Welcome to this month’s Touring Picture Book Club where four book bloggers take one book and explore it in different ways. This month our focus is on positive male friendships in children’s books, which may seem a little odd given our featured book of the month but bear with us. The Girls, by Lauren Ace, illustrated by Jenny L∅vlie and published by Caterpillar Books is an incredibly beautiful picture book about the power of friendship.
The story follows four girls who meet as children and play under the shade of a tall apple tree. From the start it is made clear that they are very different from each other but the strength of their friendship is what they all have in common.
As time passes and the girls grow into women those bonds grow stronger and deeper like the roots of the apple tree. Through school, puberty and finding their feet as grown ups, the girls are there behind each other all the way. Having fun and sharing happy times with your friends is so precious but having them by your side during the hard times is a true measure of friendship and these girls have it in spades.
“But they had built each other strong enough to heal.”
The love and care they feel for each other is palpable and reading this book will make you want to call every good friend you’ve ever had to let them know how amazing they are.
And, I have to stop to mention the diversity running through this book which is wonderful to see.
It is fantastic to see the flurry of children’s books at the moment that focus on feminism and the strength of women. Women are too often encouraged to tear each other down so it’s incredibly refreshing to read a book that focuses on building each other up.
As a mother of boys these books are so important for my sons to read and enjoy, boys don’t need specific books about what men can achieve as there still appears to be a strong male focus on this in our culture. But they do need to see these positive examples of women so they can grow into men who will appreciate and respect the opposite sex and treat them as equals.
However, The Girls got me thinking about boys friendships, and how alongside the current conversation on feminism is the shift in thinking about how we talk about gender stereotypes; campaigns to stop shops labeling toys as being for boys or girls, encouraging men and boys to speak up about their mental health and questioning outdated and stereotypical phrases such as “man up”.
Children’s books can be incredibly influential in shaping a young person’s view on the world and with all this in mind I started looking for examples of positive male friendships in our books. Friendships that are supportive, encouraging and unashamedly display the special tenderness between friends that boys are too often discouraged from showing.
Jack and Zack in Captain Jack and the Pirates by Peter Bently and Helen Oxenbury
Jack and Zack are best friends whose imaginary adventures know no bounds. In this book they are sailors, setting sail in their sand ship to fight swashbuckling pirates. I love overhearing my children playing make believe in this way, where they are so absorbed in their own stories they could almost be real. This book is a wonderful example of imaginative play and friendship with both big boys equally engrossed in the play but also managing to pull little brother Caspar in on the fun too.
Winnie the Pooh and Piglet in Winnie the Pooh by A. A. Milne
When I started compiling this list I decided to steer clear of animal characters but there is so much that can be learnt about friendship from Winnie the Pooh and especially the relationship between Winnie the Pooh and Piglet. Piglet is one of those characters who could easily be forgotten, small and timid, never making a fuss even when he is in real trouble. Yet, he is always there, always thinking of his friends, always appreciative of them and always thinking of ways to help them.
There is no expectation between Pooh and Piglet and they are drawn together simply for the love of being in each others company. From The House at Pooh Corner, Chapter 8 – in which Piglet does a very grand thing:
‘Half-way between Pooh’s house and Piglet’s house was a Thoughtful Spot where they met sometimes when they had decided to go and see each other, and as it was warm and out of the wind they would sit down there for a little and wonder what they would do now they had seen each other.’
Alfie and Bernard in the Alfie stories by Shirley Hughes
Here are two friends who are very different in character, Alfie is thoughtful and considerate whereas Bernard is impulsive and energetic. Quite often in these stories Alfie can be seen as the calming force for Bernard, showing him empathy and taming his wild spirit. But Bernard’s enthusiasm for their friendship also builds Alfie’s confidence in exploring the world and brings his adventurous side out.
Shirley Hughes’s studies of childhood is truly exceptional; she writes beautifully from a child’s perspective subtly focussing on all those little details that children think about and her illustrations capture a breadth of emotions and unspoken social cues with impeccable detail. You can pick up the special relationship between Alfie and Bernard purely through the illustrations, just look at the way Alfie looks at Bernard at his birthday party!
And for older readers…
William and Zach in Goodnight Mister Tom by Michelle Magorian
Willie is evacuated to a small village in the countryside at the start of World War Two and finds himself in the care of an old man, Tom Oakley. Battling with inner guilt and shame that a life of abuse and neglect has instilled in him, Willie is both fearful and naive of this new life in the countryside. Tom is the caring and strong father figure that Willie has never had and his friendship with fellow evacuee Zach opens his eyes to a world of happiness he never dreamed possible.
Zach couldn’t be more different to Willie, a confident, exuberant character whose overall positive outlook on life lights up every scene. He is also worldly wise and teaches Willie a great many things without being patronising or condescending. Zach even coins a new nickname for him, Will, cementing a new identity for him as he flourishes in this new life in the countryside.
When Zach is killed in a bombing in London Will feels as though half of him has died with him and he has to find a new way of living without him. Their close and sincere friendship stays with Will even after Zach’s death and brings more than a comfort to him but also a guiding light:
‘the Zach part of himself, the outgoing, cheeky part of himself, had been buried inside him and it was his friendship with Zach that had brought those qualities to the surface.
He snuggled down deep into the blankets and was just about to fall asleep when he gave a sudden start.
I’m not half a person any more, the thought. I’m a whole one. I can live without Zach even though I still miss him.’
Harry and Ron in Harry Potter by J. K. Rowling
Harry Potter and Ron Weasley go through more together than most school friends but despite the incredibly intense and down right dangerous situations they find themselves in their friendship remains comfortingly normal. Best friends one minute, refusing to speak to each other the next, not to mention the complicated pot of teenage hormones thrown in as the books progress. Each offering the other something the other one craves; for Ron being able to be seen as something more than just another Weasley, for Harry a chance to be part of a proper, loving family.
Harry and Ron epitomise the line from The Girls, these are two friends who have definitely built each other strong enough to face whatever life or the wizarding world throws at them, usually facing it side by side. From their first meeting on the Hogwart’s Express these boys formed a unique bond of trust and unbreakable loyalty.
From Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – Following a falling out, Ron and Harry are discussing Dumbledore’s decisions to give them certain magical objects. Ron tells Harry:
“He must have known I’d run out on you.” “No,” Harry corrected him. “He must’ve known you’d always want to come back.”
Do you have any positive male friendships in children’s fiction to add to our list? Let us know in the comments below, we’re always keen to explore new books.
Be sure to check out the other posts in Touring Picture Book Club this month…