“If you want your children to be intelligent, read them fairy tales,” said Albert Einstein. “If you want them to be more intelligent, read them more fairy tales.”
But fairy tales have been getting a bad rap in recent years, especially in terms of how they reinforce gender stereotypes. It’s generally acknowledged that the helpless princess waiting to be rescued by a handsome prince is a poor role model for a young girl to aspire to, but by dispensing with such classics are we in danger of throwing the baby out with the bathwater? And what should we be reading to our children instead to help shape their identity in a positive way?
Yasmeen Ismail is an award-winning children’s author and illustrator, who was born in Louth and is now based in Bristol. She is conscious of how children’s books can influence female identity at an early age. One of her best-selling books is I’m a Girl! which captures the frustration of not fitting the mould of what a girl is expected to be. She is somewhat puzzled at how the princess trope lives on so strongly.
“Name me one happy real-life princess, one who isn’t dogged by paparazzi,” she says. “I do wonder what the princess thing is about, what is the attraction, is it the sitting on your arse being beautiful? I don’t think the princess thing was so big when I was young, it’s more about marketing now: It sells.”
Ismail suggests the key to challenging gender stereotyping in children’s writing is to offer girls a variety of strong role models. “I don’t care that they want to be princesses as long as we are giving them more options. It’s all very well saying you want a gender-neutral household but they don’t want to be gender neutral, they want to define themselves.”
One of the great joys of parenthood is watching your children enjoy the books from your own childhood. Like most children, I was an avid fan of Enid Blyton, whose books have sold more than 600m copies, despite the sexist and racist overtones that have resulted in many of the books being changed. I am loathe to deny my daughters the pleasure of reading Blyton’s books just because they keep mum at home doing the laundry.
“Kids should definitely read those books, even if mum is at home making the jam sandwiches,” says Ismail. “Those stories make us who we are. We can still look back and recognise what wasn’t right. Our kids are probably more aware than we give them credit for. They can be very smart, shockingly so.
“We don’t want to rewrite history. It’s also nice for us to say, ‘This is my childhood, I want to share it with you’. Times have changed and what is important is how we approach our stories now.”
Despite the perception that we were swimming in a sea of politically incorrect sexism and misogyny in the ’70s and ’80s, many of the books I grew up reading then had strong female characters, such as Anne of Green Gables, Pollyanna, Heidi, and, of course, the great girl detective, Nancy Drew.
The Diary of a Wimpy Kid series of books, which centre on the hapless Greg Heffley and his adventures, are hugely popular with my older daughter and her friends. However, it is interesting, that as far as I can gather anecdotally, boys are less likely to read the ‘female’ equivalent of these books, such as Judy Moody. Ismail says she has also experienced this perceived division along gender lines and also how adults can often reinforce it.
“I suggested to one set of grandparents who approached me at a book signing that they give I’m a Girl! to their grandson but they immediately said ‘No, he’s a boy’ as if he couldn’t possibly read it. I insisted that should be the title even though I knew most people wouldn’t buy it for a boy. That’s upsetting because it is for everyone. People read books about boys for girls all the time. There is an inequality there and I think women are opening their eyes to it more because of the internet and social media.”
As the mother of a 10-month-old boy, Ismail is also aware that boys need to be educated about gender stereotypes, for example, the belief that they must not show their emotions.
“I worry about my son because there are different pressures for boys. I don’t want them to be ridiculed for crying. There’s a book called Tough Guys Have Feelings Too by Keith Negley which has superheroes who cry, because they are a bit sad and emotional. It’s a lovely book, and a nice thing to see.”
Ismail has kept gender roles deliberately vague in her upcoming book, Happy, Sad, Feeling Glad, an activity book which helps younger children deal with their feelings. “In the book, Cat is a girl, Dog is a boy, but there’s nothing except grammar defining that, they are just kids. The book is for all children, boys and girls, to help them identify how they are feeling. We expect them to be rational but they need to work it out, they need to fail, to feel frustrated, afraid, pissed off, sad, and excited. It is about being more accepting of emotions — it is not calling someone naughty because they are angry.”
Ismail believes it is an exciting time for authors exploring gender and identity. The phenomenally successful David Walliams sent a strong message in this regard with his first book, The Boy in the Dress, which took a light-hearted approach to cross-dressing. “Gender and sexual identity are shifting into a more liberal and exciting sphere,” says Ismail. “There are no boundaries with younger people and there is more acceptance.”
While I try to be aware of how the books my daughters read are shaping their identity, I believe education is key in how they absorb and interpret what they are reading. Girls are more in danger of receiving a skewed perception of female identity from social media platforms like Instagram. Rather than policing what girls read, it is better to encourage them to read widely. Nor should we forget the role that libraries have to play in expanding our children’s imaginations. I will always remember the heady feeling of joining the ‘grown-up’ library and discovering a series of books featuring a wonderful role model for all women. Fearless, fierce, and feisty, impervious to sexism and ageism, she always came out on top. Thank you, Agatha Christie, for giving the world Miss Jane Marple.
Five girl power books
- Pippi Longstocking by Astrid Lindgren: One of the most distinctive characters in children’s literature, the adventurous, acrobatic and super-strong Pippi (left) has no fear of authority and lives on her own with her pet monkey.
- Matilda by Roald Dahl: The sensitive and precocious Matilda overcomes the ridiculously stupid and cruel adults in her life to get her own happy ending with Miss Honey.
- Little Women by Louisa M Alcott: Jo is the March sister that most girls want to be — creative, independent and determined to follow her dream to become a writer.
- The Princess Knight by Cornelia Funke and Kerstin Meyer: Violetta is a different kind of princess, one who learns to joust and sword-fight just like her brothers, so she can compete in a tournament to win her own hand.
- To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee: Jean Louise Finch, otherwise known as Scout (above), hates wearing dresses, loves rough-housing with the boys and gets into a fight at school defending her father Atticus.