YA author Jennifer Pickup tackles the issue of representation in children's literature...
I’ve had enough of being forced to live in a world designed around gender stereotypes. I’ve also had enough of watching children struggle to negotiate a sense of self that is restricted by the choices they are presented with by – yes, admittedly, all of us as adults. And while the key issue for me personally is gender, the problem is not limited to gender.
Identity Stereotypes and our Children
There’s race, sexual orientation, disability, age, religious belief… and then there’s everything else. Height, weight, hair, skin, teeth, nails…beauty. What society teaches us to aspire to, what is ‘normal’, what it is…desirable…to be.
I am surrounded by little girls dressed in pink flimsy clothes, with long flowing hair and sparkly hairclips, and slippery soled ‘pretty’ shoes – and little boys dressed in darker coloured garments made from practical materials, with cropped locks and rugged shoes designed for outdoor play.
Princess costumes versus superhero outfits in the dressing-up box. Rapunzel (the rescued) or Batman (the rescuer). Those are the choices.
And don’t get me started on the toys. As a child, I selected a boys’ bike, much to the amusement of the bike shop owner, but with the full support of both my maternal grandfather and my father.
The girls’ bikes were pink and white and dainty, while the boys’ versions came in lovely greys, blacks, and silvers, and were ‘proper’ bikes, designed to be ridden off-road and not break.
You see, the gender issue is not just about colour – it’s about usability. It’s about practicality. It’s about toughness. But little girls can’t be tough, and play rough, and get dirty, can they? Not in those flimsy dresses and slidy shoes, with their hair blowing in their faces, certainly.
What About Representation and Diversity in Children's Literature?
But all this pales in comparison to the problem with literature.
Books. Our children’s reading material. As a teacher, I was told to choose books that featured male protagonists – as, while girls are perfectly happy to read stories with male leads, boys struggle with such gender reversal.
But why? Could it be, perchance, that the male protagonists are always depicted as strong, heroic, and intelligent, while the female equivalents are not?
Take a good, hard look at your children’s bookshelves, please, parents, teachers, and childcare practitioners. What do you see?
Do you see role models for your young ones to aspire to become amongst the characters, a true representation of our multicultural society? Or do you see what I see?
I see depictions of gender stereotypical boys and girls who come from families with a mummy, and a daddy, and two-point-four children, living in a white middle class world.
I see a lack of representation. Where are the fostered and adopted children, the single parents, the kind and supportive non-birth carers? Where are the future Paralympians, the disabled, the non-verbal?
Why aren’t there a range of races, religious beliefs, and gender identities? People that can’t have, don’t have or don’t want children. Older people that aren’t just grandparents. And why must characters be beautiful or ugly, rather than just look like people?
Let’s have a think. Let’s have a clear out. Let’s get reading and writing.
Let’s get choosing books that truly reflect our society, books that teach our children something valuable about difference (and there are some great ones out there to choose from!).
Let’s give our children more choice in how they express themselves, and more help in expanding into the amazing human beings they could become.
Let’s show our little people what it means to live in a more inclusive world.
Jennifer Pickup, Nursery Manager and ex-Teacher
Unbelievable, by Jennifer Pickup, is out now in paperback (£8.99, Unbound, ISBN 9781908717061)