Let me count
the ways

Antonia Charlesworth calculates the damaging effect of gender stereotypes in children’s publishing – and finds some healthy alternatives

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One of my greatest parenting joys over the past few months has been seeing my four year old learn to read. I have watched with amazement as she has quickly gone from (tediously) sounding out words one by one to tackling long and complex stories independently. Reading with her is an absolute pleasure. We read every bedtime.

I watched with something different from amazement as she read, early on in her literary pursuits, a schoolbook that was stranger than fiction. Nan’s Man is a phase three book from Rigby Star Phonics, written by Nicola Sandford, who clearly doesn’t mix much with the children aged four to five who usually read it or have it read to them.

Narrated by Sid, a recurrent character in these books, the rage-inducing tale begins with Nan “in a panic” because Jim is visiting. Like me, Sid and his sister are indignant about the visit – but in their case it’s because Jim “is dull”. Nan puts them right though – “Jim is not dull, Jim is a hunk”. Cue the first of my four year old’s enquiries. I have a pragmatic approach to uncomfortable lines of questioning from my children but Sandford caught me off guard. How do I explain to a child, who knows nothing about sexual attraction and whom I am careful to not expose to the perceived virtues of being conventionally beautiful, what essentially means a sexy man? And why should I have to? I uneasily mumbled something probably inappropriate and ushered her on. But it only got worse.

Nan sets her grandchildren to work preparing for her visitor. Stick the kettle on? Hoover? Bake a cake? No. “Get me the wig,” Nan orders. “Get me the leg wax.” Cue the second uncomfortable enquiry from my four year old. How do I explain to a child, who I am careful not to expose to the laborious beauty regimes women are expected to carry out in the name of conventional beauty, what leg waxing is? And, more disturbingly, why would Nan need to wax her legs for a gentleman caller in the middle of the day, while her grandchildren are there? I’m still not sure myself. I uneasily explained a topic I was hoping to abstain from for at least another five years, and unsuccessfully suggested we read a different story.

I rang the publisher and got a quick email response: “an error of judgment was made”

Credit where it’s due. Sandford is clearly an advocate for equality. Her stereotypes are not confined to women. Jim, the muscular, flower-wielding seducer, visits and talks about nothing but his van. I never thought I would enjoy explaining what a hubcap was until that bittersweet moment.

He proposes but thankfully Nan decides against the engagement, because, as it turns out, body-hairless elderly women are interchangeable to Jim. Nan suggests Jim meets her pal Jan and shows him a picture. Jan has a van too. Jan also wears a mini skirt and cleavage as she polishes the van. And the debacle is resolved as Jim quickly declares he will be Jan’s man and, presumably, Nan lets her leg hair grow out once more.

Once free from the questioning I tried to compose myself and decide whether I was being over-sensitive. This was a well-worn copy of Nan’s Man. It had been read by many parents and children. It even had Sellotape down the spine – god forbid a vital page of this tale of inappropriate child-carer dynamics, disposable relationships and shallow friendships should go awry.

But every mother, father, nan and postman I surveyed in the next 24 hours seemed as irritated by Nan’s Man as me. Thankfully the class teacher was too, and assured me she would withdraw the books (there was more than one copy). I rang the publisher and got a quick email response: “an error of judgment was made”. It offered to send an alternative. I directed three copies of Let’s Rock to school.

I shudder to think how many copies of Nan’s Man might still be in circulation. How many parents might be out there having the same awkward conversation I did? But while Sandford’s stereotyping might have been blatant, and her subject erroneous, Nan’s Man really is only a symptom of a rampant infection in our children’s literature.

Books, I naïvely once thought, were broadening my girls’ minds, inciting a sense of adventure, expanding their imaginations and teaching them valuable lessons about empathy, sharing, love, friendship and all that good stuff I’m sure our daily chaos thwarts. I have avoided antiquated fairytales, in which the man always gets by on being simply charming while the woman overcomes obstacles and makes sacrifices, where possible. But they’re inescapable.

Now my daughter can read she is becoming interested in writing too. Last week she made a whole book of about 20 pages, each illustrated and containing a sentence or two. It’s brilliant! (The narrative is a tad confusing. She might have benefitted from a bit of storyboarding and character development.)

The book is fairytale from “Once upon a time” to “happily ever after”. It involves a young girl picking berries in the woods, a giant and his wife who have been kidnapped by an evil witch, a good fairy, a casual murder and a family picnic. The usual stuff, although thankfully, for now, it didn’t involve a romance (or any leg waxing).

When picking picture books for my children – noting that so many of ours aren’t chosen but hand-me-downs and gifts – I’ve chosen with some sensitivity to stereotyping but largely based on gorgeous illustration and engaging or original stories. But it never occurred to me that I should not only be avoiding negative female representations but also seeking out positive ones, until now. Until Nan’s Man.

Of the 116 storybooks on my daughters’ shelves there are three in which a girl or woman is represented positively, free of stereotype or fairytale tropes. One is Matilda, an absolute favourite in our house in film form, but still just out of access in book form for my two and four year olds (it’s ready when they are). Roald Dahl had a stroke of Matilda-like genius when he created this brilliant character, and at any school you can count almost as many girls dressed in denim dresses with red hair ribbons on World Book Day as you can Cinderellas, Red Riding Hoods and Goldilockses. He also wrote Sophie in The BFG, another plucky young heroine who, like Matilda, overcomes a difficult childhood. Dahl was the father of four girls who himself grew up fatherless with his mother and two sisters, which gives big clues.

Written the same year as Matilda (1988 was a big year for girls) is Well I Never by Heather Eyles, which isn’t particularly noteworthy other than for the fact that its heroine, Polly, breaks convention by getting up to the mischief that’s normally attributed to boys, and dresses unisex, which I’m fairly sure we all did in 1988 – cycling shorts for all!

The third is the only modern book of the three and packed with detail, colour and inventiveness – Poppy Pickle, the little girl with the big imagination. Emma Yarlett’s book came out last year and is brilliant, or so it seems in this literary wasteland.

Poppy thinking-rgb
Emma Yarlett’s Poppy Pickle

“I was always a very outgoing girl who loved to do things that would be deemed as girly and things that were deemed as boyish,” says Yarlett. “Yet it felt as though all of the books written for girls only ever focused on the very overtly feminine and what society deemed a girl should be interested in. I didn’t like pink, I didn’t like glitter and I certainly didn’t like princesses.

“When I write my books now I think back to that miniature version of myself – the football playing, tree climbing, painting, drawing scrap of a girl – and aim to write a book that she would love.”

Of the remaining 113 books 29 feature female protagonists – 37 per cent – which is just higher than the findings of a 2011 study that discovered male protagonists still outnumber female characters by two to one in children’s picture books. Janice McCabe, sociology professor at Florida State University, who led the study, called it a “symbolic annihilation of women and girls”.

Of those 29, 11 are animals. We have 33 books with male protagonists and an overwhelming 51 about animal (or other non-human) boys. Nearly all of these are adventure stories.

Of the remaining 18 human females, 10 are princesses or fairytale characters. Three of those try to subvert their traditional stories – to varying degrees of success. In Cinderella and the Fairytale Hairdresser, for example, we see a strong female friendship develop but the plot still focuses on locking down Prince Charming. In Interstellar Cinderella, Cinderella refuses to marry Prince Charming but agrees to be his chief mechanic – subservient, in a very modern way, as employee rather than wife.

Of the other eight, three are witches – Winnie, Wendy and the one on the broom – trotting out one of the oldest charges levelled against women living outside patriarchal norms. Before Dahl wrote Matilda he wrote The Witches, described by Catherine Itzin as an example of “how boys learn to become men that hate women”. The book was banned by several libraries for its perceived misogyny, but why pick on Dahl?

“There’s more of a drive towards feminism now yet we are seeing books more pinkified.”

In the remaining five we have stereotypes of domesticity, girls heartbroken or dead and one in which a wise old man mansplains space saving to a little old lady.

Mary Anne Wolpert, specialist in children’s literature at Cambridge University, says the divergence between books for boys and books for girls became apparent in the 19th century. “Boys got adventure stories, like The Coral Island and Treasure Island, and girls got domestic realism, like Pollyanna and Anne of Green Gables,” she tells me. “So there’s been a longstanding divergence in the market but today it is ever more blatant, especially in books that are targeted at girls. It’s ironic that there’s more of a drive towards feminism now yet we are seeing books more and more pinkified.”

Wolpert says research underlines the ability of literature to enrich and empower children. “There is nothing better than the joy of sharing texts with children. But it’s the texts that are available to be shared that often have these negative messages – be they completely overt or slightly more hidden – that can be dangerous.

“There’s a body of research that points to how literature frames views and opinions. Literature affords the opportunity to explore other worlds that children might not be familiar with, so it opens their minds, but it also provides familiarity and a feeling of recognition. If the messages, however subliminal, are a repeated image about stereotypes then that becomes a message that’s imprinted on children’s minds.”

She adds: “If we’re going to encourage a love of reading – and reading is so important – we need to be presenting children with literature with which they can identify and explore the world.”

Since this glass-shattering realisation I am, of course, in search of more good role models in picture books. But I am fighting against an unchanging tide. In the Good Reads Choice Awards 2015 there were 20 picture books nominated. Five of them feature female protagonists. Three are based on princesses and fairytales, one on domesticity and the other doesn’t speak. I am hoping as my girls grow out of picture books there will be a broader range of female characters available to them. I am considering venturing into comics and I asked my little reader a couple of days ago what types of comics she would like to read. “Ones about superheroes,” she told me with little thought, “who fly around and save women.”

Illustrations by Emma Yarlett. For examples of stereotype-busting children’s books see the Features section of bigissuenorth.com

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