Girl Power needs to start young – with storybooks – to challenge the assumption that boys are smarter, an education expert has said.
Professor Gemma Moss singled out Princess Smartypants by Babette Cole as a great example of a book turning expectation on its head, when “the princess refuses to hook up with the prince, and instead rides off on a motorbike”.
She was responding to a US report stating girls start to see themselves as less innately talented than boys do when they are just six years old.
The report suggests if you give a six-year-old a storybook with a “really, really smart” character and ask them if it’s a girl or boy, boys will tend to tell you it’s a boy. And girls will say that it’s… a boy.
But when the children were asked the same question aged five, there was no such gender bias.
Books can help parents chat with their children about gender stereotypes, Prof Moss, head of the UCL Institute of Education’s International Literacy Centre, said.
Plus they can help make it the norm for girls to see themselves as daring, inventive and, of course, clever.
Which books could help empower young girls from a young age?
Here are some titles which cropped up:
The Paper Bag Princess by Robert Munsch: A princess saves her prince after he’s kidnapped by a fire-breathing dragon, wearing nothing but a paper bag after all her clothes are burned. Despite him not liking her appearance, she doesn’t care that she doesn’t look like a typical princess.
Cinder Edna by Ellen Jackson: Can a girl who prefers loafers to glass slippers live happily ever after? Yes!
JoJo’s Flying Side Kick by Brian Pinkney: When JoJo is ready to take the test for her Tae Kwon Do yellow belt, butterflies start fluttering in her stomach. JoJo needs to find a way to turn her fears into success, and she soon realises there’s only one person who can help her do that – herself.
Stone Girl Bone Girl: The Story of Mary Anning by Laurence Anholt: Mary Anning, born in England in 1799, made an astounding discovery at age 12 when she unearthed the first full skeleton of a giant ichthyosaur in the cliffs above her home in Lyme Regis. It was the beginning of a long career that saw Mary become world-famous fossil hunter.
Allie’s Basketball Dream by Barbara E Barber: Allie is very excited when her dad gives her a basketball for her birthday, practising daily in the hope of becoming a professional basketball player. Despite her friends saying it’s a “boy’s game”, she is encouraged by her dad, doesn’t give up and proves her worth.
Great Books for Girls by Kathleen Odean: This is a guide which lists books with “images of strong females who are leaders, adventurers, scientists, artists, problem-solvers, and more”, offering books which “will encourage, challenge, and ultimately nurture in girls the strong qualities our culture so often suppresses”.
“There are some really nice stories out there,” Prof Moss told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.
“There’s all kinds of resources out there targeted at young children that make sure everybody realises there are different kinds of avenues ahead of them.”
Author Jeanette Winterson recently helped schoolchildren rewrite Cinderella, having discussed ways in which it’s “sexist” and how they might “make it more equal between the men and the women”.
Their reversioned story ends with: “Cindy decides she and the prince won’t get married. They become friends and world famous explorers.”
Winterson told the BBC she recalled “how enthusiastically the children wanted to reinvent the story once they were given permission to do so”.
“Boys and girls said ‘we don’t have to follow these rules, we can do it differently.'”
Laura Lund, who worked as a primary school head teacher for more than 13 years, told Today she was “quite shocked” at the young age of children in the report.
“In my experience girls of six don’t necessarily behave in that way, and wouldn’t necessarily choose male role models over female; however I can see it is certainly a significant point as they get older.”
She added: “We don’t want to say to girls they should be more like boys, we need to value their identity.”