“We don’t need rescuing”
This is the rallying cry of the Anti-Princess Club, the subject of a new children’s book series. Written by Byron Bay mum and journalist, Samantha Turnbull, these books are both entertaining to read and challenge gender stereotypes. Aimed at girls 7 to 9, these books are a refreshing alternative to the books featuring princesses, fairies or damsels in distress.
These girls certainly don’t need rescuing as they prove themselves capable of looking after themselves. The club is made up of Bella, Grace, Chloe and Emily, four ten-year old Australian girls growing up in Newcastle. These books recount the adventures of the Anti-Princesses as they demonstrate to their families, friends, teachers and coaches that there’s more to being a girl than just looking pretty and being involved with “feminine” activities such as dolls, ballet or beauty pageants.
Instead these girls actively challenge these stereotypes. Each of the girls has their own area in which they excel. For Emily, it’s maths, Chloe is science while Bella is skilled at design and Grace is the athlete of the group. Together they use their skills to support each other as they undertake missions such as beating bullies, subverting a beauty pageant, getting tickets to a massive Newcastle Jets game or rescuing a lost grandmother.
The Anti-Princess Club series is a treat to read for its depiction of clever, confident young girls. I really enjoyed reading these books to my five-year old daughter. Like the author, I’m disappointed when I see kids books or TV characters perpetuating gender stereotypes with specific roles for girls and boys.
Although the book is called the Anti-Princess Club, the author doesn’t try to suggest that girls shouldn’t be playing with princesses and fairies. Rather, she asserts that kids, especially girls need to be free of pressures relating to their appearance and not limiting themselves to so called “female” activities.
One of the characters explains it best:
‘It’s not about what’s best for boys and what’s best for girls,’ Bella tries to explain. ‘It’s about everyone being different. Some girls do like fairytales and dolls. I suppose some boys do too.’
I was really pleased to see the series portrayed the girls as having interests in math, science and technology and athletics. All too often, these are classified as “male” interests. We need to encourage more girls to pursue careers in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) areas. As a woman working in IT, I feel it’s really important for girls to be encouraged to consider a range of career choices. I can still remember my anger at my junior high school teacher advising me against choosing physics and chemistry subjects as he considered them too challenging for the female brain. I ignored his advice and ended up excelling in them.
Also, it was encouraging to find books that reflect the ethnic diversity of Australia. Chloe’s family is Greek with both of her parents being migrants from Greece while Bella is similar to my daughter. Her mum is of Indian ancestry while her father is Australian of British origin. It was lovely to be able to point out this coincidence to my child. These books celebrate diversity and the author sprinkles in references to Greek and Indian culture with Greek words and phrases, references to Greek food such as baklava and Bollywood movies.
Overall, these books are a very welcome addition to my daughter’s bookshelf. Not only are they enjoyable to read, they serve as a reminder to kids and their parents not to be hemmed in by gender roles but rather to express themselves fully.
The Anti-Princess Club books written by Samantha Turnbull and illustrated by Sarah Davis ($9.99) are available at Dymocks, Macleans’ Booksellers and Big W.
There are four titles: Emily’s Tiara Troubles, Bella’s Backyard Bullies, Grace’s Dance Disaster and Chloe’s River Rescue. Review copy of books provided to The Mummy Project.
A big thank you to author Samantha Turnbull who was kind enough to take time out of her busy schedule to answer my questions about her new series.
1. What inspired you to write the Anti-Princess books?
A few things – the first inspiration came when I gave birth to my daughter in 2010. I was really surprised by all of the princess-themed gifts we were given in hospital. There was the odd tacky thing like a plastic tiara and princess dress, but there were also princesses on all of her everyday essentials – there were princesses on her nappies, her bottles, her baby food, official birth documentation. And I remember thinking that we weren’t giving our children much of a choice to find their own identities if we were pushing this stuff onto them from birth.
Then, when she was about a month old, we went into a local department store to look for some books. In this particular store, the children’s books were divided into ‘girls’ and ‘boys’ sections, and in the girls’ section there was not a single book available that didn’t feature a princess or a fairy. That’s when I decided to write ‘anti-princess’ books, to add some diversity to the market.
2. The books are set in Newcastle and even feature the Newcastle Jets. Why did you choose Newcastle as the location?
Newcastle has a special place in my heart because I spent a big chunk of my childhood in the Hunter Valley. I lived in tiny country towns in the Hunter such as Merriwa and Scone, so Newcastle was the ‘big exciting city’ to me when I was growing up. When I was a teenager I used to visit Newcastle on the train with my friends, and we’d hang out at the beach, catch the bus to the Charlestown shopping centre and walk around Hunter Street. So, I guess I set my books in Newcastle because I remember it fondly, but also because I think it’s a place that a lot of people can identify with. It’s largely working class but still diverse, it’s big without being ‘too big,’ it’s a great place for families and it’s beautiful.
3. Your books feature ethnically diverse characters that reflect Australian society. Was this a deliberate choice on your part?
Yes. I wasn’t trying to make any particular statement, I simply wanted to make the story contemporary and realistic. And, the reality is, we live in a society that’s made up of different ethnicities. Plus, it makes for more interesting characters and stories. It would have been a little boring to have four friends who look the same, speak the same, like the same things, eat the same food, live in the same houses and come from the same backgrounds.
4. I noticed that some of the female characters are involved in STEM subjects. In your opinion, how do we encourage more girls to pursue STEM?
I think a good place to start is to incorporate STEM-based play into our daughters’ lives in early childhood, the same way we naturally tend to do with our sons. There’s nothing wrong with buying your daughter a doll, or even a princess dress, as long as they’re exposed to diversity in their play. I think the most important thing is not to assume your child is going to have certain interests because of their gender.
One of my daughter’s favourite toys is a set of battery-operated spinning gears that her aunty bought for her in Japan. I’ve never seen them on the market in Australia, but I bet if they were, they’d be marketed to boys alongside Lego and Meccano.
I once went looking for a science-based toy for my daughter and rolled my eyes at the lip gloss and perfume-making kits that were being marketed to girls as science toys, whereas the toys targeted at boys were more traditional science kits like chemistry sets and build-your-own-volcanoes. If you can ignore gendered marketing and buy for your girls from all sections of the toy shop, that’s another good start!
5. Why do you think that we still have such strong gender stereotypes in 2015 and how do we confront it? E.g. Girl Lego, pink Fisher-Price planes and buses, etc.
It’s strange isn’t it? We had the women’s lib movement and seemed to rise above this stuff in the 1980s and 90s, then in the year 2000 things went a little backwards.
I think the change is largely due to Disney Princess becoming a brand in 2000 and going into merchandise overdrive. It’s now a multi-billion dollar company with tens of thousands of princess products in the marketplace. Other manufacturers and retailers saw the success of Disney Princess and began ‘princessifying’ their own products, to a point where it’s no longer enough to buy a game of Monopoly for your family – you need to buy the ‘regular’ Monopoly for your son, and the princess Monopoly for your daughter.
It’s all about money. If parents have sons and daughters, toy manufacturers and retailers are trying to double their income by getting you to buy two versions of everything – boy Lego, princess Lego. I’ve even seen a pink globe marketed to girls alongside a blue globe for boys (we all know the ocean isn’t pink).
So, how do we confront it? We need to start thinking critically about the way things are marketed to our children and the messages being sent to them. Then, we need to actively ignore gendered marketing and let our children know that there is no such thing as ‘toys for girls and toys for boys’ or ‘books for girls and books for boys’ and that everything is for everyone.
6. What advice would you give to other parents who want to raise their kids without gender stereotyping?
Sometimes people misinterpret my message and think that I’m promoting raising ‘genderless’ children. I’m not. I just think we all need to step back a little and let our children find themselves and make their own choices rather than be dictated to by the commercial world. If your daughter does end up loving princesses, that is fine, we’ve been playing princesses forever. If you’ve offered your child a diverse range of options, you’ve done a good job.
If you are interested in finding out more about raising kids without gender stereotyping from an expert perspective, I recommend reading Cinderella At My Daughter by Peggy Orenstein or the Princess Problem by Rebecca Hains.
7. Other than your books, what are your favourite books to read to your daughter?
The Violet Mackerel series by Anna Branford is my favourite right now and is a great step up from picture books. The Paper Bag Princess is, of course, a classic picture book. My Name is Not Isabella by Jennifer Fosberry is another great picture book. And, although it’s for older readers, my daughter enjoys me reading aloud to her from Matilda and most other Roald Dahl books for that matter!
8. Are there more books planned in the series?
I would love to continue the series, but we’ll have to wait and see!