Girls in fiction: not just a fairy princess

What does it do girls’ ambition if they they are reduced to silent ciphers or pretty princesses? Several new books for young readers challenge the cliches and raise the bar

Goodnight Stories for Rebel Girls  aims to counter  gender bias by providing 100 female role models  in a series of short bedtime tales

Goodnight Stories for Rebel Girls aims to counter gender bias by providing 100 female role models in a series of short bedtime tales

 

Gender identity in young boys and girls involves a complex negotiation of the cultural messages that are communicated across media, from the toys they play with to the books they read. In the publishing industry, girls in particular seem to suffer from gender stereotyping and gender bias. In a recent study of more than 5,000 children’s books, 25 per cent had no female characters, while those that were female were found to be silent observers rather than active participants in the story.

Where female characters were the protagonists, meanwhile, the majority of them were princess or fairies. Even when the characters were not human, male characters outweighed their female counterparts. And when characters were not assigned a gender, parents reading to their children tended to assign one: male.

Children look to books for confirmation of their identity and aspirations. What does it do their ambition when they they are reduced to silent ciphers or pretty princesses? This question is the motivation behind several new books for young readers, which draw from real life and modern history to illustrate the wide array of significant roles that women have played across the fields of the arts, science, exploration and sport.

Elena Favilli and Francesca Cavallo’s Goodnight Stories for Rebel Girls (Penguin, £17.99, 5+) aims to counter this gender bias by providing 100 female role models – from history, from ballerinas to boxers, pirates to politicians, spies to sports stars – in a series of short bedtime tales. The women’s personal stories are presented in near-fairytale form – it is full of “many years ago” and “there was a time” – and this greatly enlivens the biographical format. The theme of struggle dominates across the centuries, from Cleopatra to Hillary Clinton. Favilli and Cavallo’s goal may be the empowerment of young girls, but the key message is perseverance rather than success. Crucially, the book also gives exposure to female illustrators. Their diverse styles – which range from realistic portraits to cartoonish studies – are universally attractive, with bright appealing colours and expressive faces. Goodnight Stories for Rebel Girls would be a valuable addition to the bookshelves of any child interested in history, regardless of their gender.

Little People, Big Dreams is a new series of standalone biographical picture books focused on famous women (Frances Lincoln, £9.99, 3+). The subjects are drawn from the late 19th and 20th centuries, and include Maya Angelou, Agatha Christie, Marie Curie, Amelia Earhart and Coco Chanel. Written by Maria Isabel Sanchez Vegara and illustrated by Gee Fan Eng, the slim hardback books have a luxurious art-book appeal: they are the kind of books that adults will covet and collect as well. The stories focus on obstacles overcome and happy endings. The language and structure is simple enough for young readers, while a biographical timeline at the end of each book offers greater historical complexity. The very youngest perusers of picturebooks, meanwhile, will love the rounded features of Fan Eng’s doll-like characters. Frida Kahlo, for example, looks like a Matryoshka marionette.

Also published by Frances Lincoln is Ella Queen of Jazz (€11.99, 4+). Written and illustrated by Helen Hancocks, the story charts Ella’s relationship with another twentieth-century female heroine, Marilyn Monroe, who used her celebrity to challenge the segregated club scene of 1950s Hollywood. Hancock’s language sings with the cadence of African American idioms, and the vivid colour pallette and varied typographical styles help to make each nightclub set look different. The story, meanwhile, reaches beyond feminist empowerment to illuminate a broader appeal to equality, and the final page emphasises the importance of friendship: a refreshingly achievable ideal.

Sara Keating reviews children’s books for The Irish Times

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