Horrid Henry

Pink or Blue

There’s been much talk of sexism this week, thanks mainly to Nobel scientist Sir Tim Hunt. Gender issues in children’s books are not a new topic though. Much has been written on this, campaigns have been fought, including Let Books be Books, and various lobbyists have asked publishers to refrain from branding books as being for one gender or the other, such as ‘Adventure Stories for Boys’. They have largely been successful – Usborne and Scholastic have stopped this practice, although someone needs to have a word with Ferrero about their Kinder eggs (currently packaged in either blue or pink).

But looking at the statistics of the type of books borrowed by boys and girls in school libraries, there is definitely a trend that cannot be ignored. Boys read books styled for boys, and girls read pretty much anything. What do I mean by that? Let’s have a look.

Archie Hates Pink

Packaging
This definitely influences children’s choice. I tried to find a book with a pink background cover without a girl’s name on the title, and without featuring a girl protagonist. I found just one! It’s a picture book and it’s all about a male cat who hates pink (although he changes his mind at the end). All the chapter books that had pink covers featured a female protagonist, usually with her name in the title – see the images.

wendy quill Princess Disgrace

These books are very rarely borrowed by boys in my library (if at all!).

Wilf the Mighty WarriorHamish and the Worldstoppers

Books which seem to imply from their colour scheme or image that they are for boys, see images above, have been borrowed by girls (but are favoured by boys). How about completely gender neutral covers – they get borrowed by both genders right? No! These other factors come into play too:

Pippi LongstockingSophie Hits Sixslime squad

Title
The boys wouldn’t choose Pippi Longstocking or the Dick King Smith Sophie books – because the title implied they were about girls. Likewise, The Worst Witch – the boys needed persuading. However, girls quite happily borrow Horrid Henry, Claude, and others. The title doesn’t matter to them. This is really the same as my next criteria, which is lead character. Boys tell me they prefer to read about a boy, whereas girls will read about either gender, although The World of Norm and Slime Squad are more typically borrowed by boys, as is any fiction containing dinosaurs! And the girls do tend to gravitate towards stories about schools, girl friendships, animals, and theatre. Fantasy tends to be a more mixed genre.
How about the gender of the author? I’ve mentioned before how JK Rowling was asked to be JK rather than Joanne for the dual appeal, even though her book is predominantly about a boy. Does it matter to library users? The children are very happy to receive author visits from men and women authors equally, and don’t seem to pay too much attention to the gender of the author. Of course, a separate issue is whether women authors write more female protagonists and male authors more male protagonists.
With non-fiction it is difficult to tell whether publishers package some non-fiction for girls as they perceive it to be a girly subject, or whether they did research on it, and so package the non-fiction girls tend to read with more girly covers. (Chicken and egg!) The girls lean towards non-fiction on gymnastics and horses. The boys: geography and football. This is not exclusive and there is far more overlap in non-fiction than fiction.

Pony Care

Exceptions to the rule. Of course there are exceptions to the rule. There are girls who only want to read Tom Palmer football books. There are boys who are obsessed with fairy tales, in which the protagonist is quite often a girl: Little Red Riding Hood, Cinderella, Snow White, Rapunzel, The Princess and the Pea, The Sleeping Beauty, Beauty and the Beast, Rumpelstiltskin, Goldilocks.

Does it matter?

It matters to me if gender choices preclude children from reading a really great book that they might enjoy. This is why many adults join book clubs – to be introduced to books that they wouldn’t otherwise choose themselves. And this is where school librarians come in – to enable the children’s choices, but also to widen their horizon to include books they otherwise might not have picked up. No matter the cover, title, author, or main character!
What I have noticed is the current trend in middle grade fiction (8-13years) for the main character to be accompanied by a strong sidekick of the opposite sex, so that often the protagonist becomes two or three people with different genders. Eg. Phoenix by SF Said (Lucky and Bixa), The Last Wild Trilogy by Piers Torday (Kester and Polly), The D’Evil Diaries by Tatum Flynn (Jinx and Tommy), Darkmouth by Shane Hegarty (Finn and Emmy), my book of the week: The Sword of Kuromori by Jason Rohan (Kenny and Kiyomi), and Rooftoppers by Katherine Rundell (Sophie and Matteo). There are countless other examples.
Is this a shift from what’s gone before? In 2011 Professor McCabe of Florida State University conducted a study of children’s literature published between 1900 and 2000 and found that males are central characters in 57% of the books, compared with only 31% female. Male animals in 23%, and female animals the central star in 7.5%. What’s more they found that it’s the readers’ fault too – gender-neutral animal characters were frequently referred to as male by parents reading to their children. Since 2000 are authors changing who they write about? Are we becoming gradually more inclusive?
I have also found that the female protagonists or accompanying sidekicks portrayed are changing their dynamic to become bolder, braver, feistier, and more independent and often more worldly wise than the male protagonists. In my examples above, it is often the female characters who outshine the boys, even if they don’t start out as the main character. The question remains though – is it because our authors want boys to be equally enamoured by these feisty females as they are by the male leads, and read books that portray females, or is it because our girls are growing up more independent, gutsier and more capable, and our writers are simply reflecting that? I think, a bit of both!
If it matters to you, then one strategy for widening your child’s reading habits, is to probe exactly what it is about the book that they like. They may like The Worst Witch for the fact that it is about friendship, schools and magic, more than that it is about a girl. They may like Football Academy because it is about teams and friendship more than the fact that it is about a boy. More often than not, once they are halfway through the book, the cover itself doesn’t matter. Nor the title, nor the author. It’s about being immersed in the narrative. I recently saw a couple of ten year old boys devour Rooftoppers by Katherine Rundell, An Island of Our Own by Sally Nicholls, and The Executioner’s Daughter by Jane Hardstaff (all featuring female protagonists). The boys also loved Alice in Wonderland. It can be done – sometimes their choices just need a little guidance.

 

New Readers

krazy ketchup horrid henry dirty bertie jackpota home for mollyknightmare foul play

There’s a wonderful transition that happens when reading clicks for children. In the blink of an eye, suddenly they are able to read, and they read EVERYTHING. Lo and behold those of you who leave your Facebook page open, or receive uncouth words in your texts…those pesky children get everywhere! For me, as you can imagine, the real spark inside me lights up when they are so buried in their current book that they won’t get dressed for school, when they come downstairs for breakfast without lifting their head from their book. But which chapter books should they first be reading? What will propel them forwards? The series featured below are all for age 6+

krazy ketchup horrid henry

Horrid Henry by Francesca Simon, illustrated by Tony Ross
A divisive series among some parenting groups. These are hugely popular with children, and with good reason. They are lively, spritely, filled with glee for a child’s life, and even for me, rather funny. What’s more there are non-fiction versions – Horrid Henry factbooks, which appeal because of the character, but impart interesting facts on a variety of topics. However, more often than not I am approached by parents who loathe the examples of bad behaviour contained within. Personally, I think the books are great. I stock loads of them in the school library, and here’s why. Horrid Henry tests those boundaries that most children wouldn’t dream of testing themselves – it’s a way of living it out for them – children don’t act on the behaviour they read about; it’s merely a safe environment for their emotions. In the same way that we don’t commit a murder after reading Ruth Rendell, children don’t act out just because they’ve read Horrid Henry. In fact, if you read it carefully, you’ll see that Horrid Henry’s catchphrase is ‘Noooooo!’ in response to being caught. Yes, Horrid Henry really doesn’t get away with much. And Francesca Simon has made a point of saying that she doesn’t have him do anything that a child wouldn’t be able to think up.
The other reason I love Horrid Henry books is the simplistic 2D characterisation. Henry is Horrid, Margaret is Moody, Peter is Perfect. This gives very simple signposts to children as they first read longer stories, enabling them to decipher character and motive easily as they follow the plot. These sorts of signposts are also extraordinarily good for autistic children. Of course, the books also have short stories split into easy sections and good illustrations. The other reason I adore this series is that they truly do equally appeal to boys and girls.

dirty bertie jackpot

Dirty Bertie by Alan Macdonald, illustrated by David Roberts
Another hugely popular series in the same vein as Horrid Henry. By the time of his 25th adventure in Jackpot!, published May 2015, the series had sold over 750,000 copies. So what’s the difference between Horrid Henry and Dirty Bertie, you may enquire? Dirty Bertie with his friends at school such as Know-All Nick and neighbours such as Mrs Nicely, also features 2D characterisations for easy understanding, has great illustrations and each book is split neatly into three different stories for manageable first reading. Dirty Bertie though is less naughty than Horrid Henry – just has filthy habits, and is more prone to mishaps. In fact, whereas Horrid Henry schemes and devises plans, Dirty Bertie is more passive – things just seem to happen to him, or he picks up on the wrong end of the stick. He’s much gentler, but like Horrid Henry, always gets his comeuppance. In the title story of Jackpot! Dirty Bertie mistakes his grandmother’s win on the lottery as being a life-changing jackpot win and misleads his entire family. In Crumbs! Dirty Bertie mistakes salt for sugar when baking a cake – and that’s not his only mistake of the day – and in the final story Demon Dolly, Bertie’s sister wreaks some well-placed revenge on Bertie after he throws away her favourite toy. They are funny, yukky and addictive. Buy it here from Waterstones or visit the Amazon sidebar.

a home for molly

Animal Stories by Holly Webb
Another storming series for first readers which has also sold well – 650,000 to date. Each one comes packaged with an adorable animal picture on the front – saccharine for an adult perhaps, but endearing for a young child. The latest, A Home for Molly, tells the gentle story of a stray dog rescued by a little girl on holiday. Holly Webb flits between the feelings of the young girl and the feelings of the small dog to create a narrative that’s full of emotion – the little girl comparing her memories of once being lost to how the dog must feel. It hits the right notes with no great surprises, but tells the short story well with cues for empathy, including familiar parental rules and family life, and the preoccupations of being young and on holiday. The text is interspersed with a few illustrations by Sophy Williams which add to the narrative, and the text is split into short chapters. Holly Webb captures simplistic storytelling in a neat package in a formula that can be repeated without getting tiresome. It’s also nicely modern – mention of emails, Calpol!, a father who works long hours, and yet tied into a perfectly old-fashioned beach holiday. Perfect for today’s first readers. (There’s a free Animal Stories app too. You can download it here.) Buy the book here, or see the Amazon sidebar.

knightmare foul play

Knightmare by Peter Bently
This series by prolific writer Peter Bently is for those readers who want a slightly longer narrative stretch such as the Holly Webb series, but with a plethora of silly jokes and stupid happenings – and a more advanced vocabulary. Rather than based in reality, as Henry and Bertie, Knightmare is set in a time of knights and castles. Each tale is an action-packed, silly, and at times hilarious, romp through a cobbled-together medieval landscape. The fifth book of the series, Foul Play!, takes place during the May Fair, with central character Cedric – a knight in training to Sir Percy – a master who’s not quite as chivalrous or gallant as a knight should be perhaps. Before long Sir Percy is trying to avoid some relatives and some Morris men to whom he owes money, as well as attempting not to lose his castle in a bet over a football game. Medieval football though, is not quite the game it is today, and before long there is much mayhem – and many fouls! There are some lovely modern references – the cook enters a bake-off competition, the football game starts at 3pm, and there’s a fair amount of traffic heading to the fair – not to mention the parking permits! With all the excitement, plays on the historical setting and constant punning, this may be enjoyed by slightly older readers. It’s a pacey read and incredibly daft. You can buy it here from Waterstones, or on the Amazon sidebar.

 

With thanks to Stripes publishing for review copies.

Why Does My Child Persist in Only Reading Series of Books?

Naughtiest girl series
Any marketing man’s dream, many children, particularly aged between six and 10, love to read books in series. Harry Potter, Famous Five, Rainbow Fairy, Beast Quest, Astrosaurs, Horrid Henry. The question is why, and does it matter, and what are the series doing? The ones mentioned above actually do very different things.

There are some key factors to the appeal of series books for this age group. The first is stability and familiarity. Once a child empathises with a character such as Horrid Henry, and finds them funny or interesting, they want to hear about as many adventures with that character as possible. If the setting is magical and yet comforting, such as Hogwarts, the child may wish to revisit it as much as possible. Even the setting in a series such as Famous Five allows for escapism into a time and place that’s very different from the child’s own. In terms of the Rainbow Fairy series, some children latch onto the series because they want to read the story of the fairy with their own name, and then their sister’s, cousin’s, etc. There’s also, for some, the impetus to read the whole series just because they know there are twelve titles for example, or to be in competition with their friends.

Many times I have had children ask me ‘but why did the author end it there?’ when they come to the end of a favourite book. So there is great satisfaction to be derived knowing that there is a follow-on title. Children aren’t alone in this – many adults will read as many books by the same author as possible – knowing that there is a familiarity in tone, style and sometimes even character and plot devices.

Sometimes though parents can find this worrying. I have many parents moan that their child ‘will only read Horrid Henry’, or ‘I can’t get them to read anything else but Beast Quest’, and some of these series go on and on…

It can be worrying in that with some of these books the plots and characters do not develop, eg. Rainbow Fairies, but simply shift shape slightly and there is no growth in vocabulary. Others can provide a growth – as we know in Harry Potter the characters grow older with each book, and the adventures get darker. Either way, with a series of books, two things matter here. One, that the child is reading something – and enjoying it. And secondly, to remember that the child will move on in their own time. One day they will simply get bored and pick up the next thing. What’s most important is that they are enjoying reading. From personal experience I read ALL the Famous Five books, and yet still graduated to reading George Eliot, Ian McEwan, and many many more!

For those series that don’t follow a chronological or sequential order, but just keep churning out more adventures, there can still be much to gain from. Many children adore the Horrid Henry books, starting with the Early Readers and moving onto the more advanced series. What stands out for me with Horrid Henry is that they are not unlike some of the very early readers, such as Topsy and Tim, which introduce first experiences. Horrid Henry just does this at a later stage, introducing many first school experiences for children – Horrid Henry’s Nits, Horrid Henry Tricks the Tooth Fairy,  Horrid Henry’s Sports Day (the list goes on!). It can be comforting for children starting to read independently to read about a familiar character with similar problems to their own, and of course, a character who makes them laugh.

Horrid Henry series

Other series do work in a chronological or sequential order and can be frustrating for both parents and children when the numbers aren’t printed on the spines! (Publishers take heed!). An excellent website to help you is www.childrensbooksequels.co.uk
an invaluable resource if your child is unsure which Dork Diary precedes which! One of my daughters is so enamoured with the Judy Moody series that instead of waiting for the next in the series (due out January 2015, Judy Moody, Mood Martian), she’s writing her own!

Judy Moody series

A last word of advice – if your child is obsessed with reading these kinds of series, Astrosaurs, Beast Quests etc, try to choose a completely different book to read to them. That way, you’re making sure that they can continue reading what they love, but you’re introducing different styles, formats, characters, and plots.