Saturday, 7 February 2015


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). 


Sofie Marie said...

Oh my god, as soon as I saw the picture on your twitter, I knew this would be about Reckless Ruby! It was my absolute favourite as a kid, and I constantly asked my parents to let me read it to them at bedtimes or have my brother read it to me in peculiar voices. I even did a small project about it in primary school. I too have revisited it later and realised maybe why I loved it so much- the mad illustrations, the extreme and funny humor, and most importantly the feminist aspect of the feisty girl rebelling.

I'm not sure about today's publishing world. I think it's easy to sigh with nostalgia, but I imagine there's still fabulously dark tales for kids being published because so many writers will be influenced by the the likes of Maurice Sendak, Roald Dahl and others.


Melanie said...

How do you find time for school with all the writing you're doing? A delightful dilemma if it is one. I enjoyed your pieces very much. About Le Pen, her popularity is very troubling, and well done for being there - on the outside!
I love how you are protecting the tree fort. Your red reminds me of a very strong-willed Riding Hood who would never be tricked by a wolf. Beautiful shoot.

KD said...

Such cute pictures--very whimsical. I love the red on you :)
Check out my new post?



My temperamental internet connection just deleted my comment, but I wanted to say that was quite an excellent article on the debrief about Le Pen. You bring the Reckless Ruby tales to life in your vintage outfit. That hat is marvellous! :)

Kitsune-kun said...

THIS TREEHOUSE! ahhhhh sooo great<3

Lola Byatt said...

I think books definitely showed me that girls don't have to be in any particular way, they don't have to abide by what is expected of them (I was raised in a similar way, made to believe that girls/women are second to boys/men. That marriage is my ultimate goal and having kids and being a mum are the second). I don't think I ever read reckless ruby though she seems like a character I would love. I remember reading paper bag princess and having full admiration for Lyra from Phillip Pullman's his dark materials. I loved Matilda in Roald Dhal (she probably triumphs in my eyes when it comes to book characters) I even convinced myself that I could have telepathic powers if I put my mind to it. All of these characters helped build my views on so many important things.

It's interesting to wonder whether these books would be published now. My immediate response would have been yes. If I focused on specifically the message behind the story then I would think yes. I do believe that there have been improvements in products that are aimed at children today. There are dolls that look like real girls (!) and even Disney now has a film where happily ever after doesnt mean finding your prince. But then taking into account the health and safety of it all--I can imagine George's marvelous medicine being a firm no for today--perhaps it wouldn't which is of course a great shame.

Love your adaptation into Reckless Ruby, you look absolutely wonderful. I especially love the shoes that you've combined with dress.

Hannah said...

These two books weren't on my list as a child, but I love what you say about them! And as frequently as I try to pop my head into the children's section of bookstores, maybe I'll keep an eye out for them now.
Worringly, I think you may be right about Ruby not being able to be published now when concerns about safety are so high; but my fingers are crossed that children's literature will continue to have the wide variety and scope that it did when we were kids.

OrigamiGirl said...

Aw, I am with you on always re-loving and recapping on children's books. So many treasures. I had the Babette Cole book, but not Reckless Ruby. I did have 'A Nice Walk in the Jungle' which is about a class of school children eaten by a boa constrictor and then their teacher punches it on the nose to get it to throw them up. Yes. I often wonder if that would get published today!

I love the fun you have with your photoshoots, clambering in that castle and finding the matching accessories. You definitely push the boat out for your blog and that's awesome.

I think that books come and go in fashions too and I hope that the precious princess fad is coming to an end, with campaigns like let toys be toys it's clear that lots of parents are a little done with it.

ps. Did you ever read puddle lane books? I loved them but no one else seems to have come across them.

Cory said...

I feel like there has been a backlash against feminism in recent years, so it makes sense that children's literature would pay a price. But I agree with Lola, who I think is referring to Frozen -- I like that the ending emphasizes sisterly love over romantic love.
This post reminds me that as a four-year-old I cried at the end of The Little Mermaid because Ariel stopped being a mermaid in order to marry Eric. It seemed like the worst thing in the world to me, because being a mermaid seemed so wonderful. Guess I missed the intended message there ( :

Katia Pellicciotta said...

Aaaah you make so many great points!! And oh my god Babette Cole I loved her. This reminds me of something I used to think about a lot, which was that the most difficult sort of author to be would be one for children, as they get bored with any story that isn't simply extraordinarily good. What you've said on the "industry almost entirely dictated by market forces" I hope this idea can still hold true. And we need more anti-patriarchy stories for kids for sure!!!

Closet Fashionista said...

I've never heard of that story, but it sounds pretty awesome! I know what you mean though, I do agree that a lot of stories that were popular when we were younger wouldn't be around today because parents are so crazy about kids being safe, etc. When I was little I would play at my friends house, run down the street and my mom wouldn't even care as long as I was home for dinner. Now parents always have to be watching their kids (or worse - sit them in front of video games all day)

Carlota Antolin Vallespin said...

You are just amazing when you emulate characters!! You always find the right place, the right dress, the right vibe!!
I wish I have known Ruby as a child... maybe i would have more courage to be different.

About my velvet coat I just want to proudly say that is from Humana!!! For me that's amazing because I'm not such a good second hand hunter as you :)


Ivana Split said...

This is the first time I'm seeing this character, but she sounds delightful. Your own images of reckless Ruby are what you're wearing...and the photos even more...and the text the most.

I'm quite worried at how stereotypical children's literature is these days....and you're quite right...who know would it get published nowadays.... I always have hard time buying stories for my nephew because most of them are most of the time I invent stories for him.

Congrats for that article on second hand shopping being published...I'll check it out.

My own childhood hero was Kosjenka (can be translated as Like- a- Shadow) and she is somewhat reckless herself...

Miu said...

Princess Smartypants was in the waiting room of my dentist when I was still a child and I read it everytime I was there :D

Helen Le Caplain said...

Love the dress and your fun pics!