Women in picture books: are we there yet?

Cover of Little People, Big Dreams: Coco Chanel

In this blog post Katie Cotton, senior editor at Frances Lincoln Children's Books, asks if we are representing women properly in picture books, and shares some aspects of creating the Little People, Big Dreams books.

It’s awards season, so I’ve been going to the cinema a lot. When I’m there, I keep seeing a particular advert. It shows a young girl, Grace, looking at famous women on her iPad with her mother – Emmeline Pankhurst, gymnast Nadia Comăneci, and singers Billie Holiday and Paloma Faith. Grace is shocked and inspired by what she sees, and then something magical happens. Each of the women look directly at the screen and nod, or smile, or – in Paloma’s case – give a slightly intense wink. Grace is amazed. Of course she is – she’s realised she’s part of a wonderful tradition of amazing women, and she can do anything she wants. Then the tagline comes up: Are you ready to be moved? Yes, Virgin Media, sucker that I am. In fact, I’m feeling downright weepy.

There’s undoubtedly a warm, fuzzy feeling that these ‘All girls together’ moments generate, but they’re part of a deeper meaningful tradition: that of women’s history. Many feminist historians argue that as history has been largely written by men, the role of women has been ignored. The National Women’s History Project, based in the US, has the tagline, ‘Writing Women Back Into History’, aiming to make the public aware of their diverse achievements through education. Why is this necessary? Well, as Myra Pollack Sadker wrote, ‘Each time a girl opens a book and reads a womanless history, she learns she is worth less.’ I’d go further than this and say that if girls don’t see themselves enough in books of any kind, let alone history, they’ll learn they’re worth less. And the younger they are, the more fundamental this belief will be.

If girls don’t see themselves enough in books of any kind, let alone history, they’ll learn they’re worth less.

But girls are represented well in picture books, aren’t they? Well, I have a sneaking suspicion that there’s a bias towards male animal protagonists rather than female. (I’d love to know if anyone agrees or disagrees with this.) And, despite the publishing industry making an effort to move away from gender-targeted books, there are still too many pink princess books out there for my liking. But there are many beautiful titles of recent years that challenge gender stereotypes – like Yasmeen Ismail’s I’m a Girl, or Rosie Revere Engineer by Andrea Beaty and David Roberts – and some that celebrate the achievements of women, like Amazing Babes by Eliza Sarlos and Grace Lee.

In February 2016, Frances Lincoln Children’s Books published two titles – one on Coco Chanel and one on Frida Kahlo – in a new biography series: ‘Little People, Big Dreams’. Both titles certainly celebrate female achievement, so why haven’t we called this series, ‘Little Women, Big Dreams’, or something similar? It’s a difficult question to answer. The first reason I’ll give is a publishing one. It’s very important that boys read these books as well as girls, and the reality is that a lot of consumers still want to buy books that are ‘for girls’ or ‘for boys’, using those as their search terms on Amazon. If we said the series was about women, some people

Spread from the book 'Little People, Big Dreams: Coco Chanel. Shows Coco designing dresses and handbags
might assume that it is only for women. It’s probably true that the series will end up in the hands of more boys being titled ‘Little People, Big Dreams’ than if it were ‘Little Women, Big Dreams’.

But more fundamentally, we feel it might be time to stop separating men and women when we look back through history. It’s worth remembering that boys don’t feel they’re invited to those warm, fuzzy, ‘all girls together’ experiences. If we called the series ‘Little Women, Big Dreams’ and only published titles about women, not only are we disregarding the many great men that shaped our world, but we’re also laying ourselves open to the sneaky, slimy attack – which forever haunts women’s history – that the talented people in our books are there only because they are women. And that’s just not true. Coco Chanel would still have revolutionised fashion if she were a man. Amelia Earhart (publishing in September) would still have been the first person to fly across the Pacific if she were a man.

We don’t want children this young to know that in the past, some people believed that men were better than women

Sometimes it’s about what you don’t say as much as what you do say. So what have we not said? We have not said that Frida Kahlo is one of the most famous female artists of the twentieth century. Instead, we have said – rightly – that she is one of the most famous artists of the twentieth century. We have not said of any of our subjects, ‘No one thought she could do X because she was a woman’. We don’t think you need to know that when you’re three years old.

Spread from the book 'Little People, Big Dreams: Frida Kahlo. Shows Frida being interviewed by the media with the Statue of Liberty in the background.
And that’s the real issue at stake. It’s true that because of sexism, women achieved remarkable things against great odds throughout history, and should be celebrated for doing so. However, in order to explain this to a three- or four- or five-year-old you have to tell them about sexism. And we don’t want children this young to know that in the past, some people believed that men were better than women. Even if we then go on to tell them that it was a false belief, the damage has been done. We don’t want girls this young to have the burden that this brings: to be wondering why people thought this; to be looking over their shoulder at the boy on the swings and subconsciously thinking, Is he stronger/ cleverer/better than me?

Of course, when our readers are older, they will naturally become aware of the history of female oppression. Hopefully, they will then be old and wise enough to think, 'I’m glad the world isn’t like that any more, and I can do anything I want whether I’m a boy or a girl.'

Because if that’s what they believe, then maybe – eventually – it will be true.

 

For some book recommendations for teenagers looking for some inspirational female characters, try our list of fiction for young feminists. For adult readers, why not try our list of books about pioneering women?

Katie Cotton

Katie Cotton is a senior editor at Frances Lincoln Children's Books. Little People, Big Dreams, published by Frances Lincoln Children's Books, is a new series of inspirational biographies perfect for encouraging children to follow their dreams. The first two titles are: Little People, Big Dreams: Coco Chanel, written by Ma. Isabel Sánchez Vegara, illustrated by Ana Albero and translated by Emma Martinez and Little People, Big Dreams: Frida Kahlo, written by Ma. Isabel Sánchez Vegara, illustrated by Eng Gee Fan and translated by Emma Martinez

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