I wrote this about 3 years ago for a children's book blog. It brings back lots of happy memories of story-telling with my son. My daughter never let me make up stories for her, until about 2 months ago when she finally relented. Even now she has a very definite idea of who the characters will be and what will happen - I'm basically her editor. The characters are usually animals and there will be no moral, thank you very much. For her it's all about action, for her older brother it was all about rules for life, which is why I think this post was so important to me at the time...
Almost every night my husband or I make up a bedtime story for my son; we have been doing this for over two years. I am ashamed to say that it was only about 10 months ago (shortly before the birth of our daughter) that I realised that every single character in these stories was male. Not one female sidekick or even a mother figure featured at all. I am a feminist and I understand that providing a range of role models to our children, so they can see men and women leading varied lives of value will help them to understand the world they live in and allow them to consider a broader range of options about what they can do and who they can be. I would like to blame sleep deprivation for this lack of care when I was creating stories but I think there's more to it than that; it's just so easy to be complacent, to copy the models that already exist. All I can do at this point aim to think harder from now on.
Since then I've increased the bedtime story character list and we now have a girl elephant, a magic crab called Shelly, giraffe twins with a single mother and a princess who rescues a dragon. I have also made my son the hero of the a number of fairy tales, but with a few twists. In my version of Sleeping Beauty, G and the princess become best friends & have a party. Later he attends her wedding to someone else. In my stories, princesses are not prizes. G also takes on other roles than rescuer - he helpsGoldilocks apologise to the 3 bears for her appalling behaviour, taking the role of advocate (which is usually given to female characters, I've noted). I may have pushed the diversity boat out a bit far but my son still seems to enjoy the stories just as much as when they followed more traditional lines.
It's such an simple thing to miss, to not notice that you're doing it; it is so easy to erase a gender. I googled reading lists for boys and found this this and this. Not one female protagonist in any of them. I find it worrying that my son is not expected to find girls' experiences worth reading about, that boys are only meant to like boys. Surely stories are the places to experiment with something different from the status quo, a place to experience fresh and interesting perspectives
I should note that a lot of reading lists are identified for 'kids' rather than by gender but the bias is still towards male protagonists even in these lists. Apparently we would all rather read about boys than girls.
I have made a commitment now that my son and daughter will be accessing stories either that contain varied representations of both genders. At some point i am going to have to accept that they will choose what to read independently and their choices will become more skewed by their peers and the need to conform and this will make them adhere more closely to gender stereotypes but until them I can offer them a varied palate of bravery and brilliance by both genders.
So with all that in mind here's a list of books for all children, curated by my kids' preferences*.
Julia Donaldson is the ruler of pre-school literature; her ability to create beautiful rhymes with a genuinely humanist sentiment and moments of pure pathos (I'm looking at you, Whale lying beached on the bay) are stunning. She is so ubiquitous it's easy to forget how exceptional she is. I am so grateful to be reading her books as they are still being produced. The highest praise I can give her is that I can happily read one of her books over ten times in one day without a single exasperated sigh or muffled sob.
Gruffalo's child - Julia Donaldson
Snail & the Whale - Julia Donaldson
Honda's Surprise - Eileen Browne
Lost and Found - Oliver Jeffers
Where the Wild Things Are - Maurice Sendak
In the Night Kichen - Maurice Sendak
Princess Smartypants - Babbette Cole
Hugless Douglas - David Melling
Of course Roald Dahl deserves a special mention for creating boys, girls, men and women who are just brilliant to read, whether they're revolting like the Twits or fantastic like Matilda.
Revolting Rhymes - Roald Dahl (This is the best Red Riding Hood ever)
The Magic Faraway Tree - Enid Blyton
Clever Polly & the Stupid Wolf - Catherine Storr
Danger is Everywhere - David O'Doherty
Harry's Mad - Dick King Smith
Pippi Longstocking - Astrid Lindgren
*For all your book buying needs I recommend www.biggreenbookshop.com - they offer home delivery, can usually get a book ordered within 24 hours and are the loveliest bookshop in North London.