'Fictional heroes take you on an imaginative journey'

Published on: 30 Medi 2012 Author: Viv Bird

The 2012 Children's Book Week poster is illustrated by Rebecca CobbWhen my children were growing up and were upset when they got something wrong we would joke, well you're only 'practically' perfect, not perfect like Mary Poppins, and they would remember those amazing adventures and we would laugh and it was alright again. At bath time we would chant the ditty:

There was a little girl who had a little curl right in the middle of her forehead
When she was good she was very very good and when she was bad she was horrid.

Reading stories and singing traditional rhymes help children to come to terms with an imperfect world. The great thing about fictional heroes is that they take you on an imaginative journey where you alone can decide whether to accept or condemn what they do, drawing your own moral boundaries around their adventures, knowing that even your heroes get frustrated or have to deal with seemingly insurmountable problems - yet it will come out all right in the end.

Though we still love the stories of  A Little Princess or Matilda, we have no truck with a child coming out morally stronger for having had the miserable childhood endured by these classical fictional heroines. But we can still enjoy those characters that find a way out of unhappiness through their response to human kindness, such as the classic The Selfish Giant. And I am always struck by how quality illustrators can create powerful allies among their readers. Mr Big, by Ed Vere, and Willy the Wimp by Anthony Browne - a title that always makes children chuckle - are both brilliant stories where the illustrations complement the words to create magnificent anti-heroes loved by all who read them.

Many well-known heroines in children's literature challenge traditional gender stereotypes. Even as a child I used to identify with George in Enid Blyton's The Famous Five because she was given the freedoms usually associated with boys. What a sign of the times that was; ten years or so later in my first job I was told I should learn to type and then I might just be 'good enough' to be a secretary (I failed miserably). And just look at the modern day princess stories - and I include Roald Dahl's still wonderful poem about Little Red Riding Hood dealing with the big bad wolf by whipping out a pistol from her knickers - countering the classic Disney heroine as someone who needed to be rescued from a castle, or grateful if dad found them a decent husband, preferably very rich. It would be gratifying if these and other fictional heroines had led to more women in the corridors of power but, alas, we have a way to go yet!

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