by Julia Harrison It’s never too early to start talking to kids about feminism.
In BABY FEMINISTS (Viking; October 2, 2018), kids lift the flap to see what Gloria Steinem, Michelle Obama, Malala and other change-making women might have looked like as babies, offering parents a way to introduce little ones to their favorite feminists and the ideas they fought for. It shares the message that whether you’re a boy or girl, black or white, gay or straight, anyone can grow up to make the world a better place for all genders. It’s timely and empowering, and the watercolor illustrations are delightful for kids and parents alike.
A collaboration between author Libby Babbott-Klein and illustrator Jessica Walker, both of them young mothers, BABY FEMINISTS is helpful for parents mulling how to raise kids with feminist values, especially in these retrograde political times. How does one impart confidence and a strong sense of self-worth to kids? How do we empower girls, while also re-framing the definition of manhood for boys? BABY FEMINISTS offers a chance for parents to explore these ideas in an age-appropriate and joyful way with the kids in their lives.
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INTERVIEW WITH LIBBY BABBOTT-KLEIN AND JESSICA WALKER
There are so many incredible feminist icons both nationally and globally that you could have featured in BABY FEMINISTS. What led you to choose the people you did? Are they personal idols of yours?
Choosing who we would feature was the most challenging part of creating this book! Starting out, we knew we had to have Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Jess and I both find her to be such an inspiration, and then once Jess started illustrating her, we knew we couldn’t do the book without her.
After that we spent months researching all kinds of people. We always thought of our feminists as a team, and we knew we wanted a team that represented people who had a diverse range of accomplishments, looked different from each other, and of course -- had fought tirelessly for gender equality. We also decided that we wanted people who were relatively current, and we wanted a mix of known and lesser known figures. So we put all that together, we spent months reading articles, watching documentaries, and crowd-sourcing recommendations on social media, and this is the group we came up with.
As for personal idols, they are all our personal idols! Every one of them set their sights on a dream and accomplished it against near-impossible odds. And every one of them has made the world a fairer place (despite the immense amount of work we still need to do!).
Children’s books have tended historically to portray kids from the dominant social group. Can you speak to the importance of representing diversity in children’s literature and how you aimed to do that in this book?
Representing diversity was at the core of what we wanted to do with this book. One of the first things we teach young children are the colors of the rainbow. And whether we talk to children about it or not, they see color in people. They don’t ascribe meaning to it that adults do, but they do see it. So if we only read them stories about people with one skin tone, then they begin to ascribe meaning. Then they begin to think -- what about everyone else? What is wrong with them? Why don’t I see anyone like me? What is wrong with me?
We wanted a book that as many children as possible could look at and think, that person looks like mommy. That person looks like daddy. That person looks like me.
We hope that this will be one of the first books that children encounter in their lives. So we hope that this book (and other books like it) set the stage for reading for our children for the rest of their lives. We hope this sets their expectations that the best books are about all kinds of diverse people. We hope that this sets their expectation that all kinds of people -- can do anything.
Did you create this book with an audience of young girls in mind, or both sexes?
We imagined this book to be for little girls AND little boys. I’ve got a little girl; Jess has a little boy. They both love this book. We hope to instill in all children that icons can be male and female. We also hope to begin to instill the message that it is everyone’s responsibility to fight for equality, regardless of gender.
Have your experiences as a parent made you more aware of the differences in how we raise boys and girls?
I’ve always been aware of the different colors we use to dress boys and girls and the different types of toys we give them, but since becoming a parent, I’ve become much more aware of the way we communicate with girls -- both verbally and non-verbally.
Verbally, I frequently hear caretakers say things to young girls like:
“Be careful.” This drives me crazy. What does that even mean? It just means “be afraid” it doesn’t actually translate any information. It just instills a general feeling that girls should not trust their own instincts and not take risks. (As an alternative, try assessing the situation and giving specific useful advice. For instance, if a girl is at the top of a slide, rather than say “be careful”, try “hold on to the side.” If she’s running with a stick, then say “put down that stick.” etc. )
“You look so pretty” or “what a pretty dress you are wearing.” This also makes me cringe every time I hear it. Why are adults telling my child that what is valuable is how she looks? Instead I try to encourage people to say “you are so smart” or “You are so funny” or (if she’s running) “you are so fast.” Or really any other adjective that describes some intrinsic quality, or something she’s doing, not just the way she looks.
Non-verbally what I notice is that adults are much more touchy-feely with girls then they are with boys.
Adults frequently ask girls for “a hug” or “a kiss.” Adults frequently squeeze, tickle, tossle, poke, or otherwise touch our girls without asking our kids’ permission first. This greatly upsets me. We cannot expect our teenage girls (or grown-women) to feel that consent is their right, if we’ve been teaching them the exact opposite from birth. If we watch our children we will see -- they do not want to hug strangers. They do not want to be poked. What we need to be doing is encouraging our girls to listen to that inner voice, not teaching them to ignore it.
(To be clear, I see this with young boys too, but I notice the unsolicited prodding/hugging/kissing/poking fading as the boys look less and less like infants).
What are some ways caregivers of young children can build on the message of the book to raise young feminists?
Seek out books and stories that include girls and women. So many picture books don’t include any female characters or pronouns at all.
If you have books that you love, that have no female characters, just change the pronouns. Make them about girls.
Try using female pronouns when describing animals, toys, stuffed animals, or other inanimate objects with children.
Teach children about inspiring men AND women.
Focus on consent. Make sure that you (and particularly adults who are not primary caretakers) ask before touching your children.
Be conscious and creative. Think about your own ways to incorporate feminism into your home in ways that work for you and your family.
In the wake of the #MeToo movement, how do you think/hope representations of gender dynamics in children’s books will change?
One of the major changes that I see as a result of the #MeToo era is that we are finally beginning to trust women and their stories. What I hope this means for children’s books is that publishers will take chances on stories and authors that they might not have believed in before. I hope that it means we will see a broader range of books published with more female characters --- and more books that take risks in challenging gender stereotypes.
What role do you think children’s books can play in the resistance to a presidency defined by its hatred and intolerance towards minority groups?
Children’s books can give us hope that the next generation can be different.
As children, these early books are the stories they will never forget. They can define our children’s very sense of what a story is, what a book can be, and who are the characters that they’ve never not known.
When it comes to resistance, children’s books can shape our children’s expectations of how they expect the world to be for the rest of their lives. Books can instill a version of the world that our children can aspire to make. They can also demonstrate what resistance looks like, and instill that resistance is a crucial value as a citizen of the world.
How would this book be different if Hillary Clinton had won?
If Hillary Clinton had won, I think this book would have felt like a trophy -- a book about victory -- look how far we’ve come! I also think she would have been in the book if she’d won. In fact, maybe the whole book would have been just about her. Look, HRC was a baby! And now… PRESIDENT! So basically, it would have been an entirely different book.
However, HRC did not win. So, I think this is now a book about resistance. It’s a book about fighting, it’s a book about beating the odds. It’s a book that says -- equality does not come easy, and we can’t give up now. We ended up not including Hillary Clinton. She is amazing and inspiring, but her loss still feels very personal and raw, and it felt too sad to be celebrating her at this moment. It just felt too personally painful.
Barack Obama is the only man in the book. Why did you decide to choose one and only one man, and why was it him?
We both felt very strongly about including men in a book about feminism. In the same way you can’t maintain a patriarchy without the support of women, you can’t smash the patriarchy without the support of men. Men and women do live together and we need to be on the same team.
However, that said, we were mostly interested in featuring women, so that’s why there’s only one man.
We chose Barack because we wanted someone current, well-known, someone who has publicly identified themselves as a feminist and whose actions have supported women and feminism. Then, we loved the idea that Barack gets into the book because of his own accomplishments but also because of Michelle. Women so often only get recognition through their spouses, so we liked that Barack’s feminist work is so connected to his wife. He wouldn’t have made the cut if it weren’t for her, and we like the subversiveness of that.
Buy the book or learn more about BABY FEMINIST here.