be, Jane Eyre or Cathy Earnshaw.  (Emma and I agree; Jane Eyre, of course.)  Ellis is adamant that Cathy Earnshaw is the heroine for her.  Emma has made her think, though, that she should revisit the question.

…. when we reached Top Withins, the skies cleared.  The clouds vanished and the sun shone, as if this was the backdrop for some moment of revelation.  Which it was.  I was wrong.

My whole life, I’d been trying to be Cathy, when I should have been trying to be Jane.

As we leaned against the warm stone, basking–actually basking–in the sun, drinking flasks of tea, I wondered why I’d written Jane off.  She is independent, and brave, and clever, and she really does stay true to herself.  And while Cathy ends up a wandering ghost, Jane ends up happily married.  The brilliant sunshine was very Jane weather, I thought; pleasant, clear and rational.  It would have rained for Cathy, there would have been thunder and lightning.  And (said a small, but firm Jane voice) we would have shivered and eaten soggy sandwiches hunched under the hoods of our waterproofs. …

I decided that when I got back to London, I would dig out my copies of Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre and read them again, with more scrutiny and less sentiment.  I would find out how I really felt about Cathy and Jane.  But maybe that wouldn’t be the end of it.  After all, if I’d been wrong about Cathy, had I been wrong about my other heroines too?

And so begins 18 months of re-reading and writing about all of her favourite books and heroines.   Ellis begins with fairy tales and works her way through children’s books, racy reads, “the classics” and classics of first and second wave feminism; from The Little Mermaid, to Anne of Green Gables, from Lizzy Bennet to Flora Poste, from Lucy Honeychurch to Esther Greenwood.  She revisits, among many others, Louisa May Alcott, Barbara Pym, Virginia Woolf, Sylvia Plath and Angela Carter.  Having read and relied on these books and their heroines to shape her growing self, who, she asks, is the heroine she needs today.

The title is a nod to Louis May Alcott’s “She is too fond of books and it has turned her brain,” and this idea of reading spoiling not just one’s eyes and brain, but marriage prospects too, comes up often in the book.  As an Iraqi Jew, whose parents fled to England as refugees, the marriage plot features heavily in Ellis’s own life.  Her parents want her to settle down with a nice Iraqi Jewish boy, but Ellis chafes against the marriage plot both in life and in literature.  She wants adventure, independence, a model for a writing life.  Ellis herself is a playwright, and a huge appeal of her book is that she traces the fates of women writing in fiction.

There is a perfect balance of autobiographical material and discussion of the books on hand.  Ellis is not just well read, she has a genuine desire to right by books and their authors.  She is a generous reader, but totally unafraid of calling herself out or her beloved writers out for failing their own heroines.  I loved her arguments with her younger self and with the authors who let their women writers sacrifice writing to marriage and children.

I loved every minute of reading this book.  It went too quickly.  I gobbled, as I often do, but this book sent me back for seconds, it sent me to my own bookshelves to pull down my own copies of Wuthering Heights, Jane Eyre, Cold Comfort Farm, The Bloody Chamber, To the Lighthouse, I Capture the Castle, and and and.  It also sent me looking for books I haven’t yet read: Lolly Willowes and South Riding.  It did, in other words, what all great books about books should do: it gave me the pleasure of revisiting old favourites and the joy of anticipating new reads.

Ellis also got me thinking about the role books play in shaping our selves.  Her quest is very specific: she wants to find in print a heroine to serve as a role model, a guide and an inspiration.  I’m not on that particular quest, myself, but I am aware that my three boys are in the midst of their first discoveries of their great favourites.  They are now reading the books that will become, for them, the landmarks in a literary coming of age.

What, I thought, are my three boys’ literary guides and role models and inspirations?  Who is shaping them?

Laurel Snyder, the author of the wonderful Bigger than a Bread Box, and also a mother of boys, wrote recently about the tendency to assume that boys will only read books about or designed to appeal to boys.  It’s a short and wonderfully direct essay on the gendering of children’s literature.

When we go to the bookstore my boys gravitate to Bone, Amulet, Wimpy Kid, and Percy Jackson, and that’s fine. We read those books too. But if I never even suggested that they might want to reach beyond that initial attraction, I’d be cheating them out of a broader understanding of literature and the world. More than that, I’d be giving them an expectation that life should meet their needs. That life should accommodate their preferences.

Which, to be honest, isn’t a message I think little boys need at all. Given that most of them plan to grow into men.

I’d like to join her in saying that we should not be short-changing our boys by assuming that they cannot read beyond Amulet and Percy Jackson.  My sons loved these too, but, frankly, to stop there and say, “Good enough, the kid’s reading” is in no way good enough.  It’s not only underestimating them, it’s cheating them out of some great reads.

Later this week, we will be posting our What We’re Reading with Our Kids, and I’m thrilled to be able to tell you that a lot of the books on my list have female protagonists and girls on the cover.  I don’t mean to sound like I am taking any credit for this, I’m just thrilled to be able to say that it is true.  In the last year, my eldest son has loved, almost exclusively, books written about girls: The Breadwinner, about life for a girl under the Taliban; When My Name was Keoko, about a Korean girl living through the Japanese occupation, and, of course, The Hunger Games and the Divergent trilogies, which he has read twice each.

Now, my boys are certainly not looking for heroines in the pointed and critical way that Ellis is, but these books do shape them, nonetheless.  It gives me great joy and peace of mind to know that they are being shaped by heroes and heroines alike.

(My review of How to Be a Heroine appeared first here.)