International Women’s Day: scouting for hidden gems in the library

Like most English teachers, I relish the opportunity to recommend books to students. Only, for some students, browsing the library shelves feels like scouting out the enemy. They search for the least imposing, thinnest book on offer. I always enjoy shifting their perspectives – turning it into a hunt for hidden gems which will open up their minds, world view and ultimately help shape their sense of identity.

The excitement of sharing books always takes me tumbling back to my formative years trawling the shelves…

“Ok, you are looking for a book about a young girl who succeeds against all odds, stands up for herself and overcomes many obstacles with her intellect… ‘Matilda’ by Roald Dahl is a good place to start.” It is no surprise that reading this little gem five times as a seven year old got my cogs turning and yearning for more fuel to stoke my imagination. In the words of Dylan Thomas, “My education was the liberty I had to read indiscriminately and all the time, with my eyes hanging out.”

But what about our reluctant readers, I hear you cry?

It is important to consider the vocabulary level of the books you recommend and to give students plenty of opportunities to explore new words that they haven’t seen before. Explicit teaching of vocabulary within the context of aspirational texts is a must!

Back to the shelves, let’s find some female writers this time…

“Ahh, you want a story that explores the confessions of a delusional but lovable female rogue… anything by Jacqueline Wilson should do the trick.” From ‘Tracey Beaker’ to ‘Girls in Love’, Wilson gave me permission (in my awkward years of puberty) to embrace my flaws and bound unapologetically into many mishaps (and then forgive myself). It’s all part of growing up, right?!

“So, you are interested in books about friendships between girls as they move through their school years… ‘P.S Longer letter Later’ and ‘Snail mail no more’ by Paula Danziger depict an ever-evolving relationship between two close friends who live in different towns in America. Does that appeal to you?”

As I moved through KS2 to KS3, it was no surprise that I was desperate to play the Wife of Bath in our highly-abridged version of Geoffrey Chaucer’s ‘The Canterbury Tales’ – now she knew a thing or two about the world!

Then came the poetry of Carol Ann Duffy, Maya Angelou, Pam Ayres, Imtiaz Dharker and Gillian Clarke. Beyond that, the short stories of Katherine Mansfield, dystopian novels of Margaret Atwood, and the essays and novels of Virginia Woolf (most notably ‘A Room of One’s Own’).

Now all the above references are rather dated (I grew up in the 90s – what’s a girl to do?). However, the message is clear. Reading helps shape our world view and sense of place within it.

As I was nearing my final years of school, the eminent graphic novel by Marjane Satrapi was published.

Persepolis is a graphic autobiography by Marjane Satrapi that depicts her childhood up to her early adult years in Iran during and after the Islamic Revolution. I learnt so much about seismic historical events through the personal and human perspective. With the supporting images and relatable content, an academic year never passes without me lending my copy to another young woman grappling with all that comes with growing up in modern day society.

‘We should all be feminists’ states Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie within her explorative essay and corresponding TedTalk. I couldn’t agree more. Particularly when we are helping our students scout for hidden gems amongst the bookshelves!

You only need to look at the shortlist for Young Adult book award 2018 to see that the tide is turning:

  • Things a Bright Girl Can Do by Sally Nicholls
  • Indigo Donut by Patrice Lawrence
  • Moonrise by Sarah Crossan
  • It Only Happens in the Movies by Holly Bourne
  • S.T.A.G.S By M A Bennet
  • The One Memory of Flora Banks by Emily Barr

So, what books about women and young girls helped shape you during your formative years? Are there any female-centered books that you particularly enjoy teaching, or introducing to your class? Why not share them with us on Twitter? We’d love to hear about all the great fiction that inspired you!

Related News