September 2007

Eryn Loeb

Girl, Interrupting

Dangerous Books and Cautionary Tales

It’s easy to divide women into two groups: those who stick to the proverbial path, and those who stray from it. We see it all the time, in alarmist news reports, primetime tween dramas, and of course, fairy tales. It’s exasperating. But in Rosie Little’s Cautionary Tales for Girls, Australian writer Danielle Wood manages to work the oversimplification to her advantage. This group of loosely related stories is for the girl who gets purposely lost on the way to her grandmother’s house, and for the woman she grows up to be. Wood is interested in the kinds of unfortunate events that are specific to those of the female persuasion, and wants to remind “girls who have boots as stout as their hearts… about the dangers that lurk both in dark forests and in the crevices of one’s own imaginings.” The concept, if not entirely original, is still pretty irresistible. And it doesn’t hurt that this is a gorgeous edition, a compact hardcover that begs to be read under a blanket while sipping a steaming drink spiked with something dark and a little dangerous.

Fairy tales have always conveyed not-so-subtle lessons and instructions, with wolves and glass slippers and witches standing in for judgments of all kinds. Each story in Rosie Little is labeled with a theme or virtue (things like “Virginity,” “Truth,” “Art,” and “Longing”), and its heroines don’t always learn the lesson they’re meant to. Tales that hinge on fantastical elements -- a boyfriend’s fawning attentions render his girlfriend immobile; a woman climbs a beanstalk to escape her office job -- are mixed up with more straightforward stories, like one girl’s teenage love affair with a beautiful boy whose “pleasingly changeable sweetmeat” she’s delighted to discover. When she stays out late with him one night, she says she’ll tell her overbearing guardian, “I was out in the woods, picking flowers.”

These kinds of reference points lend depth to familiar situations, with their echoes of fictional foremothers who found themselves locked in towers regardless of whether they succeeded or failed. Wood has a knack for translating everyday moments into bewitching, detailed images that are at once classic and thoroughly contemporary. In a story meant to impart a lesson about beauty, “Henri took Justine to a smart street in the city, to a boutique with shop girls as thin as straps of liquorice.” The tellingly titled “The Anatomy of Wolves” features a cohabiting couple “folded into each other like a pair of socks.” The stories start off a little cruel and pleasingly dark, with an account of lost virginity that includes a primer “On Penises.” By the end they’ve gotten sad in a way that feels a bit forced, and less satisfying. What does it mean that the younger girls seem more heroic than the women they grow up to be?

Wendy Shalit, author of Girls Gone Mild, thinks her book is also for girls who stray from the path. Having conveniently decided that “real” rebellion means exercising caution and modesty, Shalit’s morals and young female subjects read much more like fantasies than those in Rosie Little. “The plain fact is that girls today need to be ‘bad’ to fit in, just as the baby boomers needed to be good,” she argues. “And we are finding that this new script may be more oppressive than the old one ever was.” Probably needless to say, her idea of “bad” has everything to do with sex, which in her mind has become so compulsory that it’s not something a girl can actually choose.

Admittedly, Shalit is an easy target (the final in a series of “exercises” after each chapter asks “Is there a way for a young woman to impress others, without having to be mean or compromise her value system? Yes, there is, and it’s called apple pie.” The author’s favorite pie recipe follows.) Other writers have been more articulate and convincing in their critiques of our hyper-sexualized culture. The real problem is that girls are presented with two such distinct tracks, and neither a life of cautionary tales nor one of “mildness” is especially appealing.

Meanwhile, The Dangerous Book for Boys sings the praises of old-fashioned activities, but with a different goal in mind. As co-author Conn Iggulden told Amazon.com, “I think we've become aware that the whole ‘health and safety’ overprotective culture isn't doing our sons any favors. Boys need to learn about risk. They need to fall off things occasionally, or -- and this is the important bit -- they'll take worse risks on their own.” The book’s short section on “Girls” (buried between instructions on fossils, secret inks, and making a bow and arrow) begins “You may have already noticed that girls are quite different from you,” and continues with eight points of instruction including “avoid being vulgar” and “play a sport of some kind.”

Well, next month Harper Collins is publishing The Daring Book for Girls. Keep your fingers crossed.