I grew up reading everything I could get my hands on, from the Little Eddie books and Mary Poppins series to the Three Investigators series to a biography of Rose Kennedy my mother had picked up for some book club and Chariot of the Gods, which was left behind by one of my parents' friends (and which, even at age 8, I thought was far-fetched). But the books that really influenced my concept of a woman's role in society were Little Women, A Little Princess, and Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm.
Now, I still believe that these are well-written books and that kids ought to read them, but I hope that girls today would internalize other messages about girls, rather than things like "be good and obedient and wait for a man to rescue you" (Sarah Crewe) or "writing is OK, as long as you don't write about anything popular where you might earn money and become independent and damage your reputation" (Jo March).
Far better for girls today is Flavia DeLuce.
Now, Alan Bradley, author of the Flavia series, has admitted that he's not trying to write YA. He tells on his website that Flavia popped into his head while he was trying to write a completely different work, and he knew he had to write about her. That will explain why Flavia is not like most YA heroines. She is not out looking for a boyfriend. She's not concerned about peer pressure. She's not particularly interested in fashion. Wow. Right there we're onto something fresh.
But it goes beyond what the books are not. In Flavia, Bradley has -- likely accidentally -- created a superb role model for young girls. Flavia is intelligent, self-motivated, brave, and independent. Her messages to girls have nothing to do with waiting/looking for a man or being obedient and submissive to social expectations for women.
The entire series of novels celebrates intelligence, and Flavia is at the head of all other smart characters in the books. All the books highlight intelligence as desirable, for it is the smart characters that solve crimes and look good in the eyes of others. Flavia's next older sister, Daphne (called "Daffy" by Flavia), is a bookworm obsessed with Dickens. Flavia treats her as a 1950s version of Google, seeking her out for historical questions. Dogger, Flavia's father's friend from the War who serves as a jack-of-all-trades at the family mansion, Buckshaw, but who also is more of a father to Flavia than her own dad is, has vast amounts of medical knowledge hiding in his shattered-by-PTSD mind. Dr. Kissing, Flavia's father's former schoolmaster, is also a source of information for her. And Inspector Hewitt, the police officer most likely to deal with Flavia, is -- although not brilliant -- an intelligent man whom Flavia respects. Also, throughout the series, we are ever reminded that Flavia's missing mother Harriet was intelligent, and hints are dropped that Aunt Felicity (Father's sister) is one sharp cookie cutter.
But Flavia outdoes them all. (Of course, for she is our protagonist!) She is clearly a gifted child -- emphasis on BOTH words there. She is rather childlike in many beliefs (she has no idea of what an "affair" is, still believes in Father Christmas, hopes to resurrect the dead) and habits (in one hilarious scene, she scrubs mud off her beloved bicycle Gladys with her toothbrush, then mentions cleaning herself up -- including brushing her teeth! -- in the very next paragraph). But she is brilliant in chemistry! She has read through a whole library of her deceased Uncle Tar's chemistry books, she works out fascinating experiments with the equipment in his lab, and she solves crimes in this way.
Bradley goes into fabulous detail about the experiments, with none of this vague Mary Shelley stuff about "old books." No, step-by-step, Flavia walks us through testing blood (to see if her sisters are lying when they say she's adopted), constructing fireworks, and creating interesting poisons. Along the way, the reader is treated to a great deal of the history of chemical discoveries.
Honestly, I cannot think of a better way to hook a young girl into an interest in chemistry than to let her read these books (or read them WITH her, if she is younger or not a voracious reader). I often find myself wanting to go out and buy a basic chemistry set just to try some of this stuff! And I know the books make me wish I'd taken chemistry in high school. (To my credit, I preferred physiology, and I adored my classes in that subject. But I never took chemistry; it was not a popular class at my high school, and thus, I never even thought about taking it.) In these days where we need women interested in the sciences, Flavia can do a wonderful job of planting that seed into a girl's head. And her fabulous brilliance underscores over and over and over: Girls, being smart is cool and awesome; smart girls are winners. What a fantastic message to a girl --- or to a boy!
Flavia also has a characteristic which I, as a school teacher, find so often lacking in kids: she's self-motivated. No one makes her learn chemistry; she teaches herself. No outside force causes her to solve mysteries; she is driven by her own curiosity. She does her own research, her own experiments, she solves the crimes because she WANTS to. She is NEVER lazy; she bikes or runs everywhere. She never expects anyone to do her work for her.
Other characters reinforce this idea as well. Dogger goes on with his life in spite of his untreatable (at the time) emotional disability. He is shown as respectable, noble, and hard-working, for he never expects anyone to baby him. Flavia's oldest sister, Ophelia (Ophelia Gertrude, in fact, although I haven't quite worked out yet why she has the Hamlet names going; Flavia calls her "Feely."), is a very dedicated pianist and organist. And everything we hear about the long-absent Harriet lets us know that she was always doing something adventurous or important; she never, ever sat and waited for life to happen -- which is probably why her daughter does not.
Bradley never preaches this virtue, but it's subtly worked in to every single plot in a way that it can be internalized. There is no idea of waiting for anyone else to work or learn; it's all about doing it yourself. This is, again, another fabulous thing for a girl (or a boy) to learn.
This segues naturally into the idea of independence. All too often, books for teens show characters who cannot make it without their friends (think: Harry Potter) or, far worse, that a girl's main interest in life should be to find and keep a man (pretty much 99% of books aimed at girls or women). Flavia is refreshingly independent.
Oh yes, she longs for the approval of adults (Inspector Hewitt and his wife, the vicar, Dr. Kissing, and especially her emotionally distant father), she wishes to make friends (with the gypsy girl, with Nalia), and she struggles for six books with the woes of sibling rivalries, so it is made clear that being independent is not without its downsides. But Bradley also shows a truth that is so very often ignored for girls: that, if ANYONE is going to make it in a hard task, s/he has to be willing to go beyond the comfort zone of having "back ups" and strike out as an individual. Flavia often asks others for their expertise, but she never expects -- or even considers expecting -- anyone to work with her; she knows the job is up to her, whether it be tracking a murder suspect, gathering information, or making chemical analyses in her lab.
Because of this outlook, Flavia spends no time at all looking for boyfriends or planning out a marriage for herself. Oh, she clearly has opinions on attractive and/or intelligent men (boys are pretty much so far beneath her emotionally that she barely notices them, but men interest her), but her life is not about finding and keeping a man; her life is about finding herself, having adventures like her mother, saving her family from the taxman, supporting those she loves or wants to help (Dogger, the old gypsy woman, Nalia), and making her own way in life. What better message could you possibly give to a modern girl than "Focus on making yourself the best you can be"? How many women have wasted their lives by working so hard on attracting and keeping a man that they never even figured out who they really were? Far, far too many. But Flavia is not going to be among those women, and she will help young girls realize that they don't need to be counted in that number either.
Flavia is also brave. She climbs into tunnels, visits other towns by herself, walks on the roof, flies in a small plane, deals with kidnappers, questions adults to solve crimes, figures out ways to do things normally barred to children, goes out at night alone, and faces death and corpses. She sometimes feels fear, but she talks herself out of it. She is almost never at a loss for words. She deals with her own mistakes and goes on with life instead of wallowing in her own failure. While her sisters often hide from less pleasant things in life, Flavia faces them. It is she who has worked out effective (and amusing) ways to help Dogger with his "episodes" (his flashbacks to torture at the hands of the Japanese during WWII; he has post-traumatic stress disorder, although it is never given that modern name in the books), she who faces dealing with the mentally deficient Jocelyn, and she who deals with the treatment of gypsies.
Harriet, as well, is presented at brave. She flew her own airplane and went mountaineering in Tibet. And Aunt Felicity is not just some "old" lady. The further the reader goes into the books, the more s/he learns about what this woman has done in her life.
Bravery, then, is reinforced over and over. Flavia is never cowed into submission by society's expectations of women or by men in positions of authority who wish to control her. No, she stands up to everyone who tries to prevent her success because she knows she's brilliant and capable. She lets NO ONE stop her, especially merely because they are older, male, and an authority figure (the police, the vicar, the schoolmaster, the government figures later on). Her self-confidence and her bravery combine with her intelligence to let her earn success in things which are good. (After all, Flavia seeks to solve crimes, not to cause trouble.)
Wow. What young girl shouldn't learn that? In fact, what grown woman shouldn't have that reinforced in her life?
There you have it: the reasons why Flavia DeLuce is a superb role model for young female readers. She's intelligent, self-motivated, independent, and brave. This veteran English teacher highly recommends the whole series. :)
(Just remember, parents, if you buy the books for your daughter, you ought to consider buying chemistry set for later on. And a bicycle. And don't be surprised if your daughter wants to visit England, take a class on old-style film developing, try mountaineering, or ride in a two-seater airplane. These books might just have that effect on her.)