Thursday, December 19, 2019

The Pleasures of Reading, Viewing, and Listening in 2019, pt.12: Tansy Rayner Roberts

2019 Pleasures
by Tansy Rayner Roberts

One of the greatest pleasures I have these days is bedtime reading with my youngest daughter. She’s ten, and the fact that she still wants to spend this time with me feels like a miracle.

We brush hair, we read to each other, I explain challenging vocabulary, we discuss books and narrative. It’s all very idyllic. Because we’re both scattershot readers who don’t like to stick to the same thing, we have four series of books in rotation, which means plenty of reading material to come for 2020.

We’re reading:

The Tiffany Aching series by Terry Pratchett. Fun to read aloud if only for the dodgy Scottish accents required for the phonetically-speaking Wee Free Men. I found the extended dream/flashback sequences of the first book were a little long to read aloud, but perfect for sending a kid off to sleep. The rest of it is just funny and sweet and far too exciting to send a kid off to sleep. My daughter’s intro to the Discworld came with the Witches board game, which meant that Hat Full of Sky was a revelation, as a source for many of the game’s references and in-jokes.

Robin Stevens’ Murder Most Unladylike series set in a 1930s girls boarding school is just wonderful. For a series that’s clearly marked as middle grade, it does have some mature content, but no more than your average Agatha Christie TV adaptation. (So many teachers… getting murdered.) The protagonist, Hazel Wong, is nuanced and compelling with her pile of insecurities, and her quiet observances of her privileged, white classmates.

Alanna, by Tamora Pierce! So far we’ve only read the first adventure, and I’m aware that Alanna grows up pretty quickly as of the next book, but I’m keen to continue these with Ms10, especially now I know there’s a TV series on the way. I didn’t discover Alanna until my teens, but it’s lovely to share this critically important fantasy series while she’s young, before her reading expectations get moulded by the more dude-centric examples of the genre.

Tamora Pierce taught me that it was OK to have fantasy adventures that addressed women’s health, periods, safe contraception etc., and that a woman could grow up tough and cynical without having some traumatic backstory to explain why she would rather handle a sword than a spindle. (And the later books taught me that it was also important to celebrate female characters with more traditionally ‘feminine’ skills and priorities too) I’m excited to go on this journey with my bookworm daughter.

Pierce recently discussed Alanna as a gender-fluid character, and I saw a lot of criticism of that online, comparing it to the JK Rowling belated ‘Dumbledore was gay’ announcement. Because if it’s “not in the books” it doesn’t count. I am 100% there with the Dumbledore concern (and honestly if Sirius and Remus weren’t in love with each other does the Prisoner of Azkaban even make sense?) but in the case of Alanna? IT IS ON THE PAGE. The whole first novel is not just about a girl putting on a disguise as a boy, it’s about a young person who is desperately trying to escape the constraints of her gender, and finding her true self once her breasts are bound and she is able to pass as a boy among her peers. She later learns to embrace her female side as well, but much like other genderqueer/gender-frustrated characters of older literature like Jo March or George from the Famous Five, Alanna is expressing something important without having our modern vocabulary to deal with it. I’ll be interested to see how this works on screen, as compared to a novel that is nearly as old as I am.

The last book series of our bedtime reading rotation is the Dragon with the Chocolate Heart, by Stephanie Burgis. This wonderful series of novels about chocolate-making and city politics makes for a perfect night-time read with its short, punchy chapters and beautiful use of language. I’ve watched my daughter struggle over long words and grow confident with pronunciation, while also getting deeply invested in the plot. The balance of humor, angst, and creativity is really working for us both — and the exciting thing is that, as with the Robin Stevens books, I hadn’t read beyond the first volume myself, so we’re discovering it together going forward.

I often used to think about the books I would share with my kids as they grew up — and in some cases, have been desperately wrong. My strong-willed children like to choose their own media. But the exciting thing is not just getting to share books I loved when I was younger (when the suck fairy has not left them a smoking wreckage) but also finding the books that had not yet been written, when I was ten years old.

The next stage, as I’m learning from my grumpy teenager, is getting a chance to enjoy media that they have recommended to me. Which is even more joyful than being their curator and librarian.

Tansy Rayner Roberts is a writer, a reader, and a podcaster. You can read her holiday novella 'Merry Happy Valkyrie' on any ebook platform, or check out her podcast Sheep Might Fly where she reads new and reprint fiction in bite-sized serial installments. Follow Tansy on Twitter @tansyrr and sign up to her newsletter for more reading recs, tea reviews and book-related news.

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