A highlight for Australian children’s literature is the announcements of the Children’s Book Council of Australia (CBCA) Book of the Year award winners. This year’s winners will be announced on Friday October 16 — right before the start of CBCA’s Book Week on October 19.
Making the shortlist brings great exposure for the books and their creators. The shortlisted books are put on special display in public school libraries and supermarket shelves. They are even made into teaching resources, suggesting an exploration of the book’s themes, for instance.
Crucially, award lists contribute to the “canon” of literary works that become widely read. This canon is distributed through libraries, schools and homes. Sometimes, benevolent relatives give them as gifts.
We investigated the diversity — including ethnicity, gender and sexuality — of the 118 shortlisted books in the early childhood category of Book of the Year between 2001 and 2020. We also examined diversity among the 103 authors and illustrators who have made the shortlist over the past 20 years.
Our yet unpublished study found most (88%) human main characters in the shortlisted books were white; none of the main characters were Asian, Black or Middle Eastern.
Why diversity matters
The CBCA was formed in 1945, as a national not-for-profit organisation promoting children’s literary experiences and supporting Australian writers and illustrators. The first awards began in 1946.
There were originally three categories for Book of the Year: older readers, younger readers and picture book.
In 2001, “early childhood” was added as a category. This was for picture books for children up to six years old.
The diversity children see represented in that world affects their sense of belonging and inclusion. At this age, cultural values and bias settle in and become the foundation for how we develop. These values and biases have a profound influence on our successes and struggles in our adult lives.
A positive for gender diversity, but not ethnicity
We used visual content analysis to examine ethnic diversity, we well as gender, disability, sexuality and linguistic variation in the 118 early childhood category shortlisted books — between 2001 and 2020.
We also examined diversity among the 103 authors and illustrators who have made the shortlist over the past 20 years. Only one person — Alywarr illustrator Dion Beasley, from the Northern Territory, and winner in 2017 for Go Home Cheeky Animals — identifies as Indigenous.
Female authors and illustrators, however, were more represented (66%) than male (34%).
Looking at the picture books, we first identified four major types of characters: human (52.5%), animal (41.5%), object (4.4%) and imaginary (1.4%).
We then distinguished between main characters and those in supporting roles that make up the story world in which the main characters act.
One of the most encouraging findings was the gender parity among main characters. We identified 52 solo human main characters across all 118 books. Fifty-one of these are children, with 25 boy and 24 girl main characters (two main characters were not identified by gender).
But in terms of ethnicity, the human main characters are overwhelmingly white (88%). There are just two Indigenous main characters and one who is multiracial. There have been no Asian, Black or Middle Eastern main characters.
Looking at the wider story world, supporting characters are still overwhelmingly white. But this world does marginally include characters of Asian, Black and Middle Eastern heritage. Overall, human characters appear in 85 (72%) of the 118 books.
White characters appear in 74 of these books, and only nine books have no white characters. Non-white characters appear in a total of 18 books (21%).
Our results for ethnic diversity don’t correlate well with the latest Australian census data (from 2016). The cultural heritage of Australia’s population is described as: 76.8% white, 10% East and Southeast Asian, 4.6% South Asian, 3.1% West Asian and Arabic, 2.8% Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander, 1.5% Maori and Pacific Islander, 0.7% African, 0.6% Latin American.
The CBCA early childhood shortlist minimally represents other forms of diversity. We see only two main characters living with a disability and no characters who are sexually and gender diverse.
Other types of diversity
Linguistic variation is also minimal, in only four books, which does not reflect the linguistic diversity of the wider Australian population.
In response to our queries regarding their judging criteria, the CBCA said:
we do not select books for entry into our awards. It is the publishers and creators who select the books for entry. Our main criterion is literary merit, we do not actively exclude diversity, themes or genre.
Only two of the six 2020 shortlisted books in the early childhood category have human main characters. And these are both white.
The age of zero to six years is a crucial stage of development. It is important for young readers to see people and surroundings that are like their own to cultivate a sense of belonging. It is equally important to see a different world they are not familiar with.
These are some of our own first favourite books. That was before we understood the benefits behind storybook reading. But we gave the books to our nieces and nephews based on our pure appreciation of the stories themselves. And thus began family traditions of carefully selecting, signing and gifting cherished books to one another.
Books may help children develop such skills and insights because the plots often focus on social relationships between characters and contain rich language related to feelings and identity formation. Books can also encourage children to think of ways to enrich the lives of those around them, thereby enriching their own.
Of course, it’s not enough to simply own many books; it’s the frequency of shared storybook reading with the quality of time that matters. But whether books are borrowed from the local library, or part of your own collection, having access to them in your home is a good place to start.
Here are some of our favourites.
Books that explore themes of love and community:Porcupine’s Bad Day by Emilie Corbiere is an English- and Ojibway-langugage account of how porcupine’s friends help him move beyond his grumpy mood as he tries to sleep in the daytime — and to understand they all share the forest. Nancy Tillman’s I’d Know You Anywhere, My Love explores how intimacy and love are tied to recognition and acceptance, told through the delight of animal disguises and a woman narrator. Max and the Tag-Along Moon by Floyd Cooper narrates the love of a boy and his grandpa against the backdrop of the moon’s ever-present mystery.
Books that celebrate the occasional misstep in creativity:The Book of Mistakes by Corinna Luyken, The Most Magnificent Thing by Ashley Spires, and Ish or The Dot, by Peter Reynolds. The Dot is about a schoolgirl, Vashti, who goes from believing she can’t draw to a celebration of self-expression and creativity — beginning with a dot. These books would make wonderful gifts for the creative but cautious children in your lives.
Books for young budding professionals: Andrea Beaty’s books, including Ada Twist, Scientist and Iggy Peck, Architect would make wonderful presents that showcase new worlds opening up through science and design, and that show children the road to success is often littered with road blocks that can be overcome.
Books that celebrate themselves: The Good Little Book by Kyo MacLear, and It’s a Book by Lane Smith are stories about the love for reading, and the value of a good book. These support the message that reading is a beautiful thing. A Child of Books by Oliver Jeffers and Sam Winston is a lyrical celebration of a childhood filled with books.
Books that don’t take themselves too seriously:Chester by Mélanie Watt, The Book With No Pictures by B.J. Novak, Oddsockosaurus by Zanib Mian and I Want My Hat Back by Jon Klassen all provide a shared giggle between adult and child. Books like these reinforce the value that reading is a fun and intrinsically enjoyable activity.
Above we’ve included some of our favorite titles, but there is no one perfect book. We encourage you to spend some time talking to your local bookshop staff or librarians to find titles that will resonate in your family.
The psychosocial and educational benefits from shared storybook reading do not depend on whether the books are bought or borrowed or whether they’re new or used. All you need are books with convincing characters, good conversations and a place to snuggle up and read.
Christmas is just around the corner. If you’re wondering what to get your child, your friends’ children, your nieces, nephews or basically any very young person in your life – I highly recommend picture books.
Many people can remember a favourite book when they were a kid. Some of my favourites were the Berenstain Bears with Papa Bear trying, unsuccessfully, to teach his children how to ride a bike or gather honey.
Sadly, a 2011 report from the UK showed the number of young people who say they own a book is decreasing. The report also showed a clear relationship between receiving books as presents and reading ability.
Children who said they had never been given a book as a present were more likely to be reading below the expected level for their age.
There are lots of benefits of reading aloud to young children, including developing children’s language and print awareness. These include knowing that the squiggles on the page represent words, and that the words tell a story.
Such knowledge gives children a head start when they go on to reading at school.
Adults should discuss ideas in books with children, as they occur, as opposed to just reading a book from start to finish. Talking about the pictures, or what has happened, can lead to rich conversations and enhance language development.
The more words you know, the simpler it is to recognise them and comprehend the meaning of the text. Children who read more become better readers and more successful students.
2. Books can increase children’s maths and science skills
Picture books show children maths and science concepts through a story, which helps kids grasp them easier.
Some books (like How Many Legs and How Big is a Million) explicitly explore concepts such as numbers. Other stories, like the Three Little Pigs, have concepts embedded in them. Children can learn about the properties of materials when adults talk about the strength of hay, sticks and bricks.
A study in the Netherlands found kindergarten children who were read picture books, and were engaged in discussions of the maths concepts in the books, increased their maths performance, compared to a control group of children who weren’t read these books.
Early Learning STEM Australia has created a booklist which gives parents and teachers ideas for books that contain STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) ideas. These include:
Dreaming Up, which contrasts children’s constructions with notable works of architecture.
3. Books are mirrors and windows
Nearly 30 years ago, children’s literature professor, Rudine Sims Bishop, wrote how books can be windows, through which we see other worlds. These windows can become sliding doors when we use our imaginations and become part of them.
Children need both types of books to understand people come from different cultures and have different ways of thinking and doing things. Books can show that children of all cultures are valued in society.
Children who never see themselves represented in books may feel marginalised. Unfortunately, the majority of books feature white children or animals, so many children only experience books as windows.
Children learn gender stereotypes from a very young age. Research shows by the age of six, girls are already less likely than boys to think girls are “really, really smart” and they begin to avoid activities thought to be for “really, really smart” children.
Picture books can challenge these and other stereotypes. Reading books that portray atypical behaviours such as girls playing with trucks or with girls in traditional male roles such as being doctors, scientists or engineers, can change children’s beliefs and activities.
The City of Monash in Melbourne has created a list of children’s picture books that promote gender equality and challenge gender stereotypes. This includes one of my favourite books, The Paperbag Princess, who saves herself from a dragon and decides not to marry the prince after he complains she is a mess.
5. Just having more books makes you more educated
A study that looked at data from 27 countries, including Australia, found children growing up in homes with many books got three years more education than children from bookless homes. This was independent of their parents’ education, occupation and class.
Adults need to model good reading habits and their enjoyment of reading. Giving children a love of reading can be the best present we ever give.
In recent years, there has been a surge in “female empowerment” stories in the Australian picture book market. This long-overdue movement was largely inspired by the success of the crowdfunded book Goodnight Stories for Rebel Girls, spawning many imitations since its publication in 2016.
In April 2019, I examined the 100 bestselling picture books at Australian book retailer Dymocks: an almost 50/50 mix of modern and classic stories (the majority being published in the past five years). I discovered that despite the promising evolution of the rebel girl trend, the numbers tell us that picture books as a whole remain highly gendered and highly sexist. Worse – female protagonists remain largely invisible.
Ballerinas and princesses
In the Dymocks bestsellers list, 46% of books had male protagonists, while only 17% had female protagonists (in 32% of books there was no lead character). There were only seven female led books in the top 50, compared to 26 male led books.
Sixteen books in the list showed characters in specific occupations (outside of parenthood). In the female-led stories, protagonists only showed ambition for traditional feminine pursuits. There were three ballerinas, three princesses and one fashion designer – Claris, a mouse, who “dreamed about clothes” and “read about handbags in Vanity Fair”. (In this story, a misbehaving girl is also chastised for being “neither proper nor prim!”)
In comparison, the male-led stories showed protagonists in roles ranging from farmers and chefs to zookeepers and scientists.
Not much has changed in the past 20 years. A 1998 study found there were four primary occupations for female characters in picture books – scullery maid, daughter, princess and mother, while there were ten for males – which included detective, aircraft inventor and knight.
Zog and the Flying Doctors (2016), one of the books from the Dymock’s bestsellers list, attempts to rectify this gender imbalance, but doesn’t quite manage it.
Consider the first line: “Meet the flying doctors – a dragon, knight and girl, their names are Gadabout the Great, and Zog, and Princess Pearl.” Both Zog (the dragon) and the knight are male characters. The human characters are both doctors, and it is later shown that Pearl bemoans traditional princess duties. However, the male lead is a “great” knight, while our female lead is first introduced as a “girl” and then identified as a princess.
Of course, there is nothing wrong with ballerinas and princesses, nor with celebrating femininity. What is problematic, however, is the lack of other roles presented to young girls. When there is little variety in female-led stories, and female ambition is restricted, picture books become part of a bigger problem.
Parental roles are also represented in largely conventional ways in picture books. In a 2005 study of 200 picture books not a single father was shown kissing or feeding a baby. While mothers were always shown as active parents (feeding, holding and caring for baby), fathers were rarely shown performing parenting duties.
In my study, mothers were similarly shown as much more active parents, but also much more cautious and serious than fathers. No One Likes a Fart (2017) is a good example of this: a mother sits daintily on the couch next to a stack of books, drinking tea. The father stands with the remote control in his hand when he farts. “Do you have to?” the mother asks crossly, as he laughs.
Fathers are portrayed as sillier and more easy-going than mothers – but fathers are also often shown to be less engaged with raising their children. For example, in the classic Australian picture book Edwina the Emu, part of the comedy is meant to come from Edwina’s partner Edward’s reluctance to be a parent (“You must be joking!”) and subsequent difficulty and annoyance in caring for his eggs (“‘You’re late,’ muttered Edward, ‘and I need a rest’”).
Where are the girls?
Perhaps most worrying of all is how little female characters are represented – male protagonists are far more common. A recent study showed that of the top 100 Australian picture books published in 2017, it was more common for a book to have no lead character than a female lead character. Characters with speaking parts were also much more likely to be male, and 31 of the books had all male characters while only six had all female characters.
Of the books in the Dymocks bestseller list, 24.6% had either all male characters or used all male pronouns – even when characters weren’t human and had no discernible gender. Conversely, only one used all female pronouns and there were no books with all female characters.
Courageous girls and loving fathers should not be radical concepts, nor do we need to continue dividing gender so severely: girls can be sweet and brave with scientific minds, boys can be adventurous and kind with a penchant for tea parties.
None of these traits are defined by gender. It’s time we stopped limiting the things that kids can be.
Some languages seem more pleasant to listen to, easier to learn or more logical. These perceptions are generally influenced by our attitudes towards the speakers of a language and the different situations in which the language is spoken.
One reflection of the differential status of languages comes through in bilingual children’s picturebooks. Here I explore how te reo Māori (the indigenous language of New Zealand) is represented and argue that the way languages are displayed in bilingual picturebooks can disrupt the status quo.
As a sociolinguist, I am interested in the representation of languages in bilingual picturebooks. This not only reflects existing attitudes towards languages, but it can also be powerful in shaping future societal attitudes.
As well as telling a story or giving information, the presence of a minority language in a picturebook can serve a symbolic function. The way in which languages are presented in bilingual children’s books may encourage readers to value a language, or perhaps use this language more frequently, thus positively affecting its vitality.
To show the different ways in which minority indigenous languages can be featured in children’s picturebooks, I examine the linguistic landscapes of some Māori-English picturebooks that are disrupting the status quo of language hierarchies.
Linguistic landscape is a term used to describe the (usually visual) presence of different languages in public spaces. In my work with picturebooks I use this term to describe the space occupied by languages within a book. Language hierarchies relate to the idea that in any society some languages have more status than others.
I use these concepts to examine the comparative presentation of different languages in three areas: which language is presented first, which language uses a bigger font, and which language presents more information.
I argue that these three factors are reflections of the relative status of languages in a bilingual picturebook and they subtly indicate to the reader which language is more important.
Overturning existing hierarchies
In Aotearoa/New Zealand the indigenous Māori language (te reo Māori) has official language status, but it is spoken by a minority of the population (3.73% of the total population and 21.3% of the Māori population). However, some bilingual picturebooks have opted to assign primary status to te reo Māori in terms of order and font size.
Children’s picturebooks are often underestimated, but some bilingual picturebooks disrupt the status quo and promote an alternative language hierarchy.
For example, Kākahu – Getting Dressed (Brown & Parkinson, 2015) is a board book in a series self-published purposefully by Reo Pēpi to encourage the use of te reo Māori with young children. On its front cover, the Māori word in the title (Kākahu) is much larger than the English (Getting Dressed). In the body of the book, Māori is privileged in several ways.
Māori is given first on the page, with English underneath; Māori is presented in a much larger font size than English; and Māori is given in a bold typeface, whereas English is given in normal typeface.
Te Wairua o Waitangi, which can be translated as “The Spirit of Waitangi”, is also part of a self-published series, written by Sharon Holt and designed to support teachers to bring te reo Māori into English medium classrooms via song.
This book (and others in the Te Reo Singalong series) features a brightly coloured title in te reo Māori only. It is bigger and more bold than any other writing (in English) on the cover.
The first few pages before the body of the story feature publishing information, a translation of the lyrics, and teaching notes for teachers in English. However, in the body of the book, only te reo Māori is used. At the back of the book, the lyrics for the song are given in Māori only with guitar chords. The picturebook includes a CD recording of the song, which also features a title in Māori and not English.
The power of the picturebook
The many different factors that influence the status of a language are often inter-related, but if a language is not valued, this may lead to people using it in fewer situations, and even to its eventual demise.
The two picturebooks I have discussed illustrate how an often underestimated form of children’s literature can be used to support an indigenous language with a minority of speakers. Children and adults reading and listening to these books will see, albeit subconsciously, which language is being given higher status. In this way, new language attitudes are being formed and this may result in the adjustment of existing language hierarchies.
In this series, we’ll discuss whether progress is being made on Indigenous education, looking at various areas including policy, scholarships, school leadership, literacy and much more.
In a town by the sea that lies in the homeland of the Yawuru people, there sits a small publisher. But in the scope of its ambition, the depth and complexity of its range, and its commitment to bringing the voices of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples to all Australians, Magabala Books looms large on the Australian literary landscape.
The Broome-based publisher was established in the 1980s, partly in response to concerns that Indigenous stories were being taken and published without permission by non-Indigenous academics and storytellers.
Today, Magabala has the most extensive list of Indigenous children’s literature of any Australian publisher. So for parents and teachers looking to introduce children to the many worlds of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, Magabala Books is a good place to begin.
And anyone who buys a Magabala publication also has the comfort of knowing that they are purchasing an ethically published book. Indigenous peoples hold copyright in their stories and there is a return of benefits to the Indigenous storytellers and/or their communities.
While it is not possible to cover the depth of Magabala’s range in a single article, I offer here, as a starting point, five picture books that have wisdom to share with all ages. While most of these books are listed as suitable for lower primary, I’d suggest this is the point at which children can begin reading the books but not where enjoyment of these texts ends.
By Gracie Greene, Joe Tramacchi and Lucille Gill
Ability: lower primary
First published in 1992, this book is rightly considered a classic. A collection of Tjukurrpa (Dreaming) stories of the Kukatja people of the Kimberley region of Western Australia, Tjarany Roughtail is a bilingual illustrated narrative in which the pictures speak as powerfully as the words. It is also a book that can grow with children through the layers of knowledge it offers.
Young children will enjoy the stories of the Dreaming ancestors. Older children can explore the diagrams that explain the meaning of the symbols used in the artwork, as well as the maps of the Kukatja kinship system which shows the web of relationships between Aboriginal peoples and their homelands. And all ages can treasure a book that is at once a culture, language, art and philosophy text.
By Trina Saffioti and Norma MacDonald
Ability: lower primary
This is a Stolen Generations tale written by Trina Saffioti (Gugu Yulangi people) and illustrated by leading artist Norma MacDonald (Yamatji and Nyungar peoples). It is told in nuanced, sparse text accompanied by illustrations that convey the warmth of family, the terror of removal, and the loneliness of life in an institution. The book ends with the hope of returning home, captured through the image of a girl stepping through a half open door into a sunlit landscape.
Stolen Girl is a moving tale that gently introduces children to a traumatic aspect of Australian history that echoes through the lives of Indigenous peoples today.
Fair Skin Black Fella
By Renee Fogorty
Ability: lower primary
This masterful work by Wiradjuri writer and illustrator Renee Fogorty addresses Aboriginal identity, and in particular that being Indigenous is about culture, community and family rather than skin colour. The story is brought to life by illustrations that sensitively and appropriately capture the message of a tale that speaks to the importance of inclusiveness and belonging.
By the One Arm Point Remote Community School
Ability: Upper primary
What is life like in worlds different from your own? This book tells of the Bardi Jaawi people of the Ardiyooloon community, weaving together history and traditional stories with the seasons and rhythms of everyday existence.
Our World features the children’s artwork as well as photographs of them undertaking activities such as fishing, constructing windmills from pandanus leaves, and learning animal tracks. As a whole, the book conveys a wonderful sense of Bardi Jaawi children speaking of their lives to the child-readers of the text in a meeting of lives and worlds.
By Dub Leffler
Ability: lower primary
This reconciliation tale by artist and writer Dub Leffler (Bigambul and Mandandanji people) is an evocative tale of friendship across difference, with the poetic text given full expression in illustrations that capture the beauty of the story and speak straight to the heart.
These books, along with the many other narratives by Indigenous storytellers, offer opportunities for children and adults to journey through diverse Indigenous realities – and in so doing, to begin to build bridges across worlds.
A year and a half ago I gave birth to my first child. A girl named Olive. I’m a writer and a writing teacher so, naturally, our friends and family gave us books.
One after another, we unwrapped picture books and added them to the slightly tattered collection salvaged from our own childhoods. In the early weeks of Olive’s life, I spent a lot of time looking through those pages and thinking about how I wanted to raise her and what ethics I felt strongly about passing on to her. Maybe because I was already asking myself these questions, I noticed something in those books.
The video opens with a mother and daughter in a bookshop. Together they remove books from the shelf based on their representation of female characters. First, they remove the books with “zero male characters”. (Three). Then, they remove the books with “zero female characters”. (Seventy six).
Then, they remove the books where “females don’t speak” (One hundred and forty one).
Next they ask, do these characters have dreams or aspirations? They remove all the books where female characters are waiting for a prince. No number is provided for these. No number is needed. The shelf that was still pretty full is now virtually empty.
The video ends with the young girl turning to a bookseller off camera and asking,
I’m interested in Mars … do you have any books about that?
Princesses and rebels
I’m a feminist. I’m not what I’d call an anti-princess feminist. I see no reason to pit myself against the princess as a person. Princess is, after all, a job like King or Prime Minister. I know there are feminist representations of princess characters in books for children (I discuss a few below) but overall, I, like many feminists, object to the princess as a fictional construct.
Because the princess common to children’s literature is virtually always seen through the lens of her desirability, her romantic contribution and subsequent morality. She works best when she makes the prince his best possible self. When she fixes him. Over time, this princess may grow, new stuff gets added in and old sexist stuff gets carted out, but she’s still locked to her male counterpart. She’s defined by her “love” story. This construction is used as a way to package girlhood (and womanhood too), and in that packaging, the princess creates limits for real girls.
But girls are interested in Mars. Where are the books on Mars?
Halfway through the Rebel Girls video we are introduced to the authors of Good-Night Stories for Rebel Girls, co-founders of Timbuktu Labs, Elena Favilli and Francesca Cavallo. They say they wrote the book as a response to bedtime stories where the female characters had no agency. Its 100 stories are about real women who did extraordinary things.
There aren’t any pretty pink princesses in this book, but queens are represented. We read about Nefertiti, Hatshepsut, Yaa Asaantewaa, and Elizabeth I. Inventors, olympians, activists, artists, spies, surgeons, scientists. There are women you would expect to see: Frida Khalo, Jane Goodall, Maya Angelou, and Rosa Parks.
There are a few women missing. I wanted to see feminist Gloria Steinem or former President of Indonesia, Megawati Sukarnoputri. I’d have liked an Australian woman included, like former Prime Minster, Julia Gillard, feminist writer Germaine Greer or author Miles Franklin.
But there’s still time and, no doubt, another edition on the horizon.
As a first step, Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls accomplishes what it sets out to do. It takes the frame of the bedtime princess story and populates it with champions, thinkers, artists and activists, but as a social artefact, the book represents so much more. It was funded through Kickstarter to the tune of one million dollars, breaking Kickstarter’s record. Favilli and Cavallo originally set out to raise $400,000 to print 100 books but interest soon swelled.
Since Olive was born, I’ve spent countless hours scouring feminist picture book lists online, stalking A Mighty Girl and Amy Poehler’s Smart Girls on Facebook for book recommendations, asking friends, booksellers, googling, and, overall, I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the number and quality of newish picture books out there for the budding feminist.
Here are some of my favourites…
Feminist princess picture books
I worked as a bookseller for almost 20 years and if there was one thing I heard daily from mothers, it was that they wanted something other than passive Disney princesses to give their daughters. In Don’t Kiss the Frog (2013) by Fiona Waters, Rapunzel would really like to cut off her locks and dye what’s left blue. In The Princess and the Peas (2013) by Caryl Hart and Sarah Warburton, “princess” is a phase, a disease. Ordinary girl, Lily-Rose will not eat her peas and so is diagnosed with “Princess-itus”. She gets sent to a castle where she trains and works – day in and day out – at being a princess.
Meanwhile, in Ian Falconer’s Olivia and the Fairy Princesses (2012), the fashionable, eccentric, Chanelesque Olivia questions what a princess actually is and why she’s always dressed in pink, tiaras and fairy wings. Olivia also confronts the “whiteness” of this aesthetic by dressing in princess costumes from around the world and asking why the default for princess isn’t one from India, or China. In the end, Olivia decides she doesn’t want to be a princess. She’ll be a queen instead.
Lots of other girls in contemporary picture books come to a similar conclusion as Olivia. Some don’t even see the argument as relevant, or part of the story. These girls are often inventors or scientists.
Feminist science and inventor picture books
Leading the charge here are Rosie Revere Engineer (2013) and Ada Twist, Scientist (2016) by Andrea Beaty (illustrated by David Roberts). In Beaty and Roberts’s series, Rosie Revere is an aspiring inventor and niece of the real Rosie the Riveter. Her classmate, Ada Twist, is a gifted if somewhat mess-making scientist. Another notable book in this category is The Magnificent Thing (2014) by Ashley Spires.
These books position science and inventing as central to the story. The lesson of Rosie Revere Engineer is not that girls should invent, but that you should never let mistakes or failures keep you from inventing. The lesson of Ada Twist, Scientist is not that girls should be scientists, but that parents should accept their children for who they are, no matter how messy it is.
These books don’t argue that girls should be inventors and scientists: they suppose they already are.
Feminist activist picture books
The next category arming young girls with heroes are stories (mostly non-fiction) about activist girls, such as the unstoppable Malala Yousafzai. There’s Malala: Activist for Girls’ Education (2017) by Raphaele Frier and illustrated by Aurelia Fronty, Malala Yousafzai: Warrior of Words (2014) by Karen Leggett Abouraya, illustrated by L.C Wheatley, and a bunch of others detailing her extraordinary story.
There is power in the political picture book to reveal the marginalised stories of women in politics, but only space in this article to mention a few. So I’ll start (of course) with Hillary (2016) by Jonah Winter, a biography of Hillary Rodham Clinton. Winter has had a number of political picture books published, including one about the work of Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas, and Hillary’s daughter Chelsea Clinton has also written a picture book called She Persisted. According to a recent tweet from Clinton, it is about “women who didn’t take no for an answer”.
My favourite in this category is, I Dissent: Ruth Bader Ginsburg Makes her Mark (2016) by Debbie Levy and illustrated by Elizabeth Baddeley. I Dissent uses the Notorious RBG to introduce ideas around working mothers, persistence, shared domestic responsibilities and stay-at-home dads. The book explores the language of dissent while showing the (completely lovable) liberal US Supreme Court justice in her real life, thereby positing the girl with a voice as something special, but nonetheless natural.
We can’t talk about political picture books without also mentioning Madam President (2008) by Lane Smith. This book follows a little girl (in a flared pantsuit!) as she imagines how she would preside over her country and develops the qualities she will need for the job. Qualities like calmness and wisdom, diplomacy and humility.
Feminist non-fiction/history/biography books
One of my favourite picture books in this category is Amazing Babes (2013) by Eliza Sarlos, illustrated by Grace Lee. Each page introduces us to a famous woman from history with a line such as, “I want the vision of Miles Franklin” or the “compassion and commitment of Mama Shirl”. It also includes unusual women such as fashion blogger, Tavi Gevinson.
If you want to know more about any of the women in the book you can look them up in the index pages (Hedy Lamarr, I discovered, was an inventor!) This book speaks to a long history of women, and its framing device allows for a clear and deep reading of why each woman is important, and what modern girls can take from their lives. It only has one line per page/per illustration and uses repetition throughout, so it’s great for younger readers.
Another recent series Little People, Big Dreams, brings together a writer and illustrator to tell the story of a famous woman. There are six books in the collection – about Frida Kahlo, Marie Curie, Coco Chanel, Agatha Christie, Maya Angelou, and Amelia Earhart – with three more to be published later this year.
A few months ago, meanwhile, I stumbled across a list that introduced me to a treasure trove of recent biography picture books that amplified, uncovered or exposed the stories of women whose work had changed the world.
Australia doesn’t have the same number of overt feminist picture books as, say, the US but that doesn’t mean we don’t have empowering books for girls, about girl characters.
My favourite 2017 CBCA shortlisted book The Patchwork Bike (2016) by Maxine Beneba Clarke and illustrated by Van T. Rudd is a glorious picture book about a girl (and some other kids) living on the edge of the no-go desert. Together the kids build a bike from scraps, while Clarke and Rudd build a story about freedom and creativity and inventiveness.
Another favourite of mine is Molly and Mae (2016) by Freya Blackwood and Danny Parker. This is a story about two very different little girls who meet, become friends, and fall out during a long train ride. It’s a sincere and very realistic look at the often complex relationships and power dynamics between girls, set against a magnificent (moving) Australian backdrop.
My absolutely favourite girl picture book hero is Aaron Blabey’s Sunday Chutney. Stylish, outgoing, funny, resilient and creative, Sunday sometimes feels out of place, and struggles when she has to move and go to a new school. But Sunday has a powerful weapon in her confidence and wry sense of humour.
Finding your own rebel girl
Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls is not just a book. It’s a protest. We wanted it, we funded it, we saw the gap and refused to leave it alone. But the best part of the book, and what really sets it apart from the others I have mentioned, is the last two pages before the acknowledgements. One says “Write Your Story”, the other, “Draw Your Portrait”.
The book invites girls to write themselves into history. To be visible. To be seen. To have their wisdom heard.
I look forward to reading the story my daughter will write in this book one day, and seeing how she will represent herself. I won’t know what kind of rebel Olive will want to be for a few years yet, but until that day I’ll read her these stories, and urge every mother to do the same.