As a mother of a boy and two girls, I have always tried not to lean on gender stereotypes when choosing toys or books. Tutus, dolls and trucks were for both boys and girls, and no daughter of mine was going to receive a toy iron for their birthday.
But my children had other ideas. My son’s primary interest was in drains and pipes, and toy tool sets, while my daughters are far more likely to play with dolls and dress up as princesses.
But (I thought), at least I could steer them away from stereotypes with books, giving my son and daughters books with both female and male protagonists. In our bookcase, there are stories about girls who aspire to be scientists (Ada Twist, Scientist), about women who have changed the world (Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls and the Little People Big Dreams series centering on women who have changed the world) and boys who love their soft toys (Rabby the Brave).
Every night, we sit down with my children’s choices of book, and every night, out comes a story of princesses, unicorns, fairies or mermaids, the more sparkly the better. The covers are enough to bring on a migraine, with their explosion of pinks, purples, glitters and sequins (yes, it’s true). It might be Lola the Lollipop Fairy (lollies and fairies = the perfect combination) or god forbid, Sofia’ the First: Becoming a Princess.
But, what about the hilarious Rodney Loses It, or the gorgeous Florette? I ask. Let’s rhyme along with Stick Man or ponder over the bittersweet The Giving Tree.
It’s a losing battle and the girls cling tightly to their choices.
And so, instead of waving them in front of my kids each night, I have placed my favourites back on the bookshelf, albeit in a position obscuring the many mermaids, unicorns, fairies and princesses that remain (there are many, as my gift-giving family and friends know better than I do the books my children will love). I begrudgingly remind myself that it is not about my reading pleasure, but the children’s. After all, isn’t the point of feminism the freedom to choose, even if that choice might lead to a lazy reliance on sparkles in place of plot and the promotion of gender stereotypes?
Fortunately, not all books about princesses, mermaids and unicorns focus on the big-eyed beauty of the central character, at the expense of the storyline. They can also be clever, funny and entertaining, just like any book aimed at young boys. Ultimately, there is nothing wrong with rainbows and unicorns, and it’s just as damaging to imagine they are somehow lesser than other books, as to assume these books are what all little girls prefer. For, if ‘girly’ books are considered somehow inferior, it seems to correlate with a view that it is undesirable to run, fight or cry ‘like a girl’.
And, let’s face it, who wouldn’t be fascinated by flying horses with a silver horn on their forehead, or tiny creatures flying around in the back garden? These books about the magic of fairies and unicorns are not so far removed from the wizardry of Harry Potter, which I have no qualms about introducing to all of my children. From now on, I’ll embrace the wonder of unicorns and mermaids.
Here are some of my favourites, which any burgeoning feminist who adores pink swirls and glitter will also enjoy.
The best princess, mermaid and unicorn books for kids
Thelma the Unicorn by Aaron Blabey
Ten Little Princesses by Michael Brownlow
The Singing Mermaid by Julia Donaldson and illustrated by Lydia Monks