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Feminist children’s books

Posted on: October 3, 2011

We have a whole bookcase of children’s books, some fantastic, others… not. Most have been given to us as gifts over the years, and some we have chosen ourselves. The kids love reading them over and over (even the crap ones, unfortunately). I was rather proud of our large collection, until I realised that we only had a measly two books that showed children from different cultural backgrounds (Big Dog by Libby Gleeson and Armin Greder and Ten Little Fingers and Ten Little Toes by Mem Fox and Helen Oxenbury) and only a handful of ones with strong female characters (for example, Pippi Longstocking by Astrid Lindgren; Possum Magic by Mem Fox and Julie Vivas; and The Red Woollen Blanket by Bob Graham).

So, I set about trying to diversify our collection. I searched online, and purchased five new books for us to enjoy together:

The Family Book by Todd Parr:

The Family Book

(Image from http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/120654.The_Family_Book)

This is a lovely book, depicting many different types of families. The author has cleverly used both human and animal ‘family members’ in the artwork (which is gorgeous), to further illustrate the main theme of the book: there are many different types of families, but all that matters is that families love each other. My kids really enjoy reading this book, and they can identify with some of the family ‘types’, such as the family that lives close to each other (Nanny and Poppy are around the corner), as well as the family that lives far away (Gran and some Aunties, Uncles and Cousins live far away). I love that this book casually talks about families with two Mums and two Dads, and families with adopted children. I feel this is a small way to help broaden their understanding of ‘family’ and what it means to be in a family, because I want them to know that our way of doing things isn’t the only way. So this is a fantastic book for that.

Kate and the Beanstalk by Mary Pope Osborne and Giselle Potter:

Kate and the Beanstalk

(Image from http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/1527311.Kate_and_the_Beanstalk

My kids are really starting to enjoy the magic and mystery of Fairy Tales, but I have issues with many of them! On the one hand, I grew up reading Fairy Tales, and I know they didn’t do me any harm. However, I find it hard to ignore my feelings of frustration and annoyance when reading them Sleeping Beauty, for example. So, this feminist spin on the traditional Jack and the Beanstalk provides a nice counterpoint to all of those Fairy Tales with weak, downtrodden female protagonists. The basic story line is fairly similar, except that Kate is rewarded in the end for her bravery, cleverness and determination to help a poor, starving widow and her daughter, unlike Jack, who is rewarded for stealing! Tiernan, in particular, has asked me to read this book at least a dozen times since it arrived in the mail, and I love that he is so fascinated by Kate, the giants and the magic beans. I highly recommend Kate and the Beanstalk, and I’ll certainly be looking out for more feminist Fairy Tales.

Princess Smartypants by Babette Cole:

Princess Smartypants

(Image from http://www.bookdepository.co.uk/book/9780698115552?redirected=true&gclid=CJ2y6vmozasCFS4F4god-F-F1g)

This is one I remember fondly from my own childhood. I loved all of Babette Cole’s books, especially The Trouble With… series, because I really enjoyed her sense of humour and her quirky storylines and illustrations. Princess Smartypants is just as quirky. It is about a Princess who decides she doesn’t want to marry, and so she sets some interesting challenges for her many suitors, hoping they will fail. In the end, only one suitor is strong and daring enough to pass the test, but she still doesn’t want to marry him, so she doesn’t. Some people (such as my husband) think this story is all about male-bashing. It’s true that the male characters are all pretty repulsive, most of them weak, and all of them only after Smartypants for her looks and her money. But I think there are so many books, stories, TV shows and movies out there with weak, pathetic, idiotic female characters, that this one little book is not going to turn the tide and cause the children who read it to hate men! Some people, no matter their gender, are weak and pathetic, and Babette Cole dares to depict these traits in men rather than in women, so good on her. My kids seem to enjoy this book for the same reasons I did as a child – the illustrations, fantastic monsters, and the clever Princess herself. It’s a great read.

My Place by Nadia Wheatley and Donna Rawlins:

My Place

(Image from http://www.booktopia.com.au/search.ep?author=Nadia+Wheatley&gclid=CM-Y1OmszasCFS4F4god-F-F1g)

This book is one that I had always wanted to read, but never got around to it. It’s not feminist in the sense of being about women’s rights or about strong female characters (although it does have some). However, if you take the view of Feminism being about inclusiveness of everyone, no matter their gender, religion, cultural background, or sexuality, then this book could be considered feminist. Each page of this book takes us back ten years in time, to a child living in one ‘place’ in a city (I think Sydney?). We see, in reverse, how the city expanded and changed over the years, and we learn about what each particular child experienced, and valued most, in his or her own decade. We see that, over time, many children from many different cultural backgrounds, have shared the same ‘place’ and the same experiences, right back to the original inhabitants, the Aboriginal people. This is a fascinating story, with beautiful illustrations. I think it’s a real eye-opener to imagine what our ‘place’ looked like, and who might have lived there, not so long ago. My children aren’t yet old enough to read and enjoy this book, but I look forward to sharing it with them when they’re a little older.

Everyone’s Got a Bottom by Tess Rowley and Jodi Edwards:

(Image from http://www.fpnsw.org/products/Everyone’s-Got-a-Bottom.html#)

This book is published by Family Planning Queensland, as an aid to parents introducing the idea of ‘private’ parts to children. Private as in ‘just for you’, not private as in ‘dirty/yucky/something to keep hidden and secret’. In the book, private parts are given their correct names: vulva, vagina, penis, testicles and nipples. The children in the book learn that they need to look after their bodies by keeping them clean. They also learn that while it’s okay to be naked at home, it’s not okay for somebody bigger or older to ask to see or touch our private parts (unless for a very good reason, which goes unexplained in the book, but we have talked about what happens if there is something wrong with our private parts and who we can ask for help then). This is Molly’s favourite book at the moment! She loves looking at the pictures, especially the naked pictures. She quizzes us on our private parts every time we visit the bathroom. And she tells us that only she is allowed to touch her private parts. Message received, loud and clear! Of course, this book does not guarantee that our children will be safe from abuse, but at least we have given them the correct language they need to talk about their bodies, and the simple message that their bodies belong to them. We’ve also opened the lines of communication up, letting them know that we can talk about anything, now and always. This is something I feel really strongly about because I want my children to know that we will always listen to them. So this book is a great first step.

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4 Responses to "Feminist children’s books"

Great post Anna. Our bookshelves are definitely not balanced either and living in the Inner West, we have a Muslim family on one side and a family with two mothers on the other. The questions have started and I am often at a loss as to how to explain. I would love some help from the books mentioned. She has also been taught at day care that all private parts are ‘bottoms’ which I am not too happy with, so am sure the final book would be a great help. Thanks for the research and tips!

Yes thanks for these reviews Anna. I buy so many books online and hope for the best. I like the idea of the last one, and would love to get Jane and the beanstalk too. I recently bought several books by Pat Thomas http://www.fishpond.com.au/c/Books/a/Pat+Thomas that the kids are enjoying. They seem to respond well to something from a book as opposed to a lecture from mum!

We love Princess Smartypants too – Libra especially thinks that the prince getting turned into the toad at the end is a great laugh. (He also loves The Princess and the Frog, so that may have something to do with it.)

I love the other recommendations, though, and will be keeping an eye out for Jane and the Beanstalk and My Place in particular. Seems like they’d fit right in on our shelves – right next to I’m So Not Wearing a Dress and My Princess Boy.

Thanks Nicole and Jaqbuncad for the feedback and extra suggestions for me to look out for. I think we’ll probably never have enough inclusive books to read!

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