Loryn Brantz was just picking up a present for a baby shower when she stumbled on the idea for a children’s book that would make her a name in the industry. It started with a question.
“Where are the feminist baby books?” she asked. When the attendant at the giant Barnes & Noble in New York’s Union Square looked nonplussed, Brantz, an author-illustrator who already had a few books to her name, knew what to do. She ran home, made a character design, and sent it to her agent.
The result was the start of the bestselling Feminist Baby book series. Roxane Gay, the literary feminist, has praised the books for “making feminism accessible”.
“I wasn’t concerned about audience. I was just excited to share my feelings with as many people as possible,” says Brantz. But feminism isn’t just for women and soon readers were asking for a “boy version”.
Questions about how to raise good feminists, and in particular, good feminist men, have become a pressing concern for progressives in the era of #MeToo, and with an alleged sexual predator in the White House.
After Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls, a collection of “100 tales of extraordinary women”, enjoyed terrific success when it was published in 2016, it inspired a male corollary: Stories for Boys Who Dare to Be Different.
It’s often said that children’s books are windows and mirrors. But if feminist baby books can be said to have pivoted to boys, it’s as much an attempt to change the culture as a reflection of it.
Among those pressing Brantz for a boy book were Chris Taylor and Fareha Ahmed, the thirtysomething parents of two young children in Washington, DC, who sent her a message on Instagram.
When, in April, Brantz published the latest book in her series, Feminist Baby! He’s A Feminist Too!, Taylor was “ecstatic”.
In the wake of #MeToo, watching the stream of women in his Facebook feed ask men if they understood that every woman had experienced things like this, he’d been disturbed by the consistency with which men said no – and he wanted to be part of changing that.
“It’s at least as important for men to stand up for women’s rights and be aware of the historical biases we have,” Taylor said.
Changing public consciousness around gender has led to a wave of progressive kids’ books tackling politically sophisticated issues from gender identity and sexuality, to intersectionality. Not that they talk about stuff in those terms.
Instead, a flurry of picture book biographies have drawn on cultural conversations around feminism, uplifting the stories of black women leaders, women who code, and veterans of the US Supreme Court, to name just a few.
Then there’s the way new books are influencing the established world of children’s fiction, where beloved classics are being re-examined. Should Peter Pan be recast because Tiger Lily is portrayed with racist stereotypes about Native Americans? Should Babar books be discarded because of themes of (and, critics say, tacit support for) French colonialism? Even Curious George has come under fire because, as one writer put it, “the Man in the Yellow Hat took a trip to Africa, stuffed George into a bag, and sold him to a zoo”.
In the wake of #MeToo, questions of consent are taking on new urgency across the literary world, The New York Times reported this month. But such questions take on a special saliency when it comes to how we educate our young people.
“I’m looking now at picture books in a different way and I’m looking at how issues of consent are being handled,” says the children’s author and educator Mary Quattlebaum, who’s also a book critic for The Washington Post.
While the politics of consent are relatively new, political potency in picture books is not.
The scholar Mary Beard has credited Robert Munsch’s 1980 picture book The Paper Bag Princess as inspiring her feminism, alongside such feminist classics as Germain Greer’s The Female Eunuch and Kate Millett’s Sexual Politics.
Rachel Maddow, the American cable news host seen as one of the most influential progressives covering US politics, has said Lesléa Newman’s 1989 book Heather Has Two Mommies “changed the world” by teaching kids to celebrate gay marriage decades before it was allowed by law. (Newman’s more recent Sparkle Boy, published in 2017, celebrates acceptance and “freedom to be yourself” across gender, according to its jacket. And it wasn’t idle messaging, now or then – her Twitter bio reads: “Changing the world one book at a time.”)
Those trailblazing books remain classics, but considered afresh even they can be critiqued for only addressing questions of gender, sexuality, and identity from a white person’s perspective.
That’s something that needs to change too, reformers say. Chief among them are leaders of the We Need Diverse Books (#OwnVoices) movement, who have used the power of social media in working to correct racial representation imbalances in young adult publishing.
It’s been a boon to minority authors and young readers hoping to see themselves reflected. But critics say the change is too much.
“Suddenly, all of my liberal friends had one parenting objective: to raise ‘woke’ children,” Bethany Mandel, a conservative commentator, wrote in the National Review after Trump’s election. She sees woke children’s books as tools of indoctrination, and thinks parents are forcing values down kids’ throats and could turn off the young people they want most to reach.
“If progressives wonder why so many women, even those who want to teach their daughters to be strong and capable people, refuse to self-identify as feminist, this is why,” she wrote.
But Taylor, Ahmed and other progressive parents see it simply as a necessary education when navigating an imperfect field of texts. To their minds, children’s books can’t change quickly enough.
Rebekah Sullivan, a lawyer in Washington DC whose boys are five and three, says she’s noticed how the vast majority of children’s books skew heavily towards using male pronouns for minor characters and animals. “I find it even true in books that have female protagonists,” she says.
Data, anecdotal and otherwise, backs her up. In classics like Peter Rabbit, Fantastic Mr Fox and Winnie-the-Pooh there are almost no major female characters. And a study of 6,000 children’s books published between 1900 and 2000 found that 57 per cent of central characters were male. The same study found that while no more than one third of children’s books featured a woman or female animal in any year surveyed, men and male animals appeared in 100 per cent of the literature.
A recent analysis of Time Magazine’s 100 Best Children’s Books of All Time found 68 per cent had male protagonists compared with just 19 per cent featuring female leads. Only 13 per cent focused on multiple genders or didn’t identify gender.
And while women are well represented among children’s books authors over all, among those elite hundred that have entered into the cultural canon, only 35 per cent are by women – and for women of colour and LGBTQ women, representation is much worse.
Even as inanimate objects, women often fare poorly, as a Washington Post writer recently pointed out. In a best-selling picture book that anthropomorphises crayons and has been counted as among the “parables of diversity”, not one crayon takes a female pronoun.
When female characters are depicted they are most often skewed toward the traditional. “A female character in a picture book was highly likely to be wearing pink and/or a bow, even if she is a hippopotamus, an ostrich, or a dinosaur,” according to an analysis of nearly 700 titles published by the Cooperative Children’s Book Center in 2018.
Some of the biggest offenders, she adds, are purportedly egalitarian stories like Disney’s Frozen, which – though it has a female protagonist and top supporting female character – still manages to give nearly 60 per cent of the dialogue to men. “It drives me nuts,” Sullivan says.
That’s why she has taken to spontaneously altering pronouns and character descriptions as she reads. But sometimes it gets elaborate.
After all, for Sleeping Beauty to square with her modern sensibilities – and those of so many other thirtysomething progressive parents – requires the invention of whole new plot points. The story of Prince Philip meeting Aurora in the forest, for example, must include how they got to know each other and talked about their interests. And as Sullivan reasons, in the era of #MeToo, it must include how Aurora said, “Prince Philip, if you ever find me and I’m sleeping, you have my permission to give me a kiss.”
Or at least, something to that effect.
Older stuff, including a lot of Dr Seuss, she finds not worth the effort. “I can’t even read it because I can’t change the plot enough to make it worth reading to my kids.”
That’s why some of Sullivan’s friends like Sandra Salstrom, mother to a three and a five-year-old, goes after anything unwanted in her kids’ books with a Sharpie highlighter pen.
“It is interesting raising one boy and one girl and seeing the gender stereotypes that are everywhere playing out in our own lives,” Salstrom said. “I’m not a girly-girl. I don’t like pink and I don’t like frilly but my daughter, like all girls, is gravitating towards that.”
Of course, some parents might find the approach of grafting new social-justice attitudes on to old tales to be extreme, and may not be so eager to throw out historic children’s stories that might be deemed inadmissible to the culture by modern sensibilities, from the Brothers Grimm to classic Disney.
Other parents have struggled to keep up with the gender politics of Frozen – though not necessarily any politics of Disney’s making. In an essay for The New York Times last year, Christopher Swetala found himself barely suppressing judgments that sprang unbidden in his mind when his young son started wearing lipstick and a “princess dress” like Elsa’s. “I’m no villain. I don’t want to kill who this child is,” Swetala wrote. But his internal battles were all over the page.
He isn’t alone in struggling to adapt to America’s shifting gender norms, which have changed rapidly for girls and less so for young boys, who, to be seen as sufficiently “manly”, must stay confined to a narrow emotional space – what psychologist Michael Reichert, author of How to Raise a Boy, calls the “man box”.
“Requiring boys to differentiate what they show the world and what they feel inside happens really young,” he told the Atlantic recently. “The first component of emotional intelligence is emotional awareness. But the rules of society mean that boys have to censor what they express, and sometimes the only way to do that is to convince yourself that you’re not feeling what you’re feeling. To become numb.”
A growing number of children’s books are expanding the “man box”, in ways subtle and radical – and often both.
In Today I feel. . . An Alphabet of Feelings, wherein readers explore an emotion for each letter, the gender politics are evident only in the illustrations: the character inhabiting each emotional state is male. A newly published counting book, One Whole Bunch, in which a pink-cheeked boy gathers flowers for his mom, takes a similarly understated approach.
“I’m excited to see some of the newer picture books that are coming out where boys who are active and outdoorsy are also portrayed as tender and care-giving at the same time,” said Quattlebaum, “and then that not being undercut in the text or in the illustration.”
As recently as a few years ago, lists of feminist children’s books targeted girls directly or in ways obvious but unspoken. But now The New York Times’ list of top feminist baby books makes a point of being for boys, with titles such as My First Book of Feminism (for Boys), Franny’s Father Is a Feminist and Julián Is a Mermaid.
Research suggests cultivating emotional vulnerability is harder than one might think for little boys, who have to contend with schoolyard taunts. And books aside, there are no substitutes for boys having strong relationships with teachers and parents – a necessary condition, Reichert says, if they’re to escape the box.
That’s something a growing number of authors want to help young men do, with stories that are emotionally resonant and educational. And a growing number are writing stories that minority and LGBTQ young people they can see themselves in.
Not that good intentions necessarily make it so. Multiple authors interviewed expressed misgivings about politically insensitive oversights they made in early books. “My first book from 2010, I cannot even tell you how much I would change,” said an LGBTQ author speaking at a regional children’s book conference recently.
“Having unconscious biases doesn’t make us bad people,” she said, “What’s important is that you’re aware of them. You have to be conscious of how your unconscious biases affect you.”
Then she launched into a discussion of the most common gay tropes to avoid in young adult fiction and beyond – like the “sassy gay friend” trope, in which the gay supporting character exists seemingly only to give a straight protagonist advice, moral support, and (more often than not) a makeover.
This is the kind of consciousness-raising that’s become the norm at literary gatherings, as queer representation has continued to climb in the industry alongside changing attitudes toward same-sex marriage.
But, if it seems the publishing industry has only just become political, people weren’t paying attention.
Susan Darraj, a Baltimore-based writer I met between sessions at the conference, said: “As a Palestinian-American my identity is automatically political whether I like it or not.”
“The publishing industry is political,” she said. “It’s only recently it started to diversify and publish books by people of colour in greater numbers, although it’s still quite paltry, but the reasons why they weren’t doing that in the past, those are political, right?”
Brantz, the Feminist Baby author, doesn’t really think of her books as “political” so much as just morally right, though she knows not all readers agree.
“The response has mostly been good,” she said of her latest. “Either it’s nice and they love it, or they’re a Twitter troll threatening my life.”
She and I spoke days before her book came out in April, but that wasn’t the only news in her life – she was scheduled to be induced the following morning, and by day’s end, would be a new mother.
So which Feminist Baby book will she read the baby?
“They’ve told me it’s a girl,” she said, “but I’ll see what she decides when she comes out.”
All Photographs Melissa Lyttle for Tortoise