Iconography: Picturing What the Kids are Reading These Days
Gather around, children. It's time for a story. Several, actually. I've been thinking about picture books, and how big an impact a story can have with just a few words. Get thinking about the picture book icons of your childhood while I take you through some of my experiences and what the kids are reading these days.
I was a pretty fortunate kid; my mother, as I've mentioned, is a teacher, and I was lucky enough to be surrounded by books at home and to be taken on frequent trips to the library. The specifics of which books figured large in my childhood have mostly faded away. What has ended up being iconic for me, rather than specific characters, books, or authors, are the patterns in who was represented in those books I devoured. Growing up in Australia, with its substantial white majority, there weren't a lot of representations of kids like me going. There'd be the Asian kid next door, say, but white kids were usually the main characters. It was a kind of diversity, but the child reader was always expected to inhabit the "neutral" perspective of whiteness. The major exception to this for me was My Place by Nadia Wheatley, illustrated by Donna Rawlins, which I can't recommend highly enough.
Bless my mum, she found me a lot of books about glorious girl heroines, the environment and the universe, as many stories from our culture as she could lay her hands on, and animals. The animals were very important for me. Many Australian picture books are about anthropomorphised versions of our animals—koalas, kangaroos, possums, wombats and so forth—which better allowed me to relate, given a bit of imagination. Here I could imagine myself into fantasies of the Australian bush without having to worry about how I was going to fit in racially (or, sometimes, even in gendered terms). Animal icons allowed me to fit myself into this landscape in a way the citizenry never did.
I asked some parents of young children what their favorite feminist-friendly picture books are these days. I loved Ariane's suggestion of Miss Lily's Fabulous Pink Feather Boa, by Margaret Wild and Kerry Argent, and Aphie's of Pirate Girl, written by Cornelia Funke and illustrated by Kerstin Meyer (the version I have on hand was translated from the German by Chantal Wright). These two turned on their heads a few of the experiences I had as a younger reader.
Miss Lily's Fabulous Pink Feather Boa is the story of the Last Potoroo in Australia, who goes on holiday to Miss Lily's Tropical Holiday House. Her crocodile host has a beautiful boa, and the Last Potoroo can't help but snip off a bit of it for herself. When Miss Lily gives the Last Potoroo the boa, the latter confesses, and, after Miss Lily's response, is inspired to go find other potoroos who might still be out there. This book is wonderful for its centring of female friendship, and, through the boa, reclamation of femininity as a source of strength where it's usually presented as passive and useless. I loved the Last Potoroo's search for family and belonging: it healed a little bit of my bewilderment at not finding representations of myself in picture books as a wee Australian, with the animal representatives I found so comforting.
Pirate Girl is about Molly, a strong, independent type who is captured by pirates on the way to visit her grandmother. She has to do chores like repairing sails and cooking for the entirely male pirate crew. She's rescued by her mother, also a fearsome pirate, and her female crew, who turn the tables on Molly's captors and set them to work. It's pretty straightforwardly girl-positive, if you are a girl who can make your way through a book and not wonder why not one character within possesses melanin, particularly what with the book being set on the high seas in the sunshine and all. (This is a sensitive point with me at this stage.) It's a jolly good romp with an impressive heroine all the same.
They are both pretty new books, and neither are particularly famous, which makes them perfect for illustrating what I've been thinking. If these are the kind of books the children of today are taking on as icons, I'm pretty glad for it. Girls should be nurtured, be the adventurers, be thought of as characters worthy of publishing. And maybe, as for me, the particulars of books and authors will fade with time for today's readers, but the message will coalesce: girls are awesome, and it's cool to be one. Both individual picture books and picture books as a group get to be iconic in shaping feminist consciousness, and that's fabulous in my book.
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