A week ago I was suitably stunned by Ruth Whippman's blog piece 'Want Your Kids to Grow Up Thinking Men Are More Important Than Women? Read Them Children's Books' to want to write a reply. What I hadn't banked on was my nine-year-old daughter Holly's insistence on contributing her voice to the debate.
Holly and I have our own children's book review blog called Childtastic Books, where we write about what we read from both a child's and an adult's point of view. The stories may vary but we're always honest in our opinions. And Holly had some pretty strong words to say to Ruth Whippman's statement that said Richard Scarry books were all about "father and son kittens relaxing on the sofa discussing affairs of state, while mother and daughter kittens clean the kitchen".
"I do not agree with this lady," she shook her head. "His books are just about having fun. I have read tonnes of Richard Scarry books and none of them have said that men were better than women."
You'd be forgiven for thinking that I was putting words into the mouths of babes. I am a journalist after all, with a point to make. But I did genuinely want the truth from my daughter on this issue, so I pressed on.
"What about all the books we read where the mums stay at home and the dads are out at work?" I asked.
'What about them?' she threw back, looking at me like I was a lunatic.
'Well, don't you think it would be better to show more dads at home doing the housework thing, and the mums out working in important jobs?' I persisted.
'No,' she said flatly. 'Everyone chooses what they want to do. If a woman wants to work, then she can. Or if a man wants to stay at home he can. Books don't need to show that. We know it already.'
'But wouldn't it be better to have more female characters in books?' I suggested. 'Some people think there aren't enough.'
'That's silly,' Holly scoffed, before reciting a list of authors who we've read and who have written about some pretty plucky girls, including:
• Eva Ibbotson (Annika in The Star of Kazan, Maia in Journey to the River Sea)
• Roald Dahl (Matilda in Matilda, Sophie in The BFG)
• Georgia Byng (the Molly Moon books)
• David Walliams (Chloe in Mr Stink)
• Judith Kerr (Mog the cat, in the Mog series)
• Dee Schulman (Polly Price in all the books in the series)
• Enid Blyton (all the girls in the boarding-school series, plus the female heroines in the Famous Five and other adventure stories).
If a nine-year-old can easily think of examples off the top of her head, then it shouldn't be hard for an adult, who knows a little about children's literature or who has at least popped into the children's section of a bookshop or library recently, to find some.
Therefore, I very much doubt there's some nasty plot to disseminate subliminal messages to keep women in their place in the world of children's publishing. Yes, some still show women more in domestic roles and men bringing home the bread but ask most families and you will find that this is what the status quo still is. The only difference now is that many women are expected to work as well as do the lion's share of the childcare and housework.
Admittedly Ruth's scathing comments about the mother in The Tiger Who Came to Tea could equally apply to me: 'up to her eyeballs in domestic drudgery and still having to feed unexpected and ravenous feline callers'. Come 6pm, you will usually find me in the kitchen, trying to put together a meal while tripping over our three greedy cats waiting for their dinner. But when Holly needs someone to sew on a missing button or fix a ripped hem, it's daddy who does it. We don't need PC books to show Holly about this gender balance (though I could do with a good guide to sewing, just to save face).
So why does Holly read? 'For fun,' she says simply. She's not sitting here, wringing her hands over the fact that - shock horror - Mother Cat is in the kitchen. 'I think the only thing you have to do with children's books is to read them and enjoy them,' she advises. I think I'll take a leaf from her book and would encourage others to do the same.
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