I was extremely disappointed with Becky Bird’s Aurora and the Thief. In fact, I was surprised by how bad I found this book to be, filled with tired old tropes and the sort of writing that makes you feel like the author thinks you are an idiot. And sure, maybe I would have liked this book as a kid but I was a kid in the 90s and there was a lot of stuff that was very different then. Honestly, for a book that I was genuinely excited to read and see marketed to young girls, there was a lot I just flat-out hated about this one. And what I hated the most was the normalizing of abusive behavior in young women while positing it as some sort of gender commentary.
“Boys…will be boys.”
When we first meet Aurora, we are introduced to a not-like-other-girls stereotype. Much to the dismay of her father, his little Princess is more interested in sword fighting and climbing trees than in makeup and the etiquette of ruling. It’s ironic to me that Bird was making a gender commentary out of a girl who wanted to be involved in the fighting rather than the politics of being royal considering the fact that women often weren’t permitted to rule either, at least not without a husband.
Aurora’s father is pathetic and useless, often pointing out the problems with Aurora’s behavior–in the wrong way, mind you–and then resorting to the shrug “oh, what can you do?” kind of response typically reserved for the “boys will be boys” crowd. When she regularly punches other kids in the face her father grows angry, gives her a lecture on the proper etiquette of a royal, and then gives her no punishment whatsoever.
Aurora’s mother is even worse. Instead of pointing out the problem with her daughter’s behavior, she acts as though her father is being unreasonable with his lectures, steals Aurora away, and teaches her how to sword fight. And suddenly this young girl’s violent and harmful tendencies are rewarded.
This is a poor excuse for gender commentary.
The book and Aurora’s father try to posit their issues with Aurora’s behavior down to something gendered, as though boys are allowed to act in this manner and girls aren’t. There is a serious undertone to the situation that suggests if Aurora were a boy, her regularly punching other boys in the face when she grows angry would be perfectly okay. Nevermind the fact that it’s not okay for any child to punch any child in the face. So, rather than pointing out the obvious fact that Aurora’s constant resorting to violence in nearly every situation is problematic, they say, ‘well, you’re a girl so you shouldn’t do that.’
If Aurora had simply liked activities that were unfairly permitted for boys and not girls, I wouldn’t have been so annoyed with this. But instead of just liking these activities, Aurora is downright unruly and revels in regularly beating down the blacksmith’s apprentice. And sure, he’s rude to her and at times seems as though he is purposefully trying to provoke her, but that in no way justifies the violent immaturity of our protagonist.
When you cross the line from it being okay for girls to like boy things to normalizing abusive behavior.
To make matters worse, through the unreliable narration of this violent teenager, Bird is very clearly setting the stage for young readers to see Aurora’s behavior as good. In trying to break free of the helpless Princess stereotype, Bird instead creates a much more damaging trope. In trying to present Princess Aurora as liking activities typically associated with boys, she gives Aurora incredibly disturbing traits that I would not want to see in a girl OR a boy.
I’d like to believe that we’re getting to a point where people realize that boys lashing out violently when they’re upset is not okay. This isn’t a trait that should be normalized for any gender. And I get that the author is trying to build her Princess up as this strong character, but she fails so horribly at this to the point that all she is doing is normalizing abusive behavior in young women. Through this book meant for young readers, Bird suggests that if a girl wants to be tough and someone makes her mad then it is perfectly acceptable to lash out violently and hit them.
This book is normalizing abuse and inappropriate violence.
Aurora’s abusive behavior is accepted on the mere fact that she’s a girl. It’s as though Bird thinks this fact means Aurora’s violence can be excused. Nevermind that no one is ever physically violent toward her nor do they ever provoke her to the point that her reaction of punching is warranted or necessary. The author tries to suggest that Aurora’s violence merely makes her “rough around the edges” rather than address the fact that having her outright physically assault anyone who pisses her off is not okay.
The only one who ever calls her out on this nonsense is her father and he does it so half-heartedly that it means absolutely nothing. What’s worse is that this book doesn’t just normalize and promote violent acts committed by women toward people who are rude and say hurtful things to her. It also normalizes and promotes it within a romantic relationship. [spoiler]No, Becky Bird, it is not funny that the groom spent his wedding night with a broken nose because he made a dumb and innocent joke that the bride didn’t like so much. This is abusive behavior. Your Aurora is ABUSIVE.[/spoiler]
It is not okay that you wrote a character like this who ends up normalizing abusive behavior for young girls.
Aurora is awful.
To be honest, I’d probably have still hated Aurora even if she hadn’t been abusive. She’s incredibly condescending and her narration reads as such. She is constantly disdainful toward girls she refers to as “traditional,” specifically pointing to the girls who enjoy activities like dressing up and putting on makeup. She falls prey to the not-like-other-girls trope, suggesting that typically feminine activities are awful and the fact that she does not conform to them makes her a better girl.
There are numerous problems with messages like this, especially in a book written for younger audiences. And so, here we are with two deeply problematic messages in a book meant for children to read. Believe me when I say I would never recommend this to any young reader that I know. The only people I’d be okay watching read a book like this are those who know and understand the problems with both of these messages.
And the sad thing is that’s not even all that I hated about her. She was petulant and bratty almost throughout the whole book, she had a moment of pure vapidness that I could not stop rolling my eyes at, and then there was a bit of nonsensical dramatics about “never lov[ing] again” after barely even getting to know the guy–gosh, was it only a couple of days?–and potentially losing him.
Now that I’ve ranted about everything else…
Both the plot and the writing for this story were terrible. This book was for a younger audience, so some of that could be forgiven I suppose. Even so, we ended up with a cookie cut-out of a story, very clearly following as typical an outline as you could imagine. The villain was predictable and nothing more than an overused caricature mix of Maleficent and Lady Tremaine.
Perhaps more egregious is the fact that literally, everything was spelled out for you from beginning to end. Aurora more or less spoils the entire plot for you within the first couple of pages. There’s no guesswork necessary because everything that is going to happen becomes almost instantly clear to you thanks to Aurora’s blabbermouth.
And I could complain more, but I’m honestly tired at this point. I’m so sick of books normalizing and romanticizing abuse and to have found it in a novel that I would consider more of a middlegrade level is so disgusting to me. To have a children’s book suggest abusive behavior is not only okay, but something to admire infuriates me beyond words.
So, if the purpose of this book was to write a strong female character for young girls to relate to and admire, I am sorry to say that Bird missed the mark by an egregious landslide. If the mark was here somewhere on Earth…Bird is like twelve million solar systems away.
I was provided a free copy of this book via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.
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