Jeanette Winterson: Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? (2011)

Why Be Happy

In 1985 Jeanette Winterson’s first novel, Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, was published. It was Jeanette’s version of the story of a terraced house in Accrington, an adopted child, and the thwarted giantess Mrs Winterson. It was a cover story, a painful past written over and repainted. It was a story of survival.

This book is that story’s the silent twinIt is full of hurt and humour and a fierce love of life. It is about the pursuit of happiness, about lessons in love, the search for a mother and a journey into madness and out again. It is generous, honest and true.

Jeanette Winterson’s first novel Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit is largely inspired by her childhood. Her memoir Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? tells the other side of the story. That what was left out. It took me a long time to read this memoir. I started it four times, not because it’s not good, but because reading it was painful. The first part, until Jeanette leaves home at 16 and her mother asks her the question that has become the title of the book, is painful and disturbing for many reasons. The wit and the humor she uses to describe her awful childhood made me shudder. Shudder because I didn’t get it. I didn’t understand how you could live through so much pain and not go crazy, to write a book at 21 and become famous and leave it all behind. I was glad she proved to be so resilient, but it made me uneasy. I kept on thinking: When is it going to happen? When will she break down? Is that still in the future? I don’t think that you can survive a childhood like Winterson’s and not break down eventually. It’s just a matter of time.The second part of the book deals with what came much later. Jeanette Winterson’s descent into madness (her terms), her breakdown and attempted suicide in 2008. Reading that felt like entering a freshly aired room. I know this may sound weird, but the beginning made me choke. I couldn’t believe that she’d left it all behind and only when I read about the descent into madness, did I finally feel glad for her. Now she can move on.

Jeanette Winterson was adopted by the Wintersons when she was 6 months old. She was never told who her real parents were and her mother always said that the devil led them to the wrong crib, meaning she would have liked another child, a nicer child. This is such a typical statement from a woman like Mrs Winterson who is a depressed zealot and always utters half-truths in bible-inspired metaphor. Jeanette Winterson says that all of her books start with individual meaningful sentences and we see where that comes from. Her mother often only says one dark ominous sentence over and over again. Sometimes without any apparent connection to what just happens or what was just said. “Ask not for whom the bell tolls . . .”, “It’s a fault to heaven, a fault against the dead and a fault to nature . . . ” Uttered without any context or referring to very mundane things like the gas oven blowing up, these sentences are either creepy or hilarious.

Winterson grew up in the North of England, near Manchester and she loves this part of the country, lovingly tells us about its history, which is quite interesting. The Wintersons are not only religious fanatics but working class and her mother is so suspicious of books that she confiscates and burns all of those Jeanette has been hiding.

Punishment is frequent and comes in different forms. Either Jeanette is beaten or left outside all night and day, on the door step, even in winter.

When she falls in love with a girl, and Mrs W finds out, they perform an exorcism. Jeannette finally leaves at 16. She only returns once, when she’s studying in Oxford and things go very wrong. That’s the last time she sees her mother.

As you may have guessed, this isn’t an easy book to write about. I marked so many passages and sentences that hardly any page is left white. Jeanette Winterson has a way with words that is amazing. Although I don’t always agree, I find the sentences, many of which are used in her novels, arresting.

In her novel Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, Jeanette Winterson paints her mother like a giantess and in her memoir she says she was too large for her circumstances. I was puzzled that there was no explanation whatsoever why Mrs W was the way she was. Mean, fanatic, abusive, depressed and just plain crazy. She had her dreams and her wishes, but smothered them. She lived as if she was wearing a very tight corset. The Wintersons were Pentecostals and the religion was like a mental corset.

If you like memoir, then you should read this. It’s disturbing, but it’s so amazingly well written and the first part has hilarious moments. Mrs Winterson is crazy, but she really is larger than life. She reminded me of some of Picasso’s paintings of grotesquely deformed women. We read about her with horror, but at the same time we almost wishes we had been there. I even felt compassion, there were small details that could almost make her endearing. At the end of the book, when Jeanette Winterson has found her birth mother and looks back on her childhood, she says she’s glad Mrs Winterson was her mother. Although she was crazy and abusive, she made her who she is, maybe without such an adoptive mother, there wouldn’t be a writer like Jeanette Winterson. I can understand that thinking very well.

Will Schwalbe: The End of Your Life Book Club (2012) A Memoir

End of Your Life Book Club

Will Schwalbe’s memoir The End of Your Life Book Club is one of those books that needs a review because it’s hard to tell from the blurb what it is about. Sure, it’s about books and the love for books and a beautiful friendship between a mother and son, but more than that it’s about an amazing woman and her terminal illness. People who pick this up may think, like I did, that it was to a large extent about books, which isn’t the case. Books are mentioned on every other page, but the largest part is about Schwalbe’s mother, her life and her battle with pancreatic cancer.

Will Schwalbe and his mother always loved to read and discuss books, but when she is diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and has to undergo regular chemo therapy, they decide to use the time they spend together at the hospital discussing books they have both read and that’s how they start The End of Your Life Book Club. The beginning of each chapter is dedicated to the book they have been reading and the discussion they have. The book choices are varied and I loved reading about them. Continental DriftCrossing to Safety, The Painted Veil, Olive Kitteridge, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Brooklyn,The Elegance of the Hedgehog are but a few books they read, discuss and enjoy.

After this usually brief paragraph about books, Schwalbe leads us directly to his main topic: his mother. His mother must have been a very courageous woman. She travelled from one hot spot to the next for the Women’s Refugee Committee. She helped refugees all over the world and put herself in great danger to do so. She was a fighter but at the same time she was a genuinely kind woman and to read about her and the love the people felt for her is quite beautiful.

What will not be everyone’s cup of tea is the detailed description of the therapies, the side effects and the battle to just live a few months longer. Pancreatic cancer is mostly terminal and most people don’t have much more than a few months after the diagnosis. Schwalbe’s mother was lucky, she lived a full two years. Years that she lived to the fullest, not missing any opportunity to enjoy life and do good. This is quite admirable. I liked her belief that you should never look away from what is bad in our world but always strive to do good.

I feel heartless writing this but the book did not work for me. I have no problem to read about terminal illness. I read the memoir written by Susan Sontag’s son and found it excellent. So that’s not the reason. And of course I love reading about books but in a way, I felt this memoir was too personal. There were too many details added that just didn’t mean anything to me, because it’s not my mother or someone I know. She ate this and liked it, she drank that and couldn’t swallow… She saw these friends and those grandchildren… There were just too many mundane and ordinary details that are only significant when you know a person. Since they wrote a blog about her illness to keep family and friends updated, I suspect, large portions of this book were based on those entries. This may be a reason why the writing was a bit bland.

I think this is a book which could be of great help if you have a friend or relative who has cancer, especially pancreatic cancer. It shows extremely well and in a lot of detail what can be done, what the side effects of some of the therapies are and when you have to decide to let go. As a book on cancer it’s great. As a book about one person’s mother, it’s too personal and as a book about books it is a let down. It says it’s about books and reading but they rather form a bracket around the rest.

Still I’ve discovered a few titles I didn’t know and would like to read:

Victor Lavalle’s Big Machine

Reynold Prices’s Feasting the Heart

Danyal Mueenuddin In Other Rooms, Other Wonders

There was also one book I know I will not be able to read and that is  Mariatu Kamara’s The Bite of the Mango (look it up and you’ll know why). Reading about it made me sick.

Have you read any of these?

Aharon Applefeld: The Story of a Life – Sippur chajim (1999) Literature and War Readalong August 2012

In his memoir The Story of a Life acclaimed author Aharon Applefeld tells the story of his childhood and how he came to be a writer. He starts by describing his earliest memories, the beauty he experienced, the love he received from his parents and grandparents. Most prominent in his memories is his last summer holiday as a child of five when he and his parents visited the grand parents in the Carpathians. Little Aharon’s parents are quiet people. They don’t talk a lot and Aharon learns early just to observe, be in the moment and absorb everything around him, the light, the scents, nature. These sensory memories will haunt him all his life. But this idyllic summer is the last peaceful moment of his childhood. Hitler comes to power, war breaks out. At first the family lives in a ghetto, later on they are transported to the camps. Both his parents are killed, his mother right at the beginning of the war. After having lost his father as well, Aharon escapes into the forest where he lives for years until he joins others. Together they first walk from the Ukraine to Italy and from there to Palestine, their new home.

The memoir is a book of a rare beauty. It taps into the deepest recesses of the soul where vague and sensory memories are stored. Because he was a child and a taciturn child at that, he is lacking words for what has happened to him. This makes this memoir so amazing, it’s like watching someone feel around, probe and slowly approach the right words to convey what it was like. Fleeting memories and strong impressions are mixed. Some people, some stories stand out but a lot is just like shadows on the wall.

The loss of his mother tongue leads to further fragmentation. In his family they spoke three different languages, on his long escape to Italy and from there to Palestine, there are more languages spoken and when he finally arrives in Palestine he has to let go of all of them and learn a new one, Hebrew. This is all painful.

I’ve read all sorts of WWII accounts and novels but they never focussed on orphaned children. It’s hard to imagine what it means to lose your parents, your home, your mother tongue. And Palestine wasn’t as welcoming as one would think. Especially not when you felt you wanted to talk about what happened and later to write about it.

Applefeld had to overcome an incredible amount of obstacles before becoming the writer he is today. He had to dig out his memories from where they were buried, find the right words, find the right language. He had to fight hostility too. Every single one of his books is an attempt to capture what happened to him and how it felt.

The Story of a Life is in part exactly that, the story of one man’s life, but more than that it’s a meditation on language and how to put into words, make palpable what is just a fleeting sensory impression. No wonder the cold, the wind, the rain are things which catapult him back to the war years. The war, he writes, is stored in his body, his bones. Because he was so little at the time, lacking the ability to fully comprehend and put into words what happened, the memoir and most of his novels, it seems, are more like a search, a quest almost for what once was, an attempt at conjuring up what was lost.

This is a book I can highly recommend even to those who are tired of reading about WWII and the Holocaust. It is a rich, inspiring and very meditative book about life and how to tell one’s story.

Other reviews

Danielle (A Work in Progress)

Judith (Reader in the Wilderness)



The Story of A Life was the eighth book in the Literature and War Readalong 2012. The next one will be Richard Bausch: Peace. Discussion starts on Friday 28 September, 2012.

John Sutherland: The Dickens Dictionary (2012)

Although I’m one of those who has been tiptoeing around Dickens’ work for a while now without reading anything else but A Christmas Carol and part I of David Copperfield, I’m still interested in the author and the work. I also have a feeling I’m familiar with his novels without having read them because I saw the one or the other movie based on his books and because creations of great artists seem to acquire a life of their own and seem to go on living outside of the confined space of the book covers. People mention them, talk about them as if they were real people.

When I discovered The Dickens Dictionary on Mel U’s blog (here is the post) I knew I had to get it right away and since it arrived yesterday afternoon I spent many moments with it.

The author John Sutherland is a recently retired professor who has taught and published on Victorian novels. Browsing his book and reading the one and the other of the 100 collected entries, you discover not only a world of information but a book written by someone who is passionate about the subject and knows how to write about it in a way that will make you feel the urge to grab the next Dickens novel at hand. Sutherland’s aim was

When I think of Dickens I do not see a literary monument but an Old Curiosity Shop, stuffed with surprising things: what the Germans call a Wunderkammer – a chamber of wonders.

This book, taking as it’s starting point 100 words with a particular Dickensian flavour and relevance, is a tour round the curiosities, from the persistent smudged fingerprint picked up in the blacking factory in which Dickens suffered as a little boy to the nightmares he suffered from his unwise visit at feeding time to the snake-room of London Zoo.

The 100 entries cover such different subjects as Bastards, Blue Death, Candles, Cats, Child Abuse, Dead Babies, Dogs, Fog, Hands, Incest, Merrikins, Onions, Pies, Pubs, Smells, Thames…. They are all entirely fascinating.

What certainly adds to the appeal of this book are the many illustrations.  There is one on almost every other page.

I also liked the many quotes Sutherland included which give a good feeling for the work. Since I have still not decided which will finally be my first Dickens, this book will help me make up my mind.

To give you an idea of the entries I chose the one called Blue Death.The title refers to the Cholera epidemic of 1848-49 during which 52,000 Londoners died. The entry explains where it came from – India 1817 – and how Dickens and most people thought it was miasmic. He referred to it in Bleak House in his description of Tom-All-Alones’s. His rival Thackeray contracted the Cholera and might have died if Dickens hadn’t sent his own physician.

The Dickens Dictionary is a great introduction to Dickens, it contains quotes and references of the various novels, anecdotes from Dickens life, historical facts of Victorian London and a whole range of other “curiosities”.

As I said, I still don’t know which should be my first Dickens. Which one would you recommend?

Nina Sankovitch: Tolstoy and the Purple Chair (2011) A Memoir

Tolstoy and the Purple Chair is a memoir I’ve been eying for a while until I finally bought it. The subtitle – My Year Of Magical Reading – obviously an allusion to Joan Didion’s memoir – annoyed me a bit but I liked the idea behind the book.

After the early death of her beloved sister, Nina tries for several years to overcome her grief and feelings of guilt when she finally comes up with a cunning idea. Reading has always been important for her and her family. Reading instructs and entertains but it can console and give hope as well. That’s how she decided that she would read one novel per day for a whole year and write about it on her blog Read All Day.

Tolstoy and the Purple Chair tells the story of that year, interweaving it with memories and stories of her family and herself. Not all the 365 books she has read in one year are described or mentioned but she writes in detail about a few which were especially meaningful. She summarizes them briefly and writes why they were important, what memories they triggered, how they helped her heal.

The list of all the 365 books can be found at the end of Tolstoy and the Purple Chair and on her blog. They don’t follow any specific order. One book led to the next and many were recommendations from family and friends and later from readers of the blog.

While I expected slightly more, I still liked reading the book. I liked her infectious enthusiasm. Each book is a world to discover and she tackles the ambitious goal with a lot of energy and passion.

Some of the books are so important because they help her explore her story or the story of her family. Harry Mulisch’s The Assault is one of them and so is Schlink’s Self’s Deception. But there are many more.

Crime novels are among her and her family’s favourite books, each member loves another writer. Nina thinks that what she loves best about them is the fact that they re-establish order. Things make sense in crime novels.

The parts in the book I enjoyed the most weren’t only those about books but those in which she describes the many little joys life has to offer. A meal with friends, a sunset, a newly planted tree, a lilac bush and the many cherished memories of her sister that make it easier to let go of her grief.

As was to be expected with a book like this I ended up with a list of books I’d like to read now.

Muriel Barbery’s The Elegance of the Hedgehog – L’élégance du hérisson

Nadine Gordimer’s Burger’s Daughter

Harry Mulisch’s The Assault

Adam Phillips and Barbara Taylor’s On Kindness

Kevin Canty Where the Money Goes

Chris Cleave Little Bee

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie The Thing Around Your Neck

While I wouldn’t say it’s an absolute must-read, it’s a nice way to spend a few hours. I liked her voice and her stories. Just be prepared, if you don’t have as much time at hand, you might end up being a bit envious.

I have a fondness for this type of project. It doesn’t even have to be reading a book per day. There are some other 365 and similar projects like that I enjoyed reading about. Many are based on blogs or turn into blogs like the famous Julie and Julia.

Have you read about any interesting projects or self-experiments like this? And what about the books on my list, have you read any of them?

Alexandra Johnson: A Brief History of Diaries – From Pepys to Blogs (2011)

I regularly find interesting non-fiction (and fiction) book reviews on Tom’s blog A Common Reader. I don’t always get to read the books right away which is a pity. There were two exceptions recently however,  A Brief History of Diaries that I have just finished (here is Tom’s review) and David Bellos’ Is That a Fish in Your Ear? which I’m still reading (Tom’s review is here).

A Brief History of Diaries is exactly what the title indicates, a short but nevertheless interesting overview of the tradition of journal keeping. Alexandra Johnson won the PEN award for Hidden Writer which I bought earlier this year and will be reading very soon as well.

I’m very interested in this topic as I’ve been keeping a diary since the age of 11. I don’t know how many thousand pages I’ve written because I do not read them very often anymore. This has reasons which would fill a few posts but I’d like to leave the stage to Johnson’s book for the time being.

The book is divided into 5 chapters. The first is dedicated to the innovators, the very first people who kept a diary. The apothecary Luca Landucci is among them. If you’d like to read an eyewitness account of the burning of Savonarola, this is the place to go. John Dee and Samuel Pepys can be found in this chapter as well. I think if you would like to know more about 17th century London, including the great fire, Pepys is the source to consult.

Chapter 2 is one I’m personally less interested in, its focus are the Travel and Explorer Diaries. I’m familiar with Ibn Battuta’s diary because it’s an early source for cultural anthropologists. Johnson included in this chapter Western pioneer travel diaries which sound very interesting.

Chapter 3 gives an overview of the diaries of artists and writers. I found many I would like to read or at least browse. Sonya Tolstoy, about whom Johnson writes extensively in Hidden Writer, is mentioned as well as Katherine Mansfield, Virginia Woolf, Sylvia Plath and May Sarton. The appeal of these diaries is to see how some sketches, little incidents, ideas are later incorporated into novels. We can follow the seed and watch it grow into a plant.

Chapter 4 is dedicated to war diaries. Those of the poets of WWI are mentioned (Sassoon, Owen, Graves) as well as the two famous WWII diaries by Anne Frank and Etty Hillesum. I wasn’t aware that there are two Anne Frank diaries. It’s interesting because the two diaries show the emergence of a writer. The first is just the diary of a child noting all that happens but later, she rewrote the diary. Her father seems to have thought it best to publish the early original first. The full unabridged version was only published in 1997. A war diary I’d never heard of before but which I would love to read is Mary Chestnut’s Civil War diary.

Chapter 5 is about digital diaries. I do not consider my blog like a diary at all and I would never use an online diary. I’m a fan of handwriting and have always been. I choose my pens and ink carefully. Choosing a new diary is a big ritual. So I was far less interested in this chapter and it’s also very brief.

This book is, as it states in the title, only an introduction, but it’s very well done and the bibliography at the end of the book is valuable.

I like reading diaries and have quite a collection. There are quite a few I haven’t read yet but I am looking forward to reading them. A major reading project next year, should actually be dedicated to diaries and memoirs. I’d like to read the diaries of May Sarton soon but I also got one by Cesare Pavese and just bought the first volume of the Journal of the brothers Goncourt. Of those I have read so far the one I liked the most was the one by Katherine Mansfield and those by German writer Brigitte Reimann.

Do you like reading diaries? Which were the diaries you liked the most?

On Cinderella Ate my Daughter – A French Mother’s Perspective

Last month I read Peggy Orenstein’s book Cinderalla Ate my Daughter (here is the review) and I liked it a lot. It left me with many questions as I have no children and most of my friends either have none or they are too small or simply not girls. The only mother of a girl the age of Orenstein’s daughter I could think of was Emma (Book Around the Corner). We decided to do a double post. While she will post her review of the book on her blog, I post her answers to my questions on mine.

My hunch was that although a very accurate portrayal of some topics, Orenstein also depicted many purely American things. I also wanted to know from a mother how she dealt with all the traps and pitfalls that you encounter when raising kids in our society. I enjoyed reading her answers a lot and hope you will be interested as well.

Foreword about Emma

I was born in the 1970s and raised by a feminist mother who loves clothes and by a progressive father who always shared domestic tasks with his wife. So some things seem obvious to me. I have a daughter and a son who will be ten and seven-and-a-half year old in September. I have many friends and colleagues with children around that age. When I say “I” in the answers, I could have said “We” as my husband and I have very few disagreements on education. I also want to add that I haven’t read any parenting book since the ones for babies focusing on pampering, healing red bottoms, handling tooth aches and high fevers. Our only guide-book is our shared values, our common sense and what we think is important for the development of our children. For the rest, we do our best and we know we’ll make mistakes.

Are the Disney Princesses really as important in France as they seem to be in the US?

Yes and no.

Yes they are as important as far as marketing is concerned. You have glasses, notebooks, T-Shirts, towels, etc, all kind of objects with the Disney Princesses printed on them. But for me they are among other “brands” like Nemo, Lightening Queen, Winx Club and Totally Spies.

No they aren’t, as I never witnessed that girls identified with those princesses the way Orenstein describes. There’s one reason for that I think. When I read Orenstein’s book, I noticed that at several occasions she casually mentions that little girls go to school, to a show or to the mall in Disney Princess dresses. I was really shocked. In France, everybody will look at you if your daughter wears such a dress outside when it’s not Carnival. You can’t bring your child to school dressed as a princess or a pirate. Those dresses aren’t regular outfits. They are costumes. I’m not a psychologist but it seems to me it makes the difference between thinking you’re a princess and playing at being a princess. You don’t wear those dresses in your “real” life. The children understand the nuance very well.

Did your daughter go through a phase like this? How did you handle it?

Yes my daughter had a princess phase and she absolutely loved her high heels plastic shoes. I suspect that was because they made noise when she walked just like my high heel shoes do. For me it was more doing like Mom does than imitating a Disney Princess. And I thought it was natural for a girl to identify with her mother. After all, my son sometimes looks at his legs trying to detect if hair is growing so that he can have hairy legs like Dad.

She also had several princess dresses (according to her size) but she never thought she was a princess. It was clearly a game. So we let her play.

Later, a feminist friend of mine got her a pirate costume. She chose to wear it for Carnival at school and she didn’t mention any disagreeable comment from other kids. This year she had a witch costume. I’m not sure but I think I remember a note from school saying something like “Carnival will be on (date). The children can be dressed in costume. Please, no princess dresses”.

Did you think it was harmful as it was focusing too much on beauty and appearance?

I don’t think it was harmful for her. I think it focuses too much on beauty and appearance but let’s be realistic, that’s how our world works. Plus, children’s stories have always focused on beauty for girls. When I was little, I didn’t have Disney Princess dresses but I saw Disney films and heard fairy tales. It’s always about a beautiful princess and the prince never falls for her because she’s smart or funny. It’s always because she’s gorgeous. What I mean is that we don’t need Disney to have that model imposed on us.

How about the Bratz Doll? I’ve never seen one but I’m not regularly in toy shops. Would you let your daughter have one if she really wanted it?

My daughter doesn’t have one and never asked for one. I’ve never seen any in other people’s houses. I’m not sure I’d buy one. If I had to decide, I’d balance between the risk of her being apart and the risk of her being exposed to a very sexist toy.

Where do you draw the line and find a balance between – as Orenstein called it – going Amish on her or being too permissive?

I have my idea of what a little girl should not be doing and wearing:

  • No nail-polish in school but OK during the holidays as long as it is pale.

  • No make-up except for dressing-up and not to go to parties or outside.

  • She has curly hair: there is no way I’m going to buy an straigthening iron and do her hair. She’s too young.

  • No dyed hair

  • No tattoo even if it’s a children friendly one. (anyway they’re forbidden in school)

  • I compromised on earrings: OK for long ones if they aren’t too big or too dangerous. She can’t wear them on PE days in school.

  • No slutty clothes.

The list isn’t exhaustive. So far, it seems that other parents around us have more or less the same rules. So she never had big pressure and never threw a big tantrum. And we’ve never faced major questions. If she asks for a gloss, I say no and that she’s too young. If she wants a T-Shirt I think is vulgar, I say no and explain why. Of course she cries sometimes but that’s life, you can’t have whatever you want.

In the long term, I think that as long as nail polish (for example) is forbidden, it will be transgressive to have some. It will be a victory for her when I eventually say yes, a harmless victory but an important one for her. The more barriers we put now, the more “harmless” barriers she’ll break when she’s a teenager. That’s our bet.

The line is our values. It’s our role to explain our decisions properly so that they don’t appear too unjust. I have to admit we’re lucky we haven’t had problems so far. She seems to choose friends who live by the same kind of rules.

Would you allow sexualized toys and clothes?

Yes for toys because she has two or three Barbies. (She’s not a huge fan) and no for clothes. (no thongs, net stockings, T-shirts showing belly buttons…) Anyway these clothes aren’t allowed in school.

Did you also notice that your son was more reluctant to play with your daughter’s toys than the other way around?

No I didn’t notice that. Our daughter has never been interested in dolls. She loves Littlest Pet Shops and her brother plays with her. She has a very vivid imagination, she invents stories and games and he really likes it. She plays with cars too with him. They like Legos and Playmobils. They build houses or cars, it depends of the day.

Did your daughter ever report that others attacked her because she wasn’t following the trend or speaking up for herself?

No I’ve never heard of that but there’s always a risk that she didn’t report it. She complains sometimes that we don’t let her watch TV at nights or that she hasn’t seen Twilight or other films we consider are too “adult” for her.

How did you handle the pink phase? Is it even possible to find toys and clothes in other colours?

We waited for the pink phase to end. It’s over now. I wear a lot of pink myself and my husband has pink shirts. I think we’re safe about this.

It’s not that hard to find non-pink toys for girls. When she was little, she had Little People and big Legos. Now she has Littlest Pet Shops or Playmobils. But sure, a Barbie’s car will be pink.

It can be difficult to find cheap non-pink clothes. But it’s easier as she grows up. However, pink isn’t the worst. The worst are the ones with slutty designs or cuts. It was a big thing a few years ago. It seems to improve now.

Are there beauty pageants for little girls in France like in the US?

Yes, there are some but I don’t think they broadcast them on TV or maybe on some obscure cable TV. That’s the big difference.

Did you find good children’s books with role models that are inspiring?

I never looked for them. They have subscriptions to children’s magazines (Astrapi, Histoires Vraies, I Love English for our daughter and Pirouette for our son). Bayard Presse is very good for children and it’s for boys and girls. We have chosen them because they’re interesting and clever. They’re also neutral. There are really stupid magazines for little girls out there. (with girlie stuff, teaching to girls a model of the woman as a shopping addict, a lover of long chats with friends and also promoting an untimely interest for boys).

Our son has also a subscription to children’s books through school (L’Ecole des Loisirs). They’re of good quality. Otherwise I choose neutral gender books. I refuse to buy Totally Spies or Winx Club or Barbie or Pet Shop Books. These are not books. These are marketing.

About role models. Our daughter is a huge Harry Potter fan. And Hermione Granger is a fantastic model. She’s smart. She befriends with Harry and is not in love with Harry, so friendship with a boy is possible. She’s brave. She doesn’t wonder if what she intends to do will mess up with her hair or not.

Btw, I don’t agree with Orenstein’s analysis of Bella Swan (Twilight)

Do you even buy gender specific toys and how much non-gender toys are available?

My policy has always been: no toy ironing board or vacuum cleaner for her and no guns or cars for him. There’s no way I’m going to buy those stupid girl board games about boyfriends, secrets and supposedly girlie stuff. As far as I know her friends don’t have them either.

An anecdote. My daughter had received a pink car with a small doll in it. She never played with that toy. According to the above mentioned policy, we didn’t rush to buy cars to our son. When he wasn’t even walking, he started to play with the pink car all the time. Then we bought him cars, firemen trucks and “boys” stuff. Not because he was a boy but because he liked to play with them. If he had asked for a doll, he would have had one.

Are there non-gender toys out there? No except for Playmobils, Legos, Kaplas, board games and outside games (balls, bowling) Of course you will find those in gender-marketed colours (pink balls, pink bikes…) but you can find them in neutral colours too.

Did you also notice the Facebook craze and calling 622 girls girlfriends in France?

There’s also a Facebook craze but my daughter is too young. She doesn’t have an account. She never asked for one, her friends don’t have one either. I’m worried about social networks, but I’m not there yet.

A colleague with older children told me he received a guidebook from the collège to explain to parents how to handle Facebook and let the children use it in security. His son can’t accept a new “friend” without his approval. (he has a password). That’s fair.

Someone reported me the kind of bullying Orenstein describes. Mostly gossip that takes huge proportions because it spreads farther and faster. I think it’s really harmful as humiliations during adolescence can leave deep scars.

Anyway, another colleague has a very smart and safe policy: no electronic device in rooms after bed time. Laptops, cell phones, DS and so on sleep in the living-room. Sleep is important for kids and teenagers. I think she’s right. (And of course, children don’t have TVs in their rooms)

Is Hannah Montana loved in France as well?

She is known here too but her series is on Disney Channel. It’s a paid TV and not all families have it. We don’t. My daughter said she saw the series once when we had the channel for free. She said it’s stupid as it only talks about boys and singers. (C’est nul! Was the exact phrase. How lovely to my ears!!)

About Hannah Montana and the like singers: don’t forget that children here don’t understand the lyrics and most of the parents aren’t able to translate them. The impact is different.


I’d like to thank Emma for answering my questions. It gives another dimension to my reading of the book and, I think a better understanding of the differences between the US and Europe.

Don’t forget to visit her page and read her thoughts on the books. She also included interesting photos.

Here is the link to her review.