A few weeks ago, I was chatting on text with a good friend.
She’s a successful lawyer who juggles work and some health issues with raising two lovely little boys and is an all-round fabulous person. I rate her opinions very highly.
I told her about my blog and the conversation turned to female role models in children’s books – or rather, a lack of them.
She suggested writing a post on feminist books for small children, or at least ones that are not completely sexist. “I despair at a lot of traditional ones,” she lamented.
Like me, this friend was raised in an era of improving attitudes towards women. We went to a girls’ comprehensive school where we were allowed to excel in a generally supportive, pro-female environment.
We were taught that we could do anything a man could do – and do it better should we want to. We could have careers and earn our own money, and find a relationship where we share household and child-rearing responsibilities equally.
I won’t get into my recent discovery that “having it all” isn’t necessarily realistic when you are the one born with the baby-making organs (it’s more a case of “having all the choices” I guess).
But when I’m sitting down to read a bedtime story with my child, I’d still like to see main characters of both genders that are compelling and inspiring. Not for any worthy educational reasons, but simply because that’s how the world is – filled with women and men, girls and boys, doing great things.
This isn’t just for the benefit of the next generation of women. I’d argue that it’s even more crucial that Baby Bookworm and his pals see women being brilliant and equal in literature as well as life, so that it wouldn’t even occur to them to have sexist attitudes.
Some of my favourite children’s books have strong girls as the lead characters – namely Matilda and Mildred Hubble – but proportionately, there aren’t that many. And don’t get me started on all the old-fashioned, homemaker mums.
Hopefully the appointment of Lauren Child as the 10th Children’s Laureate will make a difference – or make us less complacent about accepting the same old stereotypes.
Lauren, who is responsible for strong and bestselling female characters like Clarice Bean, Ruby Redfort and Lola (of Charlie and Lola), spoke about the problem at the announcement in Hull yesterday.
The author and illustrator revealed that she is worried about why most boys are reluctant to read books or watch films about girls, while girls are happy to read about boys.
“I don’t know if it’s just in our culture, or whether it’s a boy thing, that they find it very hard to pick up a book or go to a film if a girl is the central character,” she told the BBC.
“I don’t know where that comes from but it worries me because it makes it harder for girls to be equal.”
This problem is backed up by sales figures – and the attitudes of some parents, sadly.
Lauren said of her Ruby Redfort series, about a girl detective: “You could quite easily change Ruby’s name to a boy’s name and just change a few details in the book and it would work just the same.
“But still parents will come up to me and say, ‘Do you write books for boys as well?’ This is a book for boys. We do still have those problems. It does concern me.”
Lauren, who follows in the footsteps of Quentin Blake, Michael Rosen, Julia Donaldson and Jacqueline Wilson, now has two years to make an impact in the role.
But while authors need not be afraid to put girls centre stage, parents have to play a role in giving them the spotlight too.
Inspired to choose some books with more positive female characters? You can find suggestions at amightygirl.com
We also love the Little People, Big Dreams series of picture books, which feature the stories of inspirational women like Rosa Parks, Marie Curie and Coco Chanel. You can buy them from The Fmly Store for £9.99 each.