Thursday, 25 January 2018

Resetting the story factory defaults - How children's books need to ditch the cliches and spice up character diversity for more than just race and gender - a ReadItTorial

Defaults. What are defaults? This week's ReadItTorial started to take shape after watching a Twitter discussion thread between authors around the defaults in children's books.

An article on "Why there are no female monsters" penned on The Guardian website offered up evidence of a massive imbalance between male and female lead characters in children's books (you can read the article here).

This argument feels familiar - in fact it reminds me of the exercise we conducted for an article a couple of years ago when "Goodnight Stories for Rebel Girls" used a piece of extremely clever, if a little misleading marketing to champion a book about important female historical figures).

We're not here to rake over those coals again, but we are here to talk about defaults and how insidious - and to be honest how insufferably BORING they are in children's books. This whole thing goes way beyond just gender issues, so once again although it's impossible not to see that huge gender bias in children's books it's also impossible not to see other annoying defaults being used again and again.

Sometimes these are visual defaults. Who owns and runs the flower shop? A female character is drawn almost automatically. Who drives the delivery van or delivers the post? Often male ("Look, the author said "postman" so I drew a man!"). Who is teaching at the nursery? A female character.

 In some instances it begins to feel like we've progressed no further than the heady days of Richard Scarry books where you'd inevitably see Mrs Rabbit at home with the kids while Farmer Rabbit was the corncob-smoking fellah out in the fields all day driving the tractor (talking about the originals here, not the hastily rejigged versions that came back into print a few years ago).

Why do these defaults still exist when children can easily see that they're not reflective of their everyday world any more.

Playing an exercise with your child, ask them the following questions about would-be children's book characters.

1) If a story contained someone being silly, would they more likely be a daddy or a mummy?

2) If someone was going out to work and someone was staying at home, which would be a man and which a lady?

3) If a children's story contained a character who was a bully, would the bully more likely be a girl than a boy?

4) Likewise, if a story contained a character who was an evil genius intent on conquering the world, male or female?

It gets even weirder when you start to dip into the animal kingdom. Animal books are usually where tinies start their reading journeys, and yet we still find the same tired old defaults coming up again and again - pretty much dooming little ones to see (and worse, adopt) those defaults as normal very very early on. Bunnies are never anything but cute, busy or wolf-fodder. Wolves - nearly always male, always up to no good, like the bullies they're just an easy lazy 'bad guy' to adopt (See also: Foxes).

Similarly, crocodiles. I think I can remember one book (see below) where a crocodile was female, kindly, mildly subversive but interesting for all those elements that broke away from the usual hungry nasty crocodile who just wants to eat everyone.

"Aunt Amelia" by awesome and wonderful Rebecca Cobb. See what happens when you ditch the defaults? Amazingness ensues!

Defaults are everywhere and it begins to feel like they are there because children's books have begun to settle into an all-too-comfortable (read: lazy) set of standards that it's very easy to adopt, but very difficult to 'sell' alternatives to.

The discussion on Twitter raised some amazing points (which really made me feel proud as a follower and fan of these people's work - for example, the fantastic scenario discussed about stuff like same-sex marriage just being 'there' in kid's books rather than being some sort of flagpole to nail an issue to).

So who is insisting on and perpetuating these defaults? Sadly, the answer to that particular spaghettified debate lies at home. Parents are the biggest influencers on their kids, and sadly there are parents out there who still seem to be cut from some itchy uncomfortable late 20th Century cloth where those hideously tired old defaults are THEIR 'norm', therefore they will be their children's 'norm' too. I have heard and seen evidence of parents banning their children from reading certain books where (picking an example out of the air) transgender issues are raised and discussed, or indeed are the main point of the story. I've also heard evidence of parents leaving snotty reviews on books like "The Boy in the Dress", making them sound like they've slipped through some time-tunnel from Victorian times into a modern world they can no longer control or shape in their own image, so they'll fight that particular fight through their kids.

It's a crying shame. Authors and Illustrators can change things, and the more those defaults are crushed under a stylishly tailored Chelsea boot or two, the better.