Like many young people growing up in the 70s my values were strongly influenced by the feminist perspective. Forty plus years, despite much progress, we are still grappling with issues around gender equality and the right for individuals to choose their sexual orientation and be accepted by society for who they are. In selecting ten books to promote gender equality and identity, I have chosen to focus on picture books as they provide a rich source of material for both informing and celebrating difference, and because they can also help promote the kind of helpful discussions which can positively contribute to shaping children’s values and attitudes.
Clive and his Babies
Jessica Spanyol, Child’s Play 978-1-8464-3882-0, £4.99 pbk
I have chosen to begin with a board book which is part of a series published by Child’s Play, a pioneering publisher in promoting diversity and gender equality. This is a simple story about a boy who likes to play with dolls and focuses on this being appropriate and acceptable. The book displays his nurturing qualities positively, recognising that gender stereotyping begins at a very early age.
Mel Elliott, I Love Mel, 978-0-9928-5441-6, £7.99 pbk
After her mum gets a new job (where she is the boss) Pearl has to cope with managing change, moving house and going to a new school. She also has to show determination and resilience when teased by a male classmate that she ‘does maths’ and throws a ball ‘like a girl’. Pearl’s response is an affirmative one which both confirms that she possesses a strong sense of self and also the ability to be forgiving and nurturing when the same boy needs a cuddle! (See also Pearl Power and the Toy Problem.)
My Dad Used To Be So Cool
Keith Negley, Flying Eye Books, 978-1-9092-6394-9, £11.99 hbk
Hot on the heels of the essential Tough Guys Have Feelings Too is a new work which again explores male relationships in a positive way. The visual evidence of a boy’s dad’s previously perceived ‘coolness’ is evidenced in his tattoos and the forsaken drum kit now stored in a cupboard. But even as the son focuses on his dad’s past we witness a stay-at-home father who has replaced his motorbike with a family car, cleans the house, and creates space to spend quality time with his son.
Marcus Ewert, illustrated by Rex Ray, Seven Stories Press, 978-1-5832-2850-0, £8.99 hbk
Bailey is a child who dreams of wearing an array of spectacular dresses but his certainty about being female is rebuked by his parents who repeatedly remind him he is a boy. This negative response is compounded by the real hostility he encounters when he shares his feelings with his brother. It is through his emerging friendship with an older girl that he gains acceptance of who he is. As they share dressmaking ideas Bailey speaks of a mirrored dress which ‘shows us ourselves’ and his new friend provides confirmation, ‘Bailey, you are the coolest girl I ever met!’.
I’m a Girl!
Yasmeen Ismail, Bloomsbury, 978-1-4088-5700-7, £6.99 pbk
This is another vibrant new work celebrating the importance of being oneself. Here is a girl who is continuously being mistaken for a boy, because of the clothes she chooses to wear, and because she noisy and likes to win. So whatever she does, she keeps having to say, ‘I’m a girl!’
Baking with Dad
Aurora Cacciapuoti, Child’s Play, 978-1-8464-3754-0, £5.99 pbk
A simple and humorous story of a girl making a celebration cake with her dad as a dubious cat looks on. They choose the ingredients and make a mess while having fun being creative together. I particularly like the fact that the person the cake is for is another male, and it is left to the reader to decide whether or not his gender is significant or incidental in this instance. Lovely artwork too from this first time author.
Made by Raffi
Craig Pomranz, illus Margaret Chamberlain, Frances Lincoln, 978-1-8478-0596-6, £7.99 pbk
Raffi’s preference for quieter pursuits, brightly coloured clothes and longer hair sets him apart and makes him question why he is different from other boys particularly after he is teased for learning how to knit. Reassured at home an undeterred Raffi then finds a degree of respect and acceptance from his peers when he creates a stunning purple cloak for the school play. This lovely book celebrates the importance of being who you are, the need for unconditional love and reflects diversity on every page courtesy of Margaret Chamberlain’s vibrant illustrations.
Rosie Revere, Engineer
Andrea Beaty, illustrated by David Roberts, 978-1-4197-0845-9, Abrams, £9.99 hbk
Young inventor, Rosie, is first discouraged and then empowered to carry on creating, and follow her dream of being an engineer. The empowerment comes from her great great aunt Rose (links here to the classic film/female icon Rosie the Riveter) who helped build airplanes during WW2. It is through her recognition and encouragement that young Rosie is able to persevere and understand that, ‘the only true failure can come if you quit’.
Heather has Two Mummies
Lesléa Newman, illus Laura Cornell, Walker Books, 978-1-4063-6555-9, £6.99pbk
Having two of everything is perfectly normal for Heather and it’s her favourite number too, but having two mummies takes on a particular connotation when she starts school and realises that unlike some of the other children she does not have a daddy. This is sensitively addressed by her teacher when all the children are tasked with drawing their families and the full range of familial experiences is soon displayed and normalised. The simple and clear message is the primacy of love within any family grouping.
The Paper Bag Princess
Robert Munsch, Annick Press, 978-1-5545-1211-9, £5.99 pbk
Can it really be 36 years since Robert Munsch introduced us to a princess who, through necessity, dresses in a paper bag then risks everything to save her fiancé Prince Ronald from a huge fire-breathing dragon only to reject him after he criticises her appearance? Still as relevant and funny and true as it ever was and thankfully it is still in print!
John Newman is children’s book buyer at the Newham Bookshop