Friday, 21 October 2016

A childhood favourite

The Best of Girl Annual 1952-59 (edited by Denis Gifford) - which, despite its name, was actually published in 1990 - was one of my favourite books when I was 10. So much so that I regularly re-read it well into my late teens (and possibly even early 20s). In a fit of nostalgic indulgence, I decided to re-read it (again!) to see if I would find it as enchanting as I first did 26 years ago (eek!).  

But as excited as I was to have the book back in my hands (my childhood copy being long gone, I had to order another one from AbeBooks), I was apprehensive - I remembered that some of the comic strips were "dated" in their views towards people of colour, so I was concerned that these strips would now strike me as so racist that I could no longer think of the book fondly.

Well, the book is - by today's standards - downright racist towards people of colour. Whenever someone not white is featured, they are usually a servant of some sort and, worst still, tend to have a limited vocabulary. In Sumuna's South Sea Isle, for example, both the titular character Sumuna and a character called Loki (black and depicted as just wearing shorts) speak in the third person and look up to the white male hero (fully dressed when not swimming). In fairness, Sumuna is shown to be brave and have initiative as is the character Lotus Flower (!) in the story Martine and The Mystery of Golden Buddha. Plus the plot of one story, Vicky has an adventure in Spain, centres on a gypsy man coming to the rescue of a boy whose father has treated the man with prejudice. Overall, the casual racism makes for uncomfortable reading but as mentioned in my previous post, you do have to judge a book by the standards of when it was written. Therefore, my enjoyment of the book isn't marred - I just wouldn't rush to read it to my nieces (or nephews)!

What I didn't expect when I re-read it was the fun of picking up on all the things I'd missed when I was a naive 10-year-old (and teenager for that matter). There are several instances when the heroines try to help someone who is in "a jam" (they are all, of course, resolutely middle class) but do the exact opposite of what most logically thinking people would do. In Flick and The Vanishing Girl, Flick sets out to rescue the actually kidnapped girl but at no point considers calling the police (if she's was in a horror film, she'd no doubt go down into the cellar rather than run out the door) and doesn't even explain to Jim the Milkman (wearing a flat cap just to stress the fact he's working class) why she needs him to give her a lift (other than "it's terribly urgent"). Obviously, as per the Famous Five, being have-a-go heroes works out for them and they always end up saving the day. 

Then there's the star profiles, which are masterclasses in glossing over the complex parts of celebrities' lives. They neglect to dwell on why Dirk Bogarde was the star who "shuns the bright lights" (er because he couldn't live openly as a gay man) and make no mention of the deeply unfair bad press that Gracie Fields received during the War because she had had the temerity to marry an Italian-born man (who had actually emigrated to USA in 1914). Mind you, there's a lot to be said about not mentioning everything about a celebrity's life. I know more stuff about Kim Kardashian than I actually ever wanted to because I am constantly bombarded by headlines every time she as much as sneezes. 

In summary, I do still have great affection for the book. Yes, it's dated but not all of the values belong in the 1950s, It shows girls being brave, clever, and kind - which is a good message for all children (whatever their gender identity) I think.

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