Why did you steal my feminist pirates? An open letter to Egmont publishing

Dear Egmont Publishing and Peter Harris,

Today I bought The Night Pirates pop up book for my daughter. The pop ups are clever and unique and it is a work of art. But I am so disappointed. Because the story itself has been edited and my beloved feminist pirates have all but disappeared.

It is no secret that we are huge fans of The Night Pirates in this house, but we were reading a copy from the library and I wanted Mollie to have her own copy. The pop up book has just come out and I thought it would be a lovely present for her. It really is beautiful, but has lost a level of meaning in the editing

The original text tells of ‘rough tough little girl pirates with their own pirate ship’ who steal the front of Tom’s house to use as a disguise. It goes on to say ‘But what about Tom, could he join in?’ and then…

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And that is the bit, of all the book, that all the rough, tough little girl pirates in the making really need. And that is the bit that has been edited out for the pop up version.

I understand the need to abbreviate to allow extra space for the pop ups. (And they really are special.) But why remove what is, to me, the most important message of the book? A few days ago I sent you a message on twitter to thank you for restoring my feminist faith in children’s books.

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But now I feel as though you have taken it straight back again.

So, why has it been edited out of the pop up version? I’m genuinely interested to know. Was it purely to save space without breaking the plot? Was it a nineties feminist issue, ‘let’s not be seen to be demeaning the boys.’ Or did you just not think that those few lines were important enough?

They are important to me. They are important to my daughter. Without them it’s just a pretty pop up book about a quirky pirate ship. With them it becomes something positive and affirming for all the rough, tough little girls out there and, more importantly, for all the little girls who didn’t think they were allowed to be rough and tough.

Please, bring them back!

Preparing for the princesses

My ‘boys don’t do ballet’ post led to some really interesting discussions on twitter. This is clearly an issue that people feel strongly about and one that affects parents in many different ways. People have sent me links to brilliant articles and sites looking at gender (in)equality. These are particularly good, especially in view of the ballet issue. http://www.pinkstinks.org.uk/cgblog/10/25/What-about-boys-Part-1.html
http://raisingmyrainbow.com/

The discussion has been very timely for us as Mollie is going through a pink phase at the moment. It is partly inspired by her love of ballet and the associated pink tutu imagery but also incorporates princesses and fairies. As much as it pains us, my wife and I are letting her get on with it. Mainly because we are hoping that it will just be a phase and we don’t want to stop her exploring it. We feel comfortable that it isn’t taking over – she has asked for a pink princess doll and a fire engine for Christmas – and we believe in equality. We want her to learn that she can, and should, have access to everything.

There has been a lot of discussion on twitter recently about the gender division in children’s books. This blog made me think about Mollie’s reading habits. Creating Mollie’s virtual library has been insightful in this respect. The picture books that she has enjoyed are, on the whole, gender neutral. There doesn’t seem to be much gender stereotyping or discrimination and the books are often full of lively, intelligent, strong characters of both sexes.

Sadly Im starting to notice this change. Peppa Pig is where the gender programming seemed to begin. Clearly it’s not something you can shield children from entirely. Instead, we have aimed to balance it out as much as possible and show Mollie as diverse a selection of characters and roles as possible. The Charlie and Lola books were the perfect Peppa Pig antidote.

Mollie is only 3 so the majority of her books are still picture books and therefore less gendered. However, she is learning to read and is beginning to pick up early reader books. The difference is really obvious. The fairies and princesses seem to have taken over this age range and I can see the gendering of the covers is starting to work. So Mollie will choose a flaky fairy book at the library and I will grab The Night Pirates to offset it. (If you haven’t come across The Night Pirates, I highly recommend it. Ninja girls for the 3-5 age range. It’s a beautiful book, with no pink!) In this way I’m trying to balance out the stereotypical images of little pink girls who need rescuing.

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In the interest of fairness, I should say that I don’t always have to offset. I have found a lot of the ‘pink books’ she is picking up do have strong characters in them and don’t necessarily perpetuate the stereotypical role of girl as weaker/less. This has been an important thing for me to learn. Whilst I want to stay aware of what she is reading I also want to encourage her own choices. I don’t want to stop her reading pink princess books through the assumption that they will be bad. They are often very positive. This excellent blog from the children’s book publisher Nosy Crow, discusses this and explains the reasons for the gender skew in publishing. It highlights some very good points and has some great book recommendations.

Nosy Crow’s Kate has written a follow up to her previous post that gives a more personal perspective, describing her own experiences with gendered books. It makes me think that my wife and I are on the right track. That Mollie is on the right track.

So why was I worried about the pink phase and the princess books? Because gender inequality is everywhere and it provides negative role models for our children- boys and girls. But I’m a feminist. I want my daughter to be smart enough to know what she likes and wants for herself, to have access to everything and know that she should have access to everything. And that means that it’s my job to give her access to everything*. Even when that includes pink princesses and fairies.

I’m less worried now because I’ve realised that there are a lot of people out there who are creating positive images for our children. I’ve realised that the good stuff really is out there (please do recommend some in the comments box below) and that Mollie is smart enough to know what she likes and wants for herself. She won’t stand for any rubbish and she won’t be easily sucked in by all the sickly pink marketing. And she’ll always have The Night Pirates there to rescue her if she does.

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*Disclaimer: ‘everything’ is a big word. Obviously I’m going to exclude the extremes. She won’t have access to a Barbie doll and she won’t have access to a toy tank. But you know, princess dolls and fire engines, they’re in.

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Boys don’t do ballet

Mollie’s best friend is four and loves dancing and dressing up, and dreams of one day becoming Jessie J.
He is also a boy.

Last week he came to Mollie’s ballet lesson and loved it. He’d looked forward to it all week and was so excited. He picked it up straightaway and was entranced for the whole 45 minutes. Which is a long time for a four year old boy to be entranced by anything! After the lesson they happily replayed what they had learnt, galloping up and down our lounge and discussing next week’s dancing.

But today I’ve been told that he won’t be coming to ballet again. Because his dad isn’t happy with the idea of his son doing ballet and would rather he do street dancing, or something a bit more… you know, macho.

I feel terribly sad on many levels. I’m sad that Mollie won’t have her best friend to dance with. I’m sad that her friend won’t be able to learn something that he so obviously enjoyed and had a talent for. I’m sad that the teacher won’t have a boy in the class anymore. And I feel guilty for taking him last week and showing them what they will now miss out on. But most of all I’m sad that his dad thinks that ballet is too ‘girly’ for his son.

Yes, he likes to dance and dress up. But he also likes to explore and play on his bike and with his football and in muddy puddles. The dance is just one side of his character, and one that his mum has been very careful to nurture equally with the rest. She has done a wonderful job of letting him be himself and express himself in a way that he chooses. He is a happy, creative, confident little boy because of it.

So why does his dad feel the need to stop his ballet? Does he think that male dancers aren’t masculine? That ballet will make his son gay? Maybe he should watch a ballet lift and see how strong the male dancers need to be. And, Dad, stopping ballet lessons won’t stop your son being gay. If he’s going to be gay, he’s going to be gay. And squashing any signs of anything effeminate will only teach him that he needs to hide them from you.
And he’s only four!

But you’re right, probably better to stop the ballet and send him to a street dance class. Where maybe you’ll be lucky and the boys will learn to be macho and strong and the girls will get taught to be sexy and silent.
Good luck with that.

Making time

After my last rant about the parenting-versus-writing issue I have stepped back from twitter a bit. I love the writing community on twitter but it steals time at an amazing rate. So I’ve dipped in, read a few things, chatted briefly with friends and turned it off again. It’s been quite liberating.

Now I only really read twitter in the evenings and at the weekend. So far this weekend has brought Danuta Kean’s Myslexia article on how women writers find time to work. An Alison Moore quote about writing after her baby was born, “If I didn’t sit down and do it every evening, I was admitting that I would never get round to do it.” And Jon McGregor’s response @jon_mcgregor: Striking that I’ve *never* been asked how I juggle childcare and writing, or how parenthood has affected my work. Are men ever asked this?”

This argument is never going to go away, is it. Surely the question shouldn’t be how do women writers find time to write, but how do writers find time to write. Because everyone is balancing writing with the rest of their life.

I have found that less time means more time. When I had whole days, evenings and weekends with nothing to do, I never got anything done. Now that I have considerably less time, I am forced to prioritise. I am making time for the things I care about. I am reading less, but better. Because I am ‘reading like a writer’ and being more critical, which takes longer but gives me so much more. I am making time to write, managing my time so that I have 8 hours a week to write while Mollie is at nursery. Yes it means I have to be organised and some things will slip but I prioritise the important things and let other things go. And most weeks I realise that Mollie’s nursery teachers won’t care if my tshirt isn’t ironed, the dogs won’t mind if I am writing notes on my phone while they are sniffing about on their walk. It doesn’t matter that my house is not a show home. I have a 3yr old and two dogs. It seems time-wasting to try. It’s much more important that I have quality time to play with Mollie, that she is happy. And the real time saver is stepping away from the Internet. Turning twitter off. Ignoring my emails.

For those 8 hours a week I am disciplined. I sit down and I write. I don’t touch the internet, don’t wander out to buy cake. I drink a lot of coffee and I write. Having the pressure of only 4 hours twice a week makes me work hard. I feel lucky to have those hours to do something that I love and I know what a buzz writing gives me when I get in to it and shut everything else out. If the writing doubt creeps in I think about my wife at work and daughter at nursery and I get on with it. I make a deal with myself. It’s this or the ironing pile.
I love writing. I hate ironing. There is no contest.

I am not a naturally organised person. I haven’t backed up my phone since christmas and the other day I drove for half a mile with it balanced on the roof of the car. But I want to write, so I am writing. I am making the time. I am writing this on my phone at 6:30 in the morning with Mollie cuddled on my lap watching her favourite tv show.

I always remember Jeanette Winterson’s response to the ‘I want to be a writer’ question. She simply says “Then write.” And she is right. If you want to write, you write. You get on with it and make time. Male or female, parent or not. There will always be something to distract you, be it work, relationships, twitter or domestic mess. But if you want it enough you’ll make the time to write.

Summer survived

Eight weeks of summer holidays survived. And enjoyed! Now Mollie is back at nursery and we have all settled into new routines, influenced by our summer holiday learnings.

Inspired by the circus and olympics, Mollie now goes to gymnastic lessons every week. She is learning how to swing on the bar and balance on the beam and is loving it. In 5 weeks she has grown in confidence, strength and balance and is so proud of herself. Ballet and gymnastics have become central to Mollie’s days. She watches and recreates Strictly, puts on shows for her nursery teachers and dresses up in dancing clothes and sighs at my lack of flexibility.

In the hour between nursery and gymnastics we go to the library. We sit on the dinosaur rug and look through the train book box. We read books together and explore the pictures and discover new authors. Mollie has an Elmer book bag that is always overflowing and a new Elmer library card to match – the observant and inspiring librarians presented it to her when they spotted her bag, how about that for going the extra mile!

The library books have been sneaking into our lives since the summer holidays, inspiring and teaching us. Mollie discovered information books and is now soaking up books about the body and doctors and ballet, teaching us all with her incredible ability to remember new information.

Emily Gravett’s Spells introduced us to the Babbit. A crazy half bird half rabbit that has become a family favourite. Every family has them, the little sayings that sneak into the vocabulary and end up as part of family life. In our house they all seem to creep in from the literature we share and our playing with language. And now the Babbit, and the tickling and giggling that accompanies the word, is part of us. Emily Gravett is a genius.

The joy Mollie still finds in board books has reminded me that she is still little, even though she doesn’t sound it when she is bossing me about trying to recreate the positions in the ballet book. She is still little, but she is getting over her fear of spider webs – because Emily Brown puts her hands on cobwebs in Cressida Cowell’s Emily Brown and the Thing.

Books can teach us so many things.

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Soon it will be time to start looking at schools for Mollie and asking the questions about gym clubs and school libraries and phonics tests. But I’m less worried about Mollie’s learning at school now. I’ve seen her be inspired, follow something she loves and grow in confidence. I’ve seen her love of books and words develop. And I’ve seen us embrace it all as a family and change our routines to support her.

Perhaps those eight long weeks will have a longer lasting impact than any of us initially imagined.

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