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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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Comments

6 comments have been made. Post a comment.

I was always a fan of The

I was always a fan of The Princess Knight by Cornelia Funke (as her novels are brilliant!) but I have yet to see Pirate Girl. Thanks for the suggestions!

My mother owned a bookstore

My mother owned a bookstore when I was a child and I spent a large portion of my youth reading everything the children's section had to offer. Picture books hold a special place in my heart because I've always been a visual person. It never ceases to amaze me how many picture books there are out there that push the visuals to the back burner when that's what's going to catch a kid's eye in the first place. Some favorites would be...
Helen Barbara Berger's 'Animalia' which is a collection of folktales about people living in peace with animals.
Eugene Trivizas' 'Three Little Wolves and the Big Bad Pig' which dumps the classic fairytale on it's head with a "catch more flies with honey" resolution.
Carmen Agra Deedy's 'Agatha's Feather Bed' which is about an older woman running a successful shop with the mantra that "everything comes from something" and how that lesson comes home to roost in an interesting way. This is an awesome book for a lot of reasons but it's an awesome girl book because of Agatha. She's wise, respected, beloved by her community, and also very shrewd. She has a small bit of personal vanity but when that comes between her honor as a business person and devotion to a fair trade then it's out the window.

a great book for girls

Growing up, the first book I really remember reading with a really strong female hero was The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle...most of the girls were pretty and demure... I recently read a book called The True Meaning of Smekday by Adam Rex and it is awesome because not only is the hero a young girl, she is a biracial young girl who saves the world from ALIENS! It totally is atypical! Its funny and really not what you would expect from the cover but totally worth sharing with a girl in your life. I am hoping to find more good kids books where they show 'different' situations that are, in fact, totally normal!

All the World

I have been happy with the variety of books available for my daughter - she's not yet 4, so we're not reading very complex books yet, but one we enjoy reading together is All the World, centered on a biracial family, within the context of a larger extended family and community of individuals who are diverse in age, pigmentation, gender, and sexual orientation. I am glad that one of her favorite books is also one of my favorites!

raising feminist boys & girls: getting away from gendering books

I actually think that getting AWAY from labeling books 'girl' and 'boy' books is critical to raising a generation of feminist boys and girls - ie. boys too need to read strong heroines because the books are well written (think Pippi Longstocking - what child doesn't love Pippi?), girls similarly shouldn't be steered away from, say, adventure books (I LOVED Robinson Crusoe, Treasure Island, and the like)... To me, this labeling of boy/girl books is about allowing the marketers/booksellers power over authors and readers - ie. pink cover or blue? do we sell a zillion transformers along with this book or a zillion EZ bake ovens? It actually makes me a little nuts as a feminist parent (of both a son and daughter), reader, writer. More ranting on the same here: http://storiesaregoodmedicine.blogspot.com/2010/09/girls-like-boogers-bo...

Isabel

The Adventures of Isabel was a favorite picture book of mine as a child. Ogden Nash's poem, inspired by his daughter, has apparently been made into a picture book by several artists, but the version I have is illustrated by James Marshall. It features a bespectaculed, matter-of-fact heroine who (somewhat morbidly) defeats her supernatural foes. Her first "adventure," for example, ends in She washed her hands and she straightened her hair up, / Then Isabel quietly ate the bear up. There's a lot to be written (and debated,) I think, regarding the poem's juxtaposition of gender norms and self-defensive aggression. As a bonus, the children in the story are drawn roly-polily in both face and body rather than in the slender style of the new Strawberry Shortcake and other animated little girls one might find nowadays. It's out of print and doesn't seem to be on Powell's, but the Amazon page is here.