For National Storytelling Week, Writer Katherine Wiseman explores how role models for young girls and children shape who they become.
The recent BBC adaptation of Little Women reminded me of how much I’d loved the book, as a child. The thing I loved most about it was the characterisation of Jo –outspoken, uncompromising and determined not to surrender herself to the expectations of society. While a small part of me couldn’t help but wish that she’d marry the wonderfully eligible Laurie, most of me rejoiced to see her reject that easy route in favour of a tougher, more rewarding path. I wanted to be just like her.
Fast forward a few years and my role models had changed. One was Lizzie Bennett – who wouldn’t want to be her? Another was Kate Bush – all wild haired and winsome. I managed the wild hair, but winsome was beyond me. I’m just not built for it.
There were others who inspired me, including Dracula, but that’s a story for another time, I think. But in retrospect I can see that my role models, living, dead or undead, all had one thing in common – they were outside the norm. They had worked out exactly how far they were prepared to conform to society’s expectations (which in Dracula’s case wasn’t far at all) and they went no further. They had the resilience and confidence to be themselves.
I didn’t choose these role models because of this quality, but something about it must have struck a chord with the fledgling me, and although I certainly didn’t plan to grow into an adult who didn’t quite conform, that’s what happened. I swear though, that I’ve never climbed the walls of a castle lizard-fashion, or gnawed anyone’s neck.
The other person who exerted a huge influence over me was my English teacher, Mrs Mickelthwaite. She was jaunty and imperturbable and her love for, and knowledge of, English was astonishing. She inspired me. I wanted to know what she knew, and to be able to communicate the joy and excitement that she instilled in me when I opened a new book to others. I’m still trying. I think that it’s partly due to Mrs Mickelthwaite’s teaching that I sponsor a little girl in India. She’s too young yet to go to school, but I want to ensure that she gets the chance to be inspired by a Mrs Mickelthwaite of her own.
"Did I become like that because of my role models, or was my character already set and I chose to be inspired by those who showed similar characteristics?"
Did I become like that because of my role models, or was my character already set and I chose to be inspired by those who showed similar characteristics? I’ve got no idea, but the important thing is that I was able to find inspiration in others. When I was in the market for role models, the internet didn’t exist and I suppose that limited my choice in comparison with today, but perhaps wider choice doesn’t necessarily involve an improvement in quality. I’m not going to bang on about reality TV stars and footballers on lottery-win salaries because they’ve become clichés and clichés just don’t interest me. But – well, you know.
By the time I was preparing to leave school, Mrs Mickelthwaite had moved out of my life and I was left prey to the expectations and prejudices of the time. ‘We’re working class. People like us don’t go to university.’ ‘Get a job. In a few years you’ll be married and having kids and what good will a degree do you then?’
I’m sorry to say that I bowed under pressure, and spent years paying for it. Several jobs, one son and a couple of husbands later, I finally decided that I’d spent enough time trying not to be me. I went to university. I got a First. I took my Masters. I got a Distinction. I screwed my courage to the sticking place and wrote a children’s book. It got shortlisted for some prizes and eventually got published. I wrote another and that’s being published too.
It took me a long time to follow my role models, but I did it in the end and I’m going to make sure that I spend the rest of my life being myself. And I’m going to help Annie, the little girl in India, do the same thing. I really hope that she doesn’t have to wait until she’s 50 to fulfil her dreams. Who knows? Maybe one day we’ll get to meet. Maybe she’ll look at me and see something inspirational.
Katherine is a successful children’s book author and her series featuring Blaggard’s School for Tomorrow’s Tyrants, the world’s best school for trainee criminals, has been widely loved. For all her her latest news visit https://katewiseman.uk/about/