I chanced upon a story today about a new “anti-princess” children’s book called Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls (“100 Tales of Extraordinary Women”). Among the extraordinary women featured in the book are Malala Yousafzai, Serena Williams, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Simone Biles, Elizabeth I, Ada Lovelace (19th century mathematician), Grace Hopper (20th century computer scientist), and Amelia Earhart (the first female pilot to fly solo across the Atlantic Ocean).
The book uses brightly-colored illustrations like this one featuring Malala Yousafzai (“Once there was a girl who loved school”):
And this one featuring Serena Williams (“I don’t look like every other girl. It takes a while to be okay with that. But different is good”):
Rebel Girls also tells the story of Amna Al Haddad, a journalist-turned-competitive CrossFit athlete-turned- weightlifter from United Arab Emirates (she had me at “competitive CrossFit athlete” – I barely made it through an abbreviated introductory CrossFit class). Amna is perhaps less well-known here in the US than some of the other contemporary athletes featured in the book, but here she is showing off her power and might:
The book has a less-than-ordinary story of its own. It is the result of a crowdfunding campaign that raised more than one million USD in 2016, reportedly the most money raised for a children’s book via crowdfunding.
The authors of the book (Elena Favilli and Francesca Cavallo, creators of the first iPad magazine for children) were motivated by the realization that almost all of the books and TV shows that they grew up with failed to feature girls in prominent roles. Upon doing some research, Favilli and Cavallo discovered that children’s books are still packed with traditional gender stereotypes (“the men are still the protagonists and the women are still the princesses”). Here is a well-publicized study, published in 2011, that is based on a review of nearly 6,000 children’s books published between 1900 and 2000. The study found, for instance, that “No more than 33 percent of children’s books published in any given year contain central characters that are adult women or female animals, but adult men and male animals appear in up to 100 percent of books.” It also found that “Males are central characters in 57 percent of children’s books published per year, while only 31 percent have female central characters.” And what happened to gender imbalance in children’s literature over time? The Guardian reported on the same study:
“Although the gender disparity came close to disappearing by the 1990s for human characters in children’s books, with a ration of 0.9 to 1 for child characters and 1.2 to 1 for adult characters, it remained for animal characters, with a “significant disparity” of nearly two to one. The study found that the 1930s to 1960s, the period between waves of feminist activism, “exhibits greater disparities than earlier and later periods”.
As the authors of Rebel Girls point out, the issue is both the paucity of female characters and what the female characters stand for, when they are featured. I have two boys, 2.5 and 5.5 years, and they have each independently and proactively shunned princess-oriented books. But should I expose them to princess stories against their will? Well, not if the princess is always the sideshow who exists only so a badass prince can climb a previously impossible-to-scale tower or slay a half-dozen previously invincible demons in his efforts to rescue her. I want the princess to do the scaling and slaying!
The other pertinent issue, of course, is: does it really matter if we had more Curious Georginas or Patty the Cats, and more Jills and Janes who climbed the beanstalk ? Does it change how kids see the world? Well, how can it not? The Washington Post asked the same question and here is what a children’s literature expert had to say: “Anthropomorphized characters have always been in the forefront of children’s books because they enable the creator to not have to make decisions about is this a tall or short, black or white … character,” says Marcia Wernick, a children’s literature agent who represents Mo Willems, creator of the Pigeon, Piggie and Gerald the elephant characters. “When kids aren’t looking for that resemblance to themselves, there can be a universality, and the characters can express all the internal emotions.”
And while on the topic of feminist books for kids, a great resource is the Amelia Bloomer Project, which publishes “a booklist of notable feminist literature for people from birth to age eighteen.” You can also find recommendations for other popular anti-princess books here, here and here (and yes, the Paper Bag Princess – a consistent favorite on feminist children’s books lists – is decidedly anti-princess in spirit if not in name). Other resources include A Mighty Girl, Goodnet, No Time for Flash Cards.