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English teacher interested in language and culture, and also in fiction using magic, myth, folklore and the supernatural. Now teaching part-time in a Leicester Upper School (ages 14-19) and also writing for children, teens and teachers.

Wednesday, 8 May 2013

Words on Wednesday: Gender Representation and Children's Picture Books

I'm lazily rerunning a post from just over a year ago, as gender representation is still something that concerns me (I'm certain it's getting worse, and more and more convinced that Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale has somehow shaped its own future, but that's a whole other topic...)

As a feminist who learned about feminism from literature, I tend to notice how books contribute to and stretch gender stereotypes. I notice it in other fields too, of course. Have you seen Shannon Hale's brilliant post about gender balance in animation? Horrifying (to me), if only for the comments claiming it's not significant. Media imagery and representation in the stories we hear are clearly part of our socialisation and it absolutely matters if girls only ever see girls acting as supporting roles to boys, or only ever see nurturing carried out by female characters. 

Anyway, I'm in danger of ranting here when what I really want to do is share some of the excellent titles that we've enjoyed with our girls. I'm focusing on the early years here, looking at picture books in particular.


For young picture book readers, Kes Gray's Daisy is a fabulous character. She could just as easily have been a boy, and that is the point here. Unfortunately, it's rare to find female characters acting in gender-neutral ways (possibly because we sort of mean 'male' when we say 'gender-netural', but that's probably an argument for another day...). Imagine my delight when Kes Gray began publishing Daisy chapter books just as my youngest was about ready to start reading chapter books? We'll be talking more about those on Sunday, in the context of funny series. [edited to add link]

Picture books that play with sterotypical and fairy tale representations are also very welcome when encouraging children to think about and beyond gender. Here are four of our favourites:

Prince Cinders by Babette Cole reverses the genders for Cinderella beautifully. Both my girls found it hilarious that this Cinders wished to be big and hairy like his brothers, rather than beautifully dressed like the more traditional version. It retains the marriage plot, so has Princess Lovelypenny as the Prince Charming character seeking a husband, although there are still some more typical representations (Princess Lovelypenny thinks Prince Cinders saved her and therefore wants to marry him). It's a suitable story for both genders, with its anarchic humour.

Princess Smartypants by Babette Cole is a far freer reversal than Prince Cinders, being based on various fairytale tropes rather than one specific tale. Princess Smartypants does not want to get married and creates impossible tasks for her suitors so that she can retain her freedom. Children recognise this as being different from standard tales and enjoy the anarchy of this, without having any sense that it is tied up with gender as a concept.

Julia Donaldson's The Princess and the Wizard (illustrated by Lydia Monks) stays considerably closer to traditional tales, but shows a sparkly princess outwitting the evil wizard by herself and not relying on outside (male) help to save her. This one will appeal to girly girls with its gorgeous glittery pages, whilst offering a capable and competent girl as main character.

Beware of Girls by Tony Blundell is a hilarious subversion of the Red Riding Hood story, featuring a very stupid wolf (whose mixed up and muddled lines never fail to make my youngest giggle) and a very bright little girl. This is a joyful triumph over an easily-confused wolf that will be enjoyed by both genders and clearly represents this little girl as more than capable of looking out for herself.

Clearly, there are others that I could have mentioned, and many picture books in particular get around steretypical gendered assumptions by using animal characters. Which picture books do you think offer particularly positive gender messages?

1 comment:

  1. We loved Princess Smartypants when Little M was younger :) Lovely that you also made a point but didn't rant.


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