How Twitter changed my life

In November 2011 my wife Kerry attended the Stonewall Leadership Programme. A truly life changing course that taught her a huge amount about role models and what it meant to be a gay leader in the workplace. One of the things she brought home was how important it was to her and the others on the course to be in a room with their peers. As a gay woman it’s something she doesn’t have in her day to day job. She has a peer group at work but not a peer group that she can see herself mirrored in or observe obvious role models. Essentially, they are all straight. It was immensely powerful for her to be in a room of people who all had a shared core.

This came at a time when I was at home with our daughter, socialising with a small group of friends, mostly with children. I was missing the daily socialising of like-minded people I had had through work and looking to find something other than mums talking about their children. I wanted more than development milestones and cute stories. I wanted books and education and culture and politics and news. I wanted to find my peer group, my community.

And so I used Twitter. I followed journalists from the Guardian that I no longer managed to buy and read, I looked up authors that I loved and people that I looked up to. I followed their conversations and found more of the same. Suddenly I knew what was happening in the world again. I was following the news. I knew what books were coming out, even if I didn’t manage to read many of them. I found Stella Duffy and Caitlin Moran who re-politicised me. Shelley Harris who was immensely generous with her advice and encouragement to writers and readers. Isabel Costello and Zoe Toft who did all the hard work looking through all the newly published books and presented me with gem after gem on their reviewing sites. I was reading again, I was writing again, I was drawing again. I was thinking and learning and engaging with the world again.

That was when we all found out that Amazon weren’t paying their taxes. I needed to find somewhere new to buy my books, somewhere more ethical and real. I looked up local independent bookshops on Zoe’s site and found Bags of Books. A lovely children’s bookshop in Lewes, not that far up the road. It just so happened that there was an author event with Clara Vulliamy coming up that we could take our daughter to. We did just that and we had a lovely morning listening to stories, chatting with Clara and making tiny mouse houses out of match boxes. Afterwards, what better way to say thank you to Clara than to look her up on twitter? I looked her up that same weekend and we haven’t stopped chatting.

And now I feel like I have really found my peer group, that community of like-minded people that I fit with and can see myself in. I have started Rhino Reads and The Rainbow Library. I have role models and have become a role model to others. I have found friends and inspiration. I have found support and advice. I have found my place. So thank you to Stonewall for showing us the importance of peer groups and role models. Thank you to my lovely friendly twitter community, particularly those mentioned above and the Rainbow Library crew of children’s book authors, illustrators and bloggers. And thank you to my wife for sharing her Stonewall learnings so enthusiastically and honestly.

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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.