CHILDREN’S PICTURE BOOKS
Looking into alternative heroines for little girls
There’s an iconic scene in Disney’s first animated feature Snow White and the Seven Dwarves where the princess sings a duet with a bluebird, who is so seduced by her song that he flits down from his branch to perch on her finger.
That was 1937. DreamWorks reinvented the scene 64 years later in their fractured fairytale Shrek, only this time, the doe-eyed princess Fiona cons the bluebird into holding such a sustained high note that it explodes, leaving behind a pair of steaming legs, and a trio of eggs we see Fiona frying in the next scene.
It’s telling that Shrek was the fourth highest grossing film of 2001. Clearly there’s a market for ‘alternative’ heroines, and it’s a market the book trade is exploring too.
Sally Rippin wrote the Billie B. Brown series, aimed at five to seven-year-olds, in 2009, after her publisher, who had a young daughter, noticed ‘there was very little around for that particular age group that wasn’t pink and sparkly’.
Rippin’s website describes Billie as ‘a feisty tom-boy, who I’m hoping will provide a refreshing change for little girls (and parents) tired of princesses and fairies’.
The books have been so popular that Rippin has written 20 to date, plus a break out series called Hey Jack!, featuring Billie’s best friend, who’s ‘very in touch with his feelings’ and resonates with little boys who don’t just want to be action heroes.
The success of the series is due in part to the fact that parents and children ‘really respond to the idea that you can just be a kid’, she says. ‘It doesn’t matter whether you were born a boy or a girl, you can enjoy the same things.’
And although these days there seem to be more books like Billie — featuring non-traditional girl characters — on offer, Rippin says there is ‘definitely still a hunger for it’: ‘Every time I go into a bookstore or meet a parent they say please write more Billie stories.’
Bookseller Paul Macdonald (who owns The Children’s Bookshop in Beecroft), says that while there are certainly some chapter books that provide ‘stronger role models for young girls’, (Lulu Bell, a series by Belinda Murrell, about an adventurous girl living in a vet hospital, also fits into this category), it’s notable that they often still look quite ‘pretty’:
Publishers are providing strong role models but I think they also acknowledge that young girls, or their parents, or the grandparents — whoever’s buying those books — do tend still to go for that pretty package, the pretty design.
As for picture books, he says there is still, ‘for good or for bad’, a strong market for gender-specific books. For girls, ‘if a book comes in and it’s pretty, it’s pink, it’s sparkly, you know that it is going to sell,’ he says.
Laura Harris (Director of Penguin Group Australia’s Books for Children and Young Adults) says having an eight-year-old daughter herself, she has noticed an innate attraction to ‘princess and sparkles’, despite having a ‘very wide library with a lot of different choices’: ‘There’s a certain pull at a very young age, which I think makes it very challenging as parents.’ There are two aspects to this, Harris says. Firstly, not all princess stories offer one-dimensional female characters:
I don’t have anything against princess and fairytale stories and unicorns and sparkles. In many ways they are allegories for all sorts of ideas that also seep through for children, and we mustn’t dismiss that.
Secondly, even if those books don’t offer positive role models, they can provide a means of introducing other more positive influences:
We’re all striving to get children to enjoy reading. Sometimes the princess and fairy stories can just be an ‘in’ for the child. And I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that, but I think, like anyone’s diet, you can’t have all ‘junk’.
Eliza Sarlos, who wrote children’s-picture-book-with-a-difference Amazing Babes, says the key is to offer choice — and all the more so for young children, because their experiences and the material they have access to are so much more limited. While there’s nothing wrong with pink and princesses ‘if that is genuinely what a girl wants’, Sarlos warns that ‘if it’s a girl doing what society tells her she wants, then that’s really limiting for her’.
Sarlos originally wrote Amazing Babes — a pictorial representation of 21 inspirational women from around the world — as a birthday present for her one-year-old son. The book features one-line attributes for each woman, such as: ‘As I grow … I want the vision of Miles Franklin …’.
Although she wrote the book for her boy, Sarlos says she chose to include only women because she felt the world was already full of strong, readily accessible male role models, ‘but you have to dig a bit harder to find the female ones, so I just wanted to tip the scales a little bit’. Likewise, while she is pleased there are books offering non-traditional role models to young girls, Sarlos feels that these remain less accessible than traditional ones. This may be a question of packaging, as Macdonald notes, or it may be a question of quantity.
Penguin’s Laura Harris says there has been a rise in ‘disposable books’ — cheap product that offers single dimensional characters and relies on ‘colour and movement’ to sell — but her feeling is these mainly originate from overseas.
‘Australia has been a long advocate of very strong female characters for kids, and if you look at some of the real pioneers of Australian children’s literature, they all feature strong female characters that are non-traditional,’ she says, citing the work of authors like the late Patricia Wrightson and Robin Klein (whose recent books include the princess-debunking The Princess Who Hated It).
Sally Rippin points out that while there are a number of books offering non-traditional role models ostensibly directed at girls aged seven and under, many still use vocabulary that would only be accessible to ‘a fairly good reader’.
‘I still see very little that really works with that very very basic vocabulary,’ she says, adding that this is the most challenging aspect of writing the Billie and Jack books — partly because it can be hard to create a story with those limits, and partly because ‘your ego gets in the way’. Rippin says she focuses on her ‘very strong memory of myself at six’, to get past that, which means everything she writes about ‘draws directly from there’. While Billie and Jack were originally conceived to break their respective stereotypical gender moulds, ‘once I start writing it’s not really what I set out to do’: ‘In the end I want to create a great character and a great story, so for me the key is authenticity.’
Likewise, Harris doesn’t consciously think about creating strong role models when choosing whether to publish a manuscript, but ‘if something feels a little bit cliché or, dare I say, old-fashioned in its approach to female characters, you tend to start to separate a little bit from the manuscript anyway’.
She is drawn to certain female characters, not specifically because they break with the stereotypes but because they are ‘well-rounded’, like Becky in Ursula Dubosarsky’s Becky Collection, which turns the notion of a little girl ‘playing gently, softly’ on its head, or the young female protagonists in the Our Australian Girl series, which Harris says uses real historical settings in a ‘conscious effort’ to subvert the traditional male focus of historical events.
But there is also room for some more traditional subjects, particularly if tackled in a fresh way. So, in the new Wilderness Fairies series, Harris says Penguin was attracted to the idea that the society was run entirely by women, and the Australian bush setting, which provides ‘a non-Northern hemisphere version of what a fairy is … So yes, it’s fairies, and that’s very traditional and we know girls like that, but we liked this approach.’ There are other benefits to offering some traditional aspects in children’s books, Harris says. Firstly, denying access altogether runs the risk of making them ‘the more attractive option’ simply because they’re taboo. Secondly, ‘you need to actually see traditional roles to reject them’:
Like anything with reading, it’s about offering children a variety. Some that they think they want, and some where we can slightly guide them towards other versions of the things they’re interested in, without putting them off and without dismissing their choices.
Macdonald agrees, adding that parents are keen not only to provide variety in terms of gender stereotypes, but also increasingly in terms of race, and family situations — for example, books that show functional, happy single parent families, or families with same sex parents.
‘I think parents are generally looking to broaden their kids’ view of the universe,’ he says, adding that he read his own daughters Babette Cole’s Princess Smartypants from birth, which gives an alternative view of marriage:
She’s a princess, her parents say you must find your prince … Some people, some grandparents particularly, don’t like it — but she remains a ‘Ms’, and she lives happily ever after, single … .I read that to my girls saying, ‘I’m not saying I don’t believe in marriage but … there’s a different story as well. You don’t have to wait for the prince, you can choose your own destiny.’
Of course, animated films, perhaps especially Disney, are notorious for the prince-attaining happily-ever-after. Even the heroine of Shrek ultimately gets her man, albeit not the one we might traditionally have expected (the ogre, over the prince). But Rippin says it’s interesting to see that Disney, too, is starting to offer alternatives. The box office smash Frozen, for example, has an original take on ‘true love’, she says:
They’re still tiny-waisted, big-eyed, sweet singing little girls, but I think [Disney] is making a big step into that terrain and I think people are asking them to make those steps into that terrain.
Those in the book trade agree that little girls these days seem less burdened by stereotypes than little boys — an issue compounded by the fact that boys are often more reluctant readers. Macdonald says that while young girls who ‘do like the pink and the sparkly’ can be urged to read more widely, ‘boys are more locked in by stereotyping’:
And that seems to come from within. I can see dilemmas; sometimes boys want to read a certain series — and they’re very young, they might be in Kindy or Year One — but they’re worried they can’t take a certain book to school because it’s just not really ‘macho’ enough.
However, author Eliza Sarlos says part of the problem is the social reaction: ‘I think it’s really becoming more acceptable for girls to be into diggers, but if you see a boy that’s into pink it’s somehow quite quaint.’ Rippin acknowledges that writing books specifically aimed at boys or at girls risks perpetuating the gender divide among readers, but also points out the reality:
Sadly everyone in children’s publishing knows the rule of thumb is that boys will only read books that are targeted towards boys, whereas girls will read everything.
She wrote Hey Jack!, she says on her website, because her own son ‘wouldn’t be seen dead’ reading Billie in public because it had a girl on the cover.
It is a problem, and it is a problem that in a small way I’m trying to address. Essentially the Jack books are the same as the Billie books, but I’ve just chosen to put the other character on the front. So I hope that if they read the Jack series and they see what a great friend Billie is to Jack and that she’s just as fun as his male friends, they could potentially be tempted to go over and read the Billie B. books … I guess in a way I’m working with those things that are already existing, to try and blur those edges a little bit.
*This article first appeared in NSW Writers’ Centre magazine Newswrite. Reproduced with permission*