Girl Bilbo: unexpected adventures in pronoun switching

My biggest delight of the week: Michelle Nijhuis’ aeon magazine piece about gender pronoun switching while reading The Hobbit to Sylvia, her five-year old daughter.

And last year, when we started to read J R R Tolkien’s novel The Hobbit (1937) together, she listened patiently to the first two chapters. Then she told me, matter-of-factly, that Bilbo Baggins was a girl.

Well, I said. That would be nice. But Bilbo is definitely a boy.

No, she said. Bilbo is a girl.

Michelle conceded and discovered that Girl Bilbo not only worked but worked really well. As she explained in an earlier post on The Last Word on Nothing website:

Bilbo, it turns out, makes a terrific heroine. She’s tough, resourceful, humble, funny, and uses her wits to make off with a spectacular piece of jewelry. Perhaps most importantly, she never makes an issue of her gender—and neither does anyone else.

I think the world, for each of us, is bounded by our ability to imagine would else could be, and for kids beginning to find their place in the world those boundaries are all the more defining and important. Exposing girls and boys both to a wide universe of role models seems especially important, and yet children’s literature may not be doing such a great job of this. As A Mighty Girl points out, “The gender disparity in children’s literature remains high — according to a 2011 study of 6,000 children’s books, only 31 percent had central female characters.” And as Michelle notes, even that 31 percent may not be offering the most useful model:

More insidiously, children’s books with girl protagonists sometimes celebrate their heroines to a fault. Isn’t it amazing that a girl did these things, they seem to say—implying that these heroines are a freakish exception to their gender, not an inspiration for readers to follow.

The response to her original The Last Word on Nothing piece about the experience, which she just reflect on in aeon magazine, included plenty of supportive comments but plenty of criticism as well. In pushing back against the critics, Michelle cites no less an authority on storytelling than Joss Whedon: ‘All worthy work is open to interpretations the author did not intend … Art isn’t your pet – it’s your kid. It grows up and talks back to you.’

For me the math is pretty straightforward: a terrific classic tale + the precocious and brilliant Sylvia reshaping her world + her mom as willing co-conspirator = awesomeness.