My plan to write a ‘little post’ about feminism in children’s books turned into an unwieldy behemoth. For that reason, I’ve decided to split it into smaller sections, starting with…
I’m not going to rattle on about the importance of picture books in the feminist movement. They are one way in which preliterate children and emergent readers come to understand the world around them, first by clues in the illustrations alone, then by combining visual and textual to create meaning.
Generally, picture books reinforce traditional gender roles and heteronormitivity. More recently, there has been a shift in production of books for pre-school and primary education designed to empower young girls and instil and ‘I can do anything’ attitude in them – see Carmela laVigna Coyle’s Do Princesses… series for a prime example, but overwhelmingly, picture books, with the possible exclusion of those that fall into the ‘post-modern’ category, do little to subvert. Depressingly, this is most apparent in learn-to-read scheme stories such as the Oxford Reading Tree, in which stereotyped family units and gender roles are the norm. A study carried out in 2003 by Prof. Diane Reay and discussed in Kat Banard’s excellent book The Equality Illusion found that the education our children receive at in early years education is remarkably gendered, with teachers reinforcing typical gendered behaviours:
…girls received harsh criticism from teachers when they didn’t conform to stereotypical gender behaviours. Teachers described girls who misbehaved as ‘bad influences, ‘spiteful’, and ‘scheming little madams’, yet when boys behaved in similar ways, they were described as ‘just mucking about’.
The Equality Illusion p. 54
So for feminist parents it is critical that books that subvert traditional gender roles are introduced in the home.
There’s nothing deeply complex about the picture books I’ve picked out as my favourites. They all show strong female characters acting independently, making decisions, having dreams, not allowing themselves to be taken for granted. We don’t generally advise running before we can walk, so there’s no discussion of advanced feminist theory in these books, just plain old gender parity and empowerment.
Piggybook; Anthony Browne
I love Piggybook. My pink
hardcover copy is more than 20 years old; it has been read to countless children, each of whom have had fun with Browne’s postmodern illustrations, picking out the hidden (and not so hidden) piggy faces on each page.
The story begins in traditional fashion with Mummy, Daddy their two sons busily exemplifying the Perfect Family. Daddy has a very important job, the boys go to their very important school and Mummy stays at home and does the ironing, washing and cooking. Then she goes to her not-very-important job.
But then something happens. One day Mummy isn’t there.
What follows is a slow metamorphosis of the remaining family into pigs. Around Daddy’s Very Important Job and the boys’ Very Important School there simply isn’t time for the house to be kept or the clothes to be washed. As the family changes, so does the environment, making Piggybook a treat for adult readers too.
The words and pictures work together in Piggybook to create texture and depth, reenforcing the overtly feminist message in the text.
My Name is not Isabella; Jennifer Fosberry
Isabella is a young’un with an imagination. She spends her time pretending to be other people: Rosa Parks, Annie Oakley and Marie Curie among them.
Isabella’s identity changes throughout the day, exploring the lives of some great women and indulging in imaginative play without recourse to fairies and princesses. That Isabella’s sixth role-model is ‘Mommy’ reminds young readers that their parents are rounded human beings with lives before, and outside, parenthood.
The chalky illustrations fill the page and the text jostles within them. Here ‘story space’ is not respected – Isabella’s world is a bold one, as Isabella herself is a bold character. My Name is Not Isabella is a delight from begining to end.
The Paperbag Princess; Robert Munsch and Michael Martchenko
Another life-long favourite. Princess Elizabeth is going to marry Prince Ronald, until one day a dragon destroys her castle. Princess Elizabeth defeats the dragon – using wit, not violence – and decides she doesn’t want to marry Ronald after all. She’s discovered her independence and the depth of her abilities and she (literally) skips off into the sunset alone.
This twist on the well-worn damsel in distress archetype delivers a kick to the theory so often supported by fairy tales that a woman needs a man to complete her. Princess Elizabeth learns that her ‘beautiful princess clothes’ do not make her who she is, and are not the sole criterion on which she should be judged. When Ronald rejects her for not looking like a princess Elizabeth, to paraphrase Pretty Woman, rejects him right back.
These are my favourites, but there are plenty of other examples out there if one is prepared to do a little digging. Honourable Mentions must go to Babette Cole’s Princess Smartypants; Stephanie’s Ponytail, also by Robert Munsch; Phyllis Root and Helen Oxenbury’s Big Momma Makes the World and A Girl Named Dan by Dandi Daisy Mackall and Renee Graef.
Next time, feminist books for slightly older chidren, and capable lone readers.