One of my favourite forms of procrastination when I’m back at home during holidays is taking veeeeery extended coffee breaks with my parents. They’re both self-employed, so usually at least one of them is working somewhere around the house. We’ll sit, cupping warm mugs, chit-chatting over anything from practical tasks to new, fizzing ideas.
Over the Christmas break, there was one particular morning when I sat with my mum on the landing, weak sun straining through the windows (illuminating just how much dust had settled). Behind us was a bookshelf stacked with everything I’d had read to me, when I was a tiny toddler in dungarees and bobbly jumpers – plus the picture books, fairytales and traditional world stories I’d gobbled up before moving on to the more sophisticated (at that point) worlds of Enid Blyton. We spent ages cooing over some of the bright covers and battered, much-turned pages, recalling particular favourites, hunting along the spines for old friends and recalling narratives that had long lain dormant.
Then, squeezed in next to each other, I re-discovered two cherished gems. The first was Reckless Ruby by Hiawyn Oram (first published 1992, illustrated by Tony Ross), the second, Princess Smartypants by Babette Cole. Both, in rather different ways, are brilliantly feminist – smart, feisty (in the proper sense of the word) texts about girls who refuse to do what’s expected. I cackled with glee on re-reading them, nodding appreciatively at these strong-willed individuals who were bored of special treatment and the prospect of marriage. They both wanted to do stuff. Silly stuff. Dangerous stuff. Their own stuff.
Reckless Ruby skateboards and walks tightropes and (in my favourite ever picture-book image) smokes five cheroots in the shrubbery (!), all because she refuses to be “wrapped in cotton-wool and grow up to marry a prince”. Princess Smartypants sets a series of ever-more ridiculous challenges for her tedious suitors, and then still refuses the successful one – swanning off in her dungarees instead, with her menagerie of pet monsters.
I took such books for granted at the time – assuming that young women could do, or be, whatever they wanted. Classic fairytale plot-lines rubbed shoulders with rule-breakers and little girls full of rebellion. The idea of laughing in the face of both male entitlement and/ or the parental expectation of traditional stories was just as familiar as the archetypal ‘happy ever after’.
But I wonder whether Reckless Ruby would be published today? In an industry almost entirely dictated by market forces, children’s choices have, perhaps, been narrowed down. Oh, there’s magic and pretty dresses and gleaming teeth a-plenty, and fairies of every description. But the type of behaviour engaged in by Ruby - who “grew so reckless she said she could dive off any roof into a fishbowl…and dangle from skyscrapers by her shoelaces…and walk on water in lead boots…” - would it really make it past the shuddering health and safety concerns of 2015? Would Roald Dahl be published now? There was a genuine autonomy and free-spiritedness in many books from the end of the last century. Is it still there in today’s crop? I don’t know. Maybe I’m wrong (and I’d love to be corrected, if so), and maybe you can still find that kind of joy, play and sheer single-mindedness in contemporary children’s fiction, not to mention robust role models and strong endings. But if not, we need them more than ever.
(And if you don’t want to know how Reckless Ruby ends, look away now – once released from the tyranny of being expected to be ‘precious’ she’s able to ‘stop being reckless and grow up’ to be… a fireman).
To emulate Reckless Ruby's naughty antics and fabulous outfit, I used a vintage dress I bought in Paris last summer - pairing it with a hat that belonged to my great-grandma and some shoes from a charity shop. Many thanks to my brother for allowing me to clamber around his tree house.
It's also been a busy few days for me. Earlier this week I had another article published on The Guardian's website, discussing the joys of junk shops and second hand finds to furnish your house-share or room in halls. Then the day before yesterday I went to protest far right French politician Marine Le Pen's appearance at the Oxford Union. I shouted, got very cold, and wrote it all up for The Debrief (which I'm super-excited about, as I LOVE their website).