Left to your own devices, how would you change stories when telling them to your children?
The best thing we’ve read all week is this wonderful column by Michelle Nijhuis on gender-reversing Bilbo Baggins at the suggestion of her 6 year old daughter. As Michelle explains:
I hesitated. I wanted to share the story I knew, and I had always known Bilbo as a boy. But it seemed that my daughter knew otherwise. I soon agreed to swap ‘she’ with ‘he’ and ‘her’ with ‘his’, and my daughter and I met Girl Bilbo – who turned out to be a delightful heroine. She was humble and resourceful and witty and brave. She was no tacked-on Strong Female Character with little to do, but a true heroine with her very own quest and skills. For my daughter, Girl Bilbo was thrilling. For me, she was damn refreshing.
Michelle points out that every story leaves room for interpretation by the next generation, the next writer or the next era. She cites the examples of wonderful works like Wide Saragasso Sea or A Thousand Acres that take a well-known story and supplant it somewhere else. More recently, we witnessed the same in the masterful interpretation of Hamlet as a distraught Haider in Kashmir. And literary gender-swapping is no different from these!
She talks about how revised interpretations have helped her daughter and her see so many classics in a different light:
… But children at my daughter’s developmental stage identify most strongly with their own gender, and reading about girls who have epic adventures has helped my daughter expand her own possible futures. I know this: I can see it in the games she plays, and the stories she tells. As with the fanfic writers who find personal validation in their creations, Girl Bilbo has helped my daughter imagine the person she will become.
And it made me wonder, if I had the choice, which are the books and stories I would reinterpret for my little one as I read them to her?
Would she and I enjoy the plucky Charlie and the Chocolate Factory more if we were to pretend that Charlie was Charlotte?
When we read one of our favourites Where The Wild Things Are, would it ruin our enjoyment to act as if Max was a little girl who made “mischief of one kind and another”, and not always a boy?
And what about the “creatures”? Can Sam-I-am be a pestering woman given that it is her mother who runs after her with meals more often than not? Why do we assume he’s a man in the first place? And maybe an occasional nagging parent could be a father, while the one who goes out to bring home the bread is the mother?
And when she’s a little older, wouldn’t I want adorable Fatty from the Five Find Outers to be a girl because he’s the most awesome child ever unlike the two girls from the series whose names I can’t even remember?
What about you, dear readers? What stories would you like to change when reading to your little ones?