Girls Who Can are Girls Who Can Pivot, a guest post by Jennifer Richard Jacobson
For quite some time now, we’ve been hearing about strong girls in children’s literature. I must admit that the more I write about girls, the more I object to the adjective’s use. It’s not because strong implies girls should demonstrate more of the traits we’ve considered traditionally masculine (though it does), nor because it suggests that strength is not normative in girls (though it does), but because it’s an easy package that makes short work of the complexities and nuances that might truly support kids as they grow into their truest, healthiest selves.
My Twig and Turtle chapter book series features sisters who undoubtedly have their strengths. Turtle is a six-year-old who knows what she wants in life and goes after it. She’s full of shiny ideas. In the newest book Time for Teamwork, she builds a pop-up craft booth on the sidewalk, out of snow. Eight-year-old Twig feels less enterprising, less shiny, but eventually lands on an idea that she decides to execute entirely on her own. Building on her natural ability to help others, she starts her own handy girl business. And like many first-time business owners (or long-time writers), Twig bites off more than she can chew. What does she do when things go missing while organizing the neighbor’s shed . . . and the dog she’s sitting gets away . . . and the washing machine overflows? She pivots and calls in friends. Order is restored and she reassesses. When it comes to pleasing others, she’s learned a good deal about the need to set boundaries. She’s also learned that it’s not a weakness to ask for help. (Ironically, if you Google “strong girls” you will come across an article that discusses twelve things strong, independent girls don’t do. One of those twelve reads, “They don’t fail to handle their own situations.” Ack!)
Turtle exhibits agency—an unwavering can-do attitude. Twig is sensitive to the needs of others and eager to please. But Twig’s loyalty allows her to quickly gain the trust of others and her determination to make things right allows her to change course. Turtle experiences joy and empathy. Twig experiences jealousy, excitement, fear, remorse, bravery. So, who’s the stronger girl?
Turtle is like the female comic book character who appears on page one wielding her sword. Her strength is a fait accompli (at least for the time being). Twig, on the other hand, grapples with choices and a full range of feelings in each story. Her internal life allows readers to accompany her on a social-emotional journey and come out mentally stronger.
I would argue that both girls are demonstrating admirable strengths. They honor their desires, take healthy risks, make mistakes, and grow. In Book 2: Toy Store Trouble, Twig and Turtle take it upon themselves to rearrange the toys organized by pink and blue packaging. The toy store owner (who we might argue has a strong personality) gets angry, and the girls are sent home. But that’s not the end of the story of course. Instead, the girls try again. They propose a more workable system. The owner doesn’t adopt their particular strategy, but she does reconsider the message she’s sending to kids.
If we’re not careful, “strong” becomes one more expectation, one more idealization, we’re placing on young women (a calamity all too known especially by girls of color). Peyton, the almost-thirteen-year-old protagonist of my middle grade novel Crashing in Love, is a perfectionist—a girl who believes that by constantly improving herself, she can prevent herself from feeling sadness or shame. She memorizes aphorisms (which she pushes on her friends) and even creates a checklist for her “perfect boyfriend” to avoid getting hurt: must be cute, must have good hygiene. No doubt, if Peyton created a similar checklist for herself, it would be far more exacting. And knowing Peyton as I do, Must be strong would be at the top of the list. But the last thing Peyton needs is to fortify her stalwartness. Instead, her growth by story’s end comes from recognizing that vulnerability, flexibility, and the acceptance of mistakes will bring her to a healthier, happier place.
Sometimes strength is called for in life, sometimes vulnerability makes us stronger. What’s important is that we allow for a full range of human emotions and individualized reactions. That we acknowledge that risking mistakes is one of the strongest things we can do.
We don’t need book displays of “strong girls.” We need to support kids with nuanced book discussions about protagonists who trust themselves to pivot, rather than rely on the aphorisms on the wall. Let’s teach them that strength in ourselves and change in the world comes from a determination to grow.
When it comes to the “strong girl,” let’s reject the box. Let’s pivot.
Meet the author
Jennifer Richard Jacobson is the author of over twenty books for young readers, including the award-winning Small as an Elephant and Paper Things. She lives in Maine and when not writing, works as a writing coach for aspiring authors.
About Twig and Turtle 5: Time for Teamwork
A handy girl business quickly becomes a headache when Twig stretches herself too thin and has to ask her friends for help in the fifth book in the Twig and Turtle chapter book series, perfect for fans of Ivy and Bean and Judy Moody.
Inspired by helping out at Sudsy’s, Twig sets up her own business doing odd jobs. Little sister Turtle, Angela, David, and all of Twig’s other friends want to be a part of this new venture, too, but Twig is determined that she wants to do this all on her own. And she’s really good at it!
But success can be very tricky, and when Twig overpromises her services to too many people, she doesn’t know where to turn. Her DYI is looking like it’s destined for disaster. Thankfully, a sister and some good friends know the perfect fix for her big problem: some elbow grease and a little teamwork.
In the fifth book in the Twig and Turtle chapter book series, themes of entrepreneurship, determination, and teamwork take center stage. Fans of Ivy and Bean and Judy Moody will find this latest installment hard to resist.
Publisher: Holiday House
Publication date: 11/16/2021
Series: Twig and Turtle #5
Age Range: 7 – 9 Years
Filed under: Uncategorized
About Amanda MacGregor
Amanda MacGregor works in an elementary library, loves dogs, and can be found on Twitter @CiteSomething.
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