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Posted by Kate, October 25, 2012

Books for Girls: a follow-up from a personal perspective

Yesterday, I wrote about gender, packaging and content.

As a sort of coda, what follows is just part of my own experience as a mother (educated, ambitious, feminist) of two girls who I hope will be educated, ambitious and feminist in their turn (here’s a bit of an insight into the aspirations of one of them).

My role as a publisher is largely separate from my role as a parent (I’ve written about the connection, or lack of it, here).

I was a child in the late 60s and 70s. I played with dolls, a dolls’ house, soft toys, a toy sewing machine, Plasticene, Playdoh and I had Lego that I built houses with. My brother played with cars, his toy garage and a football.

My teenage years and early twenties co-incided with the popularisation of feminist ideas in the UK. I wore army surplus greatcoats and DMs, marched for women’s causes, and read Virago and Women’s Press books. I became what I am now: a feminist.

When I had my first daughter, I started off by buying her gender-neutral clothes (interestingly more possible 13 years ago then than it seems to be now) books, and toys. Despite (or some might say, because of) all my efforts, my child went through a Disney-Princess-pink-fairy-tiara-glitter phase. The tail-end of this phase coincided with the time that she became an independent reader. And Rainbow Magic was the series that supported her through that transition. I read a chapter to her at bedtime, and she started picking up the book I’d put down and reading the next chapter herself. For all sorts of reasons, The Rainbow Magic books weren’t my favourite read-aloud books, but they absolutely met my daughter’s needs and matched her interests at the time. She and her younger sister (and they wanted me to be involved too) spent ages sorting the 49 books (!) in the series that we owned at the time in descending order of name preference, of outfit preference, of hair preference, of shoe preference. I always chose the fairy with shorter hair, wearing the least-revealing dress or, when they rarely appeared, trousers, and with the most sensible shoes. My kids would look at me as if I were crazy.

But it didn’t last. The girl who coveted a Barbie doll (she never had one), wore fairy wings continually, and became a reader with the help of a little magic dust from the Rainbow Magic fairies now wouldn’t ever voluntarily wear pink, is completely uninterested in hair and make-up, wouldn’t know Princess Eugenie from the other one, and can’t easily be extracted from a hoodie and jeans. She wants to represent her school in debating, go to university, travel to China and write novels. She’s currently reading Wild Swans by Jung Chang, Just William by Richmal Crompton, Morte d’Arthur by Thomas Malory and Madeleine’s World by Brian Hall. And when I asked her if she were a feminist just now, she said, emphatically, “Yes!”.

My daughter’s interest in pink, fairies and princesses was just a phase. Like any parent, I determined our own boundaries: Barbie was out, classic Disney Princess films were in, for example. But I don’t think there would have been much to be gained, and, there was independent reading motivation to be lost, if she hadn’t had access to Rainbow Magic and the other pink-fairy-princess books she had on her shelves or borrowed from the library. They weren’t all she read, any more than pink princess books are all Nosy Crow publishes, but they played a part in developing her reading confidence and her pleasure in books.

As an afterthought, I wondered whether those people on Twitter and in our comments section who felt uncomfortable about the fact that our funny, brave, bold princess books are available for girls, would feel uncomfortable that we offer the same books to CJ, the five-year old-boy in this blog. When I publish a princess book for five-year olds, my memories of my own daughters feed my my Platonic ideal of the child who might love that book, but so do children like CJ.