When I was a kid, I would read shampoo bottles, cereal boxes, sweet wrappers - so desperate was I to inhale type, words and their meaning. I was a broad and voracious reader (also of books). Easy to please.
It's difficult to predict, though, which books Spike and Oscar will enjoy. There is a lot of trial and error. While I'm more than happy to put money in the pockets of authors, I should probably make better use of our local library. I could test the waters with library borrowings, and then head to the book shop when I hit a rich seam, confident that my purchases will have their spines broken.
With Oscar (5.5 years), recent successes have been Mo O'Hara's "My Big Fat Zombie Goldfish" series, the graphic novel version of "Evil Emperor Penguin"* by Laura Ellen Anderson and the Mel Elliott's "Pearl Power" series.
I can't remember where I picked up the first "Pearl Power" book. Possibly, I spotted it at my BFF's house. It's a great rhyming tale of young Pearl, who moves house and school, and finds herself having to contend with some rather lame attitudes regarding what girls can do from a boy called Sebastian. I may be raising two boys, but I want them to be feminists, so it seemed like a wise purchase. I set some store by the notion that you shouldn't necessarily tell girls they can do anything (or tell boys that girls are their equals), because they're probably born thinking that, already**. But Oscar has trotted out a couple of gems, already (which, sadly, originated from the mouths of girls in his class), so I felt a little extra work in this area was warranted.
While I love the book's message of equality, it was the vibrant retro-styling of the artwork (also by Elliott) that had me reaching for my credit card in the first place. The illustrations are bold and the colour scheme is resolutely unprimary, unpastel and ungendered and fits perfectly with the tone of the story. Very occasionally, I think books purposefully pitch the look of a book to appeal to adults (perhaps because they are largely in charge of the purse-strings), but that's a dangerous road to walk: kids drive sales of kids' books. This is not the case with Elliott's illustrations - they are so well-considered.
We've enjoyed "Pearl Power" for a couple of years now, and I have given it as a gift several times, most recently to Oscar's teacher. So I'm not sure how I missed that Elliott has penned two more Pearl books! Instabuy!
Hello, "Pearl and the Toy Problem"!
Pearl and pal Sebastian (now a convert to girl power) are appalled when Jerome, the new kid on the block, starts spouting nonsense about gendered toys.
Pearl and Sebastian decide to go straight to the top, writing to a fictional Carolyn McCall-type executive, entreating her to stop broadcasting adverts perpetuating the notion that certain toys are suitable for certain genders. The fantastic "Let Toys be Toys" campaign would be proud!
Oscar enjoyed "Pearl Power and the Toy Problem". It didn't smack me around the chops quite as robustly as it's predecessor, but the message is ace, Pearl is as awesome as ever, and I loved the pink dinosaur spread (see above).
The most recent book in the series is "Pearl Power and the Girl with Two Dads" which seeks to normalise non-traditional families.
Pearl is excited to discover that the new, new girl at school, Matilda, is strong, clever and kind, just like her, and that she has two dads. Pearl is invited for tea and expects that, without a bossy mum around, it's going to be all "pop, sweets and cake" for dinner.
After a lecture on the health benefits of legumes and a telling off for rambunctiousness, Pearl concedes that Matilda's family is just as boring as her own. But whatevs! She has a cool new friend!
Oscar found this story a fraction less engaging than the others, but enjoyed it overall and has asked to read it again. I loved it, and felt the artwork had stepped up another notch.
While these books aren't going to isolate your children from harmful, pervasive gender stereotypes, they are an engaging way to plant a seed, reinforce the message or start a conversation about equality. It's never too early! Most importantly, they're also great books!
The word is Elliott has 5 books planned for the series. Fingers crossed one of the remaining two tackles my personal bête noire, gender stereotyping and related issues in kids' clothes. I'm consistently riled by the lack of pizzazz in boys' clothing, the fact there will be 1 rail for boys and 10 for girls, stereotyped graphics and motifs in boys and girls' clothing, the lack of practical or robust clothing choices for girls, the sexualisation of girls through clothing styles and messages and, of course, the overwhelming PINKNESS of girls' clothes. Ok - that might be a bit of a behemoth for Pearl to take on, but perhaps she can at least raise the flag.
* We discovered "EEP" via "The Phoenix", the marvellous weekly story comic.
** As Sarah Silverman says: "Don't tell girls they can be anything they want when they grow up. Because it would have never occurred to them that they couldn't. It's like saying, 'Hey, when you get in the shower, I'm not gonna read your diary.' 'Wait--are you gonna read my diary?' 'No! I said I'm not gonna read your diary. Go take a shower!'"
Want to read more? A monster-ous lesson for parents.