by Lari Don
144 pages, Bloomsbury
Review by Hereward L.M. Proops
It’s not easy being the parent of a little girl. It seems that everywhere I turn, my daughter is being bombarded with images of beautiful princesses and waif-like pop-starlets. This isn’t anything new, of course. The mass media has been filling the heads of little girls with such bizarre messages for a staggeringly long time. I just haven’t really been bothered by it before. However, the little baby I once read Moby Dick to every night is now a bubbly little five year old and, like all five year old girls, she is obsessed with fairies, unicorns and princesses. When I ask her what she wants to be when she is older, she replies “a fairy princess”, as if it is the most normal thing in the world. I don’t want to piss on her chips and point out to her that she should have more realistic ambitions about adulthood, but I can’t help but wonder whether some of the princesses she idolises are such great role models.
Cinderella seems to let everyone walk all over her from the beginning. Passive to the point of being virtually horizontal, Cinders seems to say “Yes” to everyone; her stepmother, the ugly sisters and even the fairy godmother manage to push the poor girl around. Redemption comes in the form of a handsome prince who chooses his bride (there’s no word of the young lady’s choice in this matter). All Cinderella has to do to get her happy ending is say “Yes” one more time.
Aurora from “Sleeping Beauty” somehow decides that Prince Phillip is the one for her after a fleeting encounter with him in the woods. In all seriousness, I find the speed at which these wilting maidens fall in love to be a bit worrying. Of course, Aurora has been essentially abandoned by her real parents and brought up by a trio of wholly incompetent fairies whose parenting skills would most likely lead to social services being involved. Starved of real parental affection and human warmth, is it any wonder the poor girl forms an unhealthy attachment to the first strange man that shows an interest in her?
We’re told from the outset that Belle from “Beauty and the Beast” is intelligent and well-read. However, she doesn’t seem so smart when she becomes a textbook example of Stockholm syndrome and falls in love with the hideous creature (not just his appearance, the Beast’s behaviour is totally dickish too) who has taken her prisoner.
Only Merida from Disney’s “Brave” shows an independent spirit not willing to be confined by arranged marriage. Unfortunately the way in which the House of Mouse have marketed big-breasted ‘beautified’ Princess Merida products shows how much they really value such a free-spirited message.
I’m not going so far as to stop my daughter watching these films, but I do try to broaden her horizons a little bit by reading her bedtime stories that have strong female characters. This is why Lari Don’s “Girls, Goddesses & Giants” is so very dear to my heart. Don’s book collects twelve stories of heroines from around the world. In little over a hundred pages, the author manages to retell legends and folktales from a diverse range of cultures, making them accessible enough for young readers whilst still retaining their unique folky flavour. In one story we are following a Viking maiden with a cursed sword, in the next we are learning about wise Sumerian goddesses. Another story will tell us about how a brave Native American girl sacrificed herself for the benefit of her tribe, whilst another tells of a daring Japanese pearl-diver who battles a dangerous sea monster.
Although the stories in the collection are generally child-friendly, Don doesn’t shy away from the blood and violence of the original tales. In the Indian myth “Durga and the Demon”, a ten-handed warrioress is given ten weapons by the gods to engage in bloody combat with a shape-shifting demon named Mahisha. My personal favourite story, “Chi and the Seven-Headed Dragon”, sees a teenage girl lopping off the multiple heads of a girl-eating dragon. More sensitive little ones might find some of the details a bit grisly but I found it refreshing to read a book aimed at girls that avoided being stereotypically “girly”. Similarly, Don manages to inject a healthy dose of scatological humour in the book with the inclusion of Cameroonian folktale “Mbango and the Whirlpool” where a girl finds herself having to eat a plateful of pig dung. The French folktale “The Wolf in the Bed” is an old version of Red Riding Hood which doesn’t include a last-minute rescue by a male woodcutter but does include a sequence where Red Riding Hood manages to escape from the cross-dressing wolf by saying she needs to go to the toilet. Any parent will tell you that children love this sort of coarse humour and there’s no doubt that Don is aware of her target audience.
Don’s prose is pleasingly direct and fuss-free. The stories never get bogged down in description and the action (of which there is much) clips along at a fair old pace. Each tale is the perfect length for a bedtime story and so never overstay their welcome. The mark of a good children’s book is its re-readability. Children love repetition but there is only so many times a parent can return to their child’s favourite bedtime story before insanity comes a-knocking. “Girl’s, Goddesses & Giants” stands out as a book that both parent and child will be happy to return to again and again.
Accessible and readable, with a host of strong female characters and a diverse, multicultural range of stories, “Girls, Goddesses & Giants” has become a firm favourite in the Proops household. If you have a little princess (or prince) whose world-view is becoming a little too Disney-fied, Lari Don’s book might prove to be the perfect antidote.
Hereward L.M. Proops
Read the author interview here.
Read the review of another book by Lari Don, “The Tale of Tam Linn” here.