By Dr Natalie Kon-yu
There’s a story we love reading to our daughter. It starts:
Today is your day.
You’re off to Great Places!
You’re off and away!
If there’s a more charming or joyful beginning to a kid’s book, I’m yet to find it. The next page goes on:
‘You have brains in your head.
You have feet in your shoes.
You can steer yourself
Any direction you choose.
You’re on your own. And you know what you know.
And YOU are the guy who’ll decide where to go.’
The story is full of the fantastical illustrations that characterise Dr Seuss’s work. Thin buildings perched precariously on clifftops, temples and grottos of gravity-defying proportions. Amazing creatures and wonderfully weird landscapes in shades of pink, green, blue and yellow. On each page, there is a little figure in a lemon-coloured top and pants, a small lemon sleeping style cap on its head. My daughter looks out anxiously for this character on each page – ‘where am I?’ she asks as she scans each vista for the figure, smiling when she’s located herself.
She thinks this yellow-clad character is her, and we encourage her, her father and me. We want her to think that she is the one who’ll have these adventures, that she’ll go to these places. Which means we take a bit of creative license with Dr Seuss’s text. We’ve changed ‘And YOU are the guy’ to ‘And YOU are the girl’. The page which reads: ‘With banner flip-flapping/ once more you’ll ride high!/Ready for anything under the sky/Ready because you’re that kind of guy!’ has been amended to ‘With banner flip-flapping/ once more you’ll ride high!/Ready for anything in the whole world/Ready because you’re that kind of girl!’
We do it with a lot of her books. All the characters in The Gruffalo have undergone gender transformations: the cheeky mouse, the scary Gruffalo, the perpetually hungry snake, fox and owl have all become shes instead of hes. All the Dr Seuss characters have changed genders too. The Cat in the Hat is a female cat now, and whenever we refer to her as her, it strikes me strangely, having heard the Cat referred to for many years as him or he. Thing One and Thing Two are girls, as are Little Cats A through Z. We do it with nursery rhymes. Old MacDonald is a woman, as is the Driver on the Bus whose horn goes beep, beep, beep. Humpty Dumpty cannot be remade by ‘all the Queen’s women and all the Queen’s men’. She lies on her side, broken in two for perpetuity.
Our daughter is four and like most four-year-olds she’s blissfully unaware of a lot of things: war, famine, neo-liberal capitalism, Australia’s brutalising of refugees and its indigenous community, Donald Trump, the awfulness of the situation in Syria. Like most parents, we see it as our duty to protect our child from these things for as long as we can, to keep her safe, to look after her emotional welfare.
But when it comes to books we are about to be found out. She’s learning to spell, to write her own name, to copy out the letters we write for her. It won’t be long now until she’s putting all those letters together, learning, as Margaret Atwood wrote ‘how to spell/spelling/how to make spells.’ And she’ll learn, then, that her father and I have been complicit in changing the world around her – she’ll see all those words him, his and he where other words her, hers and she should be. What will she ask us then?
In a charming story, called ‘Bear Finds a Voice’ on the ABC News Website, by Cristen Tilley, Nathan Hoad and Ben Spraggon, we are shown just how dire the gender dynamics are in picture books. The piece is cleverly presented as a children’s picture book, skilfully woven, beautifully illustrated, and punctuated by facts about the state of children’s books in Australia. We learn that ‘in the top 100 picture books of last year, more than twice as many books had a male author compared to a female author.’ If this is not sobering enough, we also learn that out of those books written by men, almost half feature all-male characters.’ The article points out that 69% of books feature male leads and that ‘kids’ books were more likely to have no lead than a female lead.’ Think about that for a moment – no central character is somehow more palatable than having a central female character.
In a study in 1972, Lenore J. Weitzman, Deborah Eifler, Elizabeth Hokada, and Catherine Ross found that “Picture books play an important role in early sex role socialisation because they are a vehicle for the presentation of societal values to the young child. Through books, children learn about the world outside their immediate environment. They learn about what boys and girls do, say and feel. They learn about what is wrong, and they learn what is expected of children their age. In addition, books provide children with role models – images of what they can and should be when they grow up.”
It’s no great leap then to suggest that half of our population (or thereabouts) see themselves firmly occupying the centre of stories – picture books, nursery rhymes, literary novels – from birth and the other half see themselves from the margins. The mummies, then the love interests and helpful female friends, but never, or seldom as the characters who roam, explore or make sense of the world.
I have a baby boy now, and when he is old enough we’ll read him our versions of The Cat in the Hat and The Gruffalo. We’ll keep the central characters female, until he, like his sister, is old enough to make out the words for himself. It’s important for both my kids, girl and boy, to inhabit a world where girls are makers, explorers and doers, and where boys help them along. Books for them, for all of us, can be a reprieve as well as a road map for the world we’d like to live in.