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May Literature Review

‘Toxic masculinity’, misogyny and the empowerment of girls are oft-used themes of late – and, in many ways, rightly so. With the market flooded with children’s literature that champions women’s rights, we’ve seen brilliant titles in recent years such as Goodnight Stories for Rebel GirlsWomen in Science- 50 Fearless Pioneers who Changed the World; Little Leaders: Bold Women in Black History to name but a few. But we must not forget about boys and ensure that our focus on representing girls as being strong, bold and heroic rather than insipid, timid, aspiring princesses doesn’t become something that is not 'anti-boys'. 

To make assumptions about what young people might want to read could be very damaging we feel. We’ve always tried to strike a balance in the texts that we use, encouraging the teachers and schools we work with to do the same, in order that the literature available to children is representative of all in society. For – clearly - not all boys and men are unkind, self-serving sword-wielders: a stereotype that appears in much of children’s literature through the ages. 

 Indeed, in his recent article for The Guardian, Tim Winton writes:

 Boys and young men are so routinely expected to betray their better natures, to smother their consciences … (but) There’s so much about them and in them that’s lovely. You see, there’s great native tenderness in children. In boys, as much as in girls. But so often I see boys having the tenderness shamed out of them.

 With this in mind, we have curated a selection of texts that aims to explore this inherent tenderness that people have; literature that anyone might find inspirational but which just so happens to represent boys and men who weren’t shamed into feeling that they should ‘man-up’; boys and men who made a difference by being ‘different’. Except none of the characters we are about to meet really were ‘different’ in the way that one might perceive; they were simply themselves. So, this month our selection is: Pride: The Story of Harvey Milk and the Rainbow Flag by Rob Sanders; When the Mountains Roared by Jess Butterworth and Stories for Boys Who Dare to be Different by Ben Brooks.


Non-fiction Picture Book

Pride: The Story of Harvey Milk and the Rainbow Flag by Rob Sanders (Random House Books for Young Readers, 10th April 2018)

 This true story is the epitome of our ‘stand up and be counted’, be tender, be yourself theme; not only is what Harvey Milk stood for and the outpouring of love portrayed in this book demonstrative of ‘native tenderness’, so is the way that it has been written. Whilst it is an accurate historical recount, the narrative element is beautifully done. It is the story of the origins of the rainbow flag that has become such a symbol of hope, love and pride for LGBTQ+ across the world.

 If you don’t know who Harvey Milk was, he was simply an ordinary man, but he had an extraordinary dream. That dream would change history. 

Harvey dreamed that everyone – even gay people – would have equality. 

He dreamed that he and his friends would be treated like everyone else.

He dreamed that one day, people would be able to live and love as they pleased.

 Harvey realised that to make a difference and bring about change meant a change in the law and so he became one of the first openly gay people to be elected into politics. To have his voice heard, he arranged several marches and it was before one of these that he decided the movement needed a symbol. Dip dyeing strips of cloth that were then carefully stitched together, a new symbol of hope was born: the rainbow flag.

 The flag fluttered, flapped and flew. 

A rainbow, as bright and unique as the men and women who walked behind it, led the march.

Harvey was undoubtedly an inherently tender man. Ultimately, he gave his life for his cause: he and the mayor of San Francisco were assassinated just five months after the flag’s inception. A candle-lit procession wove its way through San Francisco, Harvey’s thousands of supporters heartbroken. But Harvey’s dream hadn’t reached an end…

Following him being post-humously awarded the ‘Presidential Medal of Freedom’ by Barack Obama in 2009, May the 22nd has now become ‘Harvey Milk’ day in America.

Such a poignant account of a powerful and moving story that changed the world, we feel that this book is so important that it should be on every bookshelf in every primary classroom. 


When the Mountains Roared by Jess Butterworth (Orion Children’s Books 5th April 2018)

Granted, you may wonder why Butterworth’s latest novel has been included in this selection given that she’s female and the main protagonist is also female but actually the sense of tenderness that we speak of emanates through every pore of this beautifully crafted tale of ‘standing up and being counted’. This is especially true when we consider Winton’s ideas around boys and young men being‘routinely expected to betray their better natures, to smother their consciences’. Much like her first novel – Running on the Roof of the World – the plot has themes of loss, social justice and daring but there is also a huge focus on preservation of nature, strength of mind and refusing to be cowed by the unkind, self-serving sword-wielding male characters in the book. The story begins one night when Ruby, her father and Gran flee their modest home in rural Australia. Ruby has no idea why they must go so suddenly and barely has time to pack. Her father has borrowed money and, having fallen behind with repayments, the loan sharks are coming for them. 

 They sail to India – Gran and dad’s country of origin  - and as Ruby settles into life there, an extraordinary tale full of love, courage and sadness unfolds. Ruby’s mother- a conservationist – was killed in a car crash some 18 months before and this haunts Ruby but the one constant in her life is the love for nature that she inherited from her mother. So when it becomes apparent that the bosses for the hotel that Ruby’s dad is getting ready to re-open have more unsavoury plans and are using the hotel as a front for their leopard poaching, she takes it upon herself to catch the poachers red-handed in order to protect the mountain’s leopards. Her friend Praveen shows similar tenderness and a gentle timidity seeing as it is Ruby who is the trail-blazer in this story. 

 When we first meet Praveen, he has orphaned goat-kid-twins, one tucked into each pocket; he has also been comforting and hand-feeding a monkey that has become separated from his mother. Ultimately, the characters – male and female – overpower the aggressors. Even one of the poachers, who previously ran an animal sanctuary before the lure of more money and his family’s mouths to feed necessitated him turning to poaching, turns against the ringleader; he was able to freely show his better nature and conscience.

This would be the perfect novel for children in year 5 and 6 and would work just as well as a class novel as it would a reading or writing teaching text.


Non-fiction anthology

Stories for Boys Who Dare to be Different by Ben Brooks (Quercus, 5th April 2018)

This eagerly anticipated release is stunning: the sub-title is ‘True Tales of Amazing Boys who Changed the World Without Killing Dragons’. And thank goodness the world has been given this gift – it has been so needed. In much the same vein as the ‘Goodnight Stories for Rebel Girls’, this anthology has inspirational stories of boys and men – some very famous and some not so – who were extraordinary in their own way. 

 Many of the people featured overcame huge obstacles in their lives and, somehow, had the courage to use their experiences for the greater good. Take Ghyslain Raza’s story: a huge Star Wars fan, as a child he created a video of himself swinging a golf club in the manner of a lightsabre. But the school bullies got hold of the video and posted it online. Raza became famous but for all the wrong reasons. And the bullying at school and the online abuse he received knocked his confidence for quite some time. Some years later, self-esteem restored, he went to university. Meanwhile, the popularity of Star Wars had grown and many fans willingly posted videos of themselves wielding lightsabres. Raza was ultimately hailed by lightsabre choreography group, The Golden Gate Knights as their chosen one that brought us all into the light. And now many younger people freely enjoy the sci-fi/comic con scene without fear of ridicule,

 Also featured: Ralph Lauren – a man who is synonymous with wealth yet started from humble beginnings; the iconic Salvador Dali – a boy who, at school, looked and acted too different to be understood; Achmat Hassiem – shark attack survivor, who lost his leg and then went on to become a Paralympic swimmer; Frederick Douglass, a slave who escaped on the Underground Railroad and was instrumental in campaigning not just against slavery but also for women’s rights and Irish independence. Harvey Milk features too.

 So many courageous stories of triumph over adversity are included and we hope that this will be the sort of literature that inspires, empowers and encourages boys – and girls – to dare to be different, whatever that means for them. For tenderness is inherent and there is tenderness in abundance in this gorgeous book. 

 One for classroom bookshelves in key stage 2 and would also make a lovely gift.








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