By Viv Groskop
4th December, 2010
Feminist books for five-year-olds Can you radicalise young children in a few easy reads? Viv Groskop gives it her best shot
Once upon a time… Groskop introduces Will, 6, and Vera, 3, to some subversive storybooks. Photograph: Frank Baron
It all started with my son, Will, stamping his feet and saying he didn’t want any girls invited to his sixth birthday party. Girls, he declared, are boring. At the same time I noticed my daughter, Vera, who is three, carrying a handbag and lip gloss. Will was demanding his first football kit, Vera was swooning over princess paraphernalia, and I suddenly realised that it was time for a gender stereotyping intervention.
Children know what they are supposed to like from an early age. For girls, it’s princesses, ballet, fairies, parties. For boys, it’s adventure, space travel, fire engines, pirates. Until now, my two have been young enough to do their own thing – Will has enjoyed baking cakes, Vera has pretended to be Luke Skywalker. But the older they get, the harder it is to resist the pink-and-blue divide.
Can books redress the balance? We often read Captain Pugwash and Asterix – but there are no girls in those stories. I was happy with Babar until Celeste became pregnant with triplets and never came out of the nursery again. In Peepo the mother is always ironing. Of course, there are some successes for both boys and girls. Ludwig Bemelmans’ Madeline is a wonderful tale of convent girl derring-do, with lots of boy characters, too. Julia Donaldson’s books (The Gruffalo, The Smartest Giant in Town) are great fun, but not exactly politically inspiring. I wanted to find something feminist, subversive. The Female Eunuch for five-year-olds.
Bring on Jacinta Bunnell’s colouring book Girls Are Not Chicks, published in the UK this week. The New York-based author first had the idea for feminist books for children when reading bedtime stories as a nanny. “I found myself editing the words so as not to pass on a sexist message,” she says. “In most children’s books the girls have pretty frocks and bows in their hair, so I would turn it around – call the boys by girls’ names and vice versa.”
In the US “anti-princess reading lists” have appeared, pioneered by the websites Mommytracked.com and Bitchmagazine.org. There are now books for three- to eight-year-olds with a specifically feminist agenda: Call me Madame President, Girls Think of Everything, Girls Will Be Boys Will Be Girls.
Feminist author Natasha Walter is intrigued but cautious. “My mother wouldn’t buy me Enid Blyton because she said her books were too racist and sexist,” she says. “But I don’t think you need to read in a feminist way to become a feminist.” With her own daughter she reads Catherine Storr’s Clever Polly and the Stupid Wolf and Roald Dahl’s Matilda. Both Walter and fellow feminist writer Susie Orbach pick Pippi Longstocking as one of the best reads for children.
So Pippi seems a good place to start. But can a three-year-old girl who wants to marry her daddy, and a six-year-old boy who hates pink, really be radicalised in just five easy reads? Time to find out . . .
Girls Are Not Chicks, by Jacinta Bunnell and Julie Novak.
Some of the pictures and captions in this colouring book are funny. A woman riding a tractor: “Who says girls don’t like to play in the dirt?” Two ballerinas dancing: “No one wants to fight the patriarchy alone. Make friends.” But I’m not sure whether the messages are really for the amusement of children, or adults. One caption reads: “When she stopped chasing the dangling carrot of conventional femininity, she was finally able to savour being a woman.” Try explaining that to a three-year-old.
Will: “This book is for girls.”
Vera: (scribbles intently)