Below is my finished draft of my essay after being looked over by Mo Lea and making her suggested changes:
This essay intends to research potential links between the role of the illustrator and how gender is represented in children’s literature and picture books. It aims to highlight where an illustrator can influence the growing issue of gender stereotyping in children’s books – if at all. Finally, it will also inform my final major project by allowing me to create or illustrate a children’s story that is well informed by current gender stereotypes and what existing illustrators are doing to equalize the sexes through design.
It will draw upon research from design publications such as “Varoom Magazine”, newspaper articles from reputable papers such as the “Telegraph” and “The Guardian” and factual books relating to gender equality in the arts. Primary research has also been conducted via contacting existing children’s illustrators, questioning their views upon this issue and where they feel they have power to influence change, if any at all. Whilst gender stereotyping in children’s literature is an issue I feel strongly about in terms of feminism and gender equality, this essay intends to be objective about what can be done in the field of illustration and what is being done, as opposed to addressing it as an issue of morality. The critical framework of this essay will be formed utilizing the current feminist ideas from Natasha Walter’s book “Living Dolls” that opened my eyes to the new feminism and the new determinism, particularly the chapter about “princesses” that speaks of current issues within gender and children’s books that relate directly to the aims of this essay. The chapters of this essay will investigate three books aimed at children, all with a high ratio of imagery to text as I would like to analyse the imagery as opposed to the text in order to influence my practice as an illustrator. The three books have been chosen based on my research into gender stereotypical books and those which challenge gender representation. This has influenced the choice to review a book that challenges gender stereotypes very heavily, one that does challenge stereotypes but is more subtle in its message and one that conforms to some very rigid stereotypes. This way I can hope to develop, within my practice, a comfortable middle ground to ensure I can still please potential clients without dishonouring my views on gender via my illustrations.
The first book I have chosen, “Princess Evie’s Ponies and Sparkles the Magic Cupcake Pony”, is from a series of popular short stories aimed solely at the stereotypical view that little girls all want to be princesses. Illustrated by Sophie Tilley, an illustrator and designer from Wales, this series has been shown to adhere to some very rigid stereotypes surrounding young females. Natasha Walter has mentioned this series of stories:
“..Here is one typical heroine, of one typical fairy book , Evie took off her pyjamas and put on her blue sparkly dress and matching knickers, which book fitted her perfectly now that she was fairy sized herself”
Whilst it is looked at from Natasha’s viewpoint in terms of story, from the point of view of the illustration, it obeys rigid ideas of traditional femininity that amplify the exaggeratedly stark view of what activities and interests that young girls should have.
The cover illustration of this book, whilst beautifully drawn and coloured, blends in among the shelves in Waterstones, ASDA, The Works and WHSmith of pink and glitter that are so heavily segregated from shelves below or above containing books with “…scarlet and navy covers and scowling heroes” (Natasha walter)
The typography of this cover proved thought-provoking. I had not previously noticed, until visiting a range of book stores, that typography is as much gender-targeted as imagery; as such, it plays a role in whom it attracts. The cover image of this story utilizes a typeface with feminine qualities such as curves and hearts dotting the “I”’s. The soft delicate look of this typeface shows a form of gender targeted design. Design Shack published an article regarding gender and typography and described a feminine typeface as; “overly curvy and ornamental, there’s often lots of extra flourish and usually plenty of contrasts between thins and thicks”.
Although I feel that, aesthetically, this typeface sits well with the cover imagery – it does not stand out. I have begun to notice growing trend amongst female stereotypes that they are generally less audacious than titles on the covers of books aimed at young boys. It is as if imagery and type aimed at females is meant to be inoffensive and passive, as opposed the typeface used on a story in the “Horrid Henry” series which is bold and contains; “lots of hard corners and edges”. When Sophie Tilley, the illustrator of the “Princess Evie’s Ponies” series, talks about her work, she says it is “aimed towards children and hopefully has an innocent quality that will inspire little people to use their imaginations”.
When relating this to the typeface she has chosen to use throughout the series of book covers, I do not view it as the most imaginative choice for a typeface because it conforms to ideas of strictly feminine type and is quite basic looking in style/ colour. Sometimes typeface is seen as an second thought in illustration, as stated by an article published by Creativebloq by Fitz Fitzpatrick, an illustrator based in Sydney;
“…the vast majority of it looked like an afterthought. Just slapped in there, smack bang over an illustration, with no thought given to its placement, styling, or just making it plain interesting to look at.”
The lack of imagination used in this typeface seems to contradict Sophie Tilley’s ideas surrounding what influences and informs her practice. However, it will inform my practice by enlightening to me that typography holds importance in allowing a book jacket to be viewed as either gender neutral/ specific and to the overall effectiveness of the illustration. This will encourage me, as an illustrator, to think about typography more carefully than I had previously.
The illustrations themselves, both on the cover and inside the book, are aesthetically pleasing, in that they are well drawn and eye catching. One of the problems with challenging existing gender stereotyping in children’s books is that sometimes they are so heavily ingrained over a long period of time, that they are seen as acceptable. An example of which is that in these illustrations, all of the characters are female and in dresses. Whilst they are represented as children and do not factor in sexuality, they give the girls a “doll-like” appearance. This does not change throughout the story. This is a detrimental way of illustrating females when;
“The messages conveyed through representation of males and females in books contribute to children’s ideas of what it means to be a boy, girl, man, or woman.”
I also find it strange that the child is depicted as a stereotypical “princess” (an over-used character reference in children’s literature) in dresses and gowns when performing a labouring activity such as grooming a horse – where common sense would suggest less fine attire.
These illustrations are not just adhering to stereotypes of little girls as princesses, but they are encouraging a lack of common sense that could be changed through a change of attire, if allowed so by the brief set forth by the author. This book is the epitome of what, as an illustrator, I would like to avoid having to do; pandering to rigid, stereotypical views of females and therefore encouraging them.
“…of course it isn’t a problem that little girls are dreaming of being little mermaids with sweet voices, or of going to a ball in a puff of silver. I wouldn’t deny any girl their pleasures- so as long as they aren’t all expected to do it and as long as it isn’t all they are expected to do”
Other books that adhere to the rigid stereotypes shown in the illustrations/text within “Princess Evie’s Ponies” are “Secret Kingdom” series of books which showcase a selection of female characters with who all wear tiaras and go on adventures in “Glitter Beach” or “Unicorn Valley”, whilst these stories as the quote above suggests, do have a place in the world of children’s literature, the characters are often saved by “King Merry” a male character, which enforces some of the more traditional values of femininity that you often see in “Disney Princess” stories like “Sleeping Beauty” and “Snow White”. The illustrations themselves show each female character having the same shape face, pointed chin and large eyes reminiscent of “Barbie” and this gives a detrimental view to young girls of how they are expected to look, as opposed to stories such as “Pearl Power” by Mel Elliott, where the little girl character is the epitome of a real child that has not been defined by media expectations of “beauty”.
Another example would be the “Rainbow Magic” series of books based around fairies that use love and friendship to battle the male villain (the only male character); the “grumpy Jack Frost”. The illustrations in both of these series mentioned are quite similar to “Princess Evie’s Ponies” and this has led to a discovery of a common illustrative style in children’s books aimed solely at females. This “style” has common characteristics of bland passive typography, often in stereotypical feminine colours of pink or purple. The illustrations themselves are over embellished with sparkles, gems or symbols such as stars and hearts. The characters are often tiara clad or have hair similar to that of a “Disney princess” and have overtly feminine clothing, that often defies practicality.
Sophie Tilley’s illustrations elucidate traditional values and an exaggerated femininity not just within the content of her images, but in the colour schemes and the way the materials have been used; in soft strokes with no bold line work and an abundance of sparkles, to the extent they obscure the image. It is as though this “seeing through rose coloured glasses” style of embellishment does not add anything to the story that the descriptive writing does not already provide. Also the way in which the text is in a few sentences at the bottom or top of each pages shows very little thought in composition, because the text and illustration do not work together, merely sit together on the same page.
The stories written in the “Princess Evies Ponies” series are very descriptive; “Evie wore a cloak and hat embroidered with stars and moons and Sprinkle’s coat glittered like a sparkly cupcake” It is this descriptive language that dictates how the story should be illustrated, and such strong ideas must be conveyed by the illustrator in accordance with what the author is aiming for, therefore this suggests that Tilley did not have any power over how the female characters or their surroundings would be represented in terms of gender stereotyping. What Natasha Walter describes as the situation with children’s books aimed solely at either boys are girls is true in the instance of this book, and the others I have mentioned which is that;
“Their plot lines are fantastically repetitive, reinforcing over and over again the traditional femininity of their young readers”
But not only are the plot lines repetitive, the consistent pastel colour schemes, softly drawn illustrations and over the top embellishment reinforce the stereotypical view that “girls have a natural love of pink and prams and dolls” (Guardian Natasha walter)
The second book that will be examined is one that I discovered in an article by Ellie Levenson, who gave examples of “10 of the best children’s books for beating gender stereotypes”. She proudly stated that “some brave children’s authors have been busy subverting gender roles and ensuring not all the messages our kids come across in books buy into these stereotypes”. This is not just true for authors, and one of the very books she has highlighted in this article is, in fact, an all-picture book with no words, created by illustrator Annie Kubler.
This book is different to the ones I have previously come across whilst researching gender neutral or so-called “gender bashing” (Ellie Levenson) children’s books. Whilst I have found some wonderfully empowering examples that feature girls being kidnapped by pirates and then taking over the ship or boys becoming ballerinas, this book proved more empowering to me, personally, because it required no words. It was not tackling gender representation in an aggressive manner that had one gender winning over another. This book is called “Man’s Work” and it is a board book for young children depicting a father doing chores and running errands with his androgynous child.
This is the most informing example I have come across so far, as now I see that an illustrator does have the power to influence change in the issue of gender representation – the obvious answer is to create your own story that you feel passionately about and illustrate it yourself, This is an option and one that appears to be a viable one upon discovering this book with no words.
The marvellous thing about this book is that the story is left completely open to the interpretation of the child and is isn’t driven by existing gender stereotypes as it completely reverses the most common one – that the mother is the only nurturing parent in a child’s life. This gives the reader the choice to decide whether these chores are every day occurrences or a one-off.
Annie Kubler’s illustrations are not sexualised in any manner; the child could easily be either male or female and she completely avoids the issue of “pink for girls, blue for boys” by dressing the child in red and green – a gender neutral colour scheme. She has used a range of bright colours and very simple images; the drawings themselves are not boldly outlined which gives them a soft and welcoming impression that works well for young children. Also, the objects she has depicted throughout the book in the child’s home leave the gender of the child open to interpretation because, around the home and even on the cover of the book, you see a selection of toys that range from dolls and soft toys to trains and cars. Using imagery such as this discourages gender stereotyping because it suggests that either gender can play with whichever toy they wish to and they are not bound to a specific kind of play.
In terms of typography, in this case the title of the book can be reviewed due to the lack of words within the book. Nevertheless the typeface used by the illustrator for this story is worth mentioning because it has broken another stereotype by using a typeface with feminine attributes on a book showing a male on the cover. The type is simple and in black, yet it has curves and flourishes not entirely different from the typeface in “Princess Evie’s Ponies” but here it does not feel passive due to the colour used and how it stands out against the yellow background.
It was upon reading a study from the University of California, that a phrase that described the importance of gender neutral picture books like “Man’s work” appeared;
“Picture books provide role models for children in defining standards for feminine and masculine behaviour; gender stereotypes and sexism limit children’s potential growth and development; non-sexist books can produce positive changes in self-concept, attitudes, and behaviour;”
In children’s literature picture books have some other excellent examples of gender neutrality such as “The Rainbow Fish” which avoids consistent use of stereotyping. In “The Rainbow Fish” the male character is regarded as beautiful as opposed to many male characters in children’s books such as “Horrid Henry” and “Captain Underpants” that are regarded as heroic or even grotesque. The way the male fish is illustrated in iridescent colours and shiny elements is also something that has been more traditionally used in books aimed at girls, therefore this is another way of promoting different forms of masculinity that aren’t confined by traditional ideas that men are more rough and ready rather than concerned with appearances. Also the rainbow fish receives advice from a wise female octopus, which breaks one of the common stereotypes I had seen that animal characters are more often male than female;
“Male animals are central characters in 23% of books per year, the study found, while female animals star in only 7.5%.”
The issue of male and female stereotyping in animal characters is not something that will be analysed in depth in this essay, as the chosen stories do not feature animal characters; nevertheless it is worth acknowledging that this is a stereotype that also requires challenging in the modern world of children’s literature. The story “Man’s work” challenges the gender stereotypes aimed at both men and women, which I have not seen as often in “Gender neutral books” which tend to challenge either male stereotypes OR female stereotypes, not together. “Man’s Work” uses illustration in a powerful approach, to influence change in how children view their male parent and other male figures in their lives, but also how gender is viewed by the child overall because of the androgynous way the infant character is depicted, surrounded by a range of toys that often had been segregated into gender specific play things. Annie Kubler’s picture book has provided a fresh perspective on how to challenge gender stereotyping in children’s literature, by employing the goal of changing how gender is viewed, as opposed to slating how it is currently viewed, and her illustrative style of bright gender neutral colours and soft lines appeal to children regardless of whether they are male or female.
The final book this essay will analyse is “Pearl Power” created by Artist, Writer and Publisher Mel Elliott, this is Elliott’s first book that she has created and illustrated for children and has been deemed “refreshing” by Children’s book blogger Sharon F Jones. This book caught my attention firstly because of the choice to use such different colours than those dictated by gender stereotypes in children’s books, the use of grey and orange completely change the tone of the book, it does make it seem more solemn but due to the playful 1950’s themed graphic illustrations this does not have a detrimental effect on its appeal. This story tells the tale of a little girl named “Pearl” who cares very much about gender equality, her mother gets a promotion so the family must move and she must attend a new school. At this new school she encounters a little boy named Sebastian who treats her narrow-mindedly. Yet Pearl throughout the book challenges his view of gender by showing him what girls can do and a little bit of kindness too. It challenges gender stereotyping in a way that does not make the two genders enemies, but in the end allows them to become friends and this is an excellent message to send to young children. The illustrations themselves have all been created by Mel, showing for a second time in this essay that if the illustrator is passionate about gender equality, they can create stories of their own. The colour scheme within this book is something that has not been seen before in this essays primary research, which includes visits to stores that sell children’s books such as “Whsmiths”, “The Works”, “Waterstones” and “Asda” which makes it stand out immediately as a protagonist of change in the children’s literature industry. A review of “Pearl Power” by Sharon F Jones;
“Mel’s story is aided by her witty rhyming text, and teamed with strong graphic illustrations (without a dash of pink in sight), it’s a really contemporary tale”
This is the story that encompasses Natasha Walters “New determinism” that challenges the idea that;
“Feminists are intrinsically angry – a cliché that has been used to undermine feminists, to paint us as marauding harpies, steam belching from our ears”
It is by challenging this, that Mel Elliott has created and illustrated a revolutionary way of promoting equality without anger, which is what Natasha Walter’s aims to do also;
“to put the argument in place and think about it”, to act as a conduit for the stories of women who have suffered”
The illustrations are something that deserve as much focus and admiration as the witty storytelling, because so many stereotypes have been quashed and thrown out the window in this 32 page book, such as the stereotype that “girls love pink”, “women are best as stay at home mums” and “women are meant to be the damsel in distress and never the hero”. These have been eradicated by switching the roles initially by showcasing the “mother” as the breadwinner but;
” A mere reversal of the characters gender in an image does not avoid out-dated gender roles all together” Although it seemed detrimental in some ways, as Chris Campe suggest above; just reversing roles can create different stereotypes; only showing information about the mother could lead to a child devaluing the father figure, which is not what Natasha Walter defines as modern feminism.
This is regardless a fantastically empowering story for little girls. Another way this book has challenged stereotypes, in a way that is more effective than the lack of male representation is how the illustrations depict pearl as a seemingly tiny girl. But her size does not impact her achievements; she still is shown trying her best and having a smile on her face throughout. This gives a positive role model for little girls who feel inferior from a young age in subjects such as sports which can be male dominated in schools.
The Typography of the three books analysed has proved an intriguing route of investigation, as it was not previously realised how important it can be in representing gender. The type used on the cover of “Pearl Power” can be deemed both masculine and feminine in its characteristics, because it is bold thick text with a strong orange outline, but it still has curls on the “R”’s that add a sense of femininity to the text, and it is this contrast that gives a feeling of gender roles being turned on their head. The type used inside the book is masculine also, because it is simple and black, without the use of unnecessary embellishment that can be found within the titles of “Princess Evies Ponies” and “The Secret Kingdom”. It is clear and is used against the orange and white within the illustrations to provide a bold contrast, it is placed carefully within the illustrations and type is used within the illustrations in various sizes to elucidate stronger messages such as the page explaining the Pearls mum had become the “BOSS” which is written in the same bold type as the cover title, adding importance to this characters achievement in a subtle way.
The illustrative style of Elliott’s story is wonderfully simple and bold, it does not overly embellish the way a lot of books aimed at young girls do and there is not a “Sparkle” in sight. It illustrated Pearls Power clearly and using 1950’s influenced graphic style drawings, created digitally and I found this an interesting use of irony because in the 1950’s women were consistently forced into rigid roles of either housewife or mother. Pearl as a character is not sexualised or beautified to conform with the media view of beauty, she is simply a child which is the most beneficial image to present a child with because it allows to them avoid expectations of beauty for longer.
She certainly turned the common aspects of children’s stories aimed at girls, on their heads with this book and it is this bold fresh approach that will hopefully influence other illustrators including myself to aspire to change the way gender is represented in illustration.
This essay has taken a journey into modern day children’s literature, uncovered some of the pitfalls of aiming children’s books specifically at gender and has allowed me as an illustrator to understand on a more informed level how I can utilise my feelings about gender equality to influence the younger generation for the better through design. What has been interesting during this investigation is the unlikely importance of typography in children’s books, it has unearthed a media that I had previously not prioritized but upon reading about masculine and feminine type and applying it to the analysis of the three chosen books, its importance has become paramount in the first impressions of a book cover and inside the book itself. Natasha Walter’s views on the new feminism and the new determinism have shaped the critical framework for this essay, and her fair but firm ideas have allowed me to analyse on a more critical level the way children’s books are being illustrated. I had been most surprised by the level of over embellishment in children’s books shamelessly embracing traditional female stereotypes and “Princess Evie’s Ponies” has opened my eyes to the sparkling travesty that is readily available to young girls, this has inspired me to entertain the prospect of re-creating existing stereotypically “pink glittery fairytales” to have more feminist ideals and imagery for my final major project, therefore the research that this essay has utilised has spurred my passion for this issue even further. It is thanks to the wise words of Natasha Walter, the eye opening experience of speaking with existing illustrators and the comparisons of these 3 very differing children’s books that I understand on a higher level now, that as an illustrator I do have the power to influence change in the issue of gender representation. Be that by creating my own story, creating my own picture book or recreating existing stories to reflect ideas of equality influenced by the pioneering ideas of the illustrators “Mel Elliott” and “Annie Kubler” and many more. Typography is important, it can be masculine or feminine or it can be engineered to reflect both genders equally if it is considered carefully. Illustration, creates the world that children enter when reading a story or looking at a picture book and it can create worlds that are coloured in a gender neutral manner, can be both bold and beautiful and be suitable for a child regardless of if they are male or female. It is my responsibility as an illustrator to be conscious of gender stereotypes, and do what is within my power to ensure I promote equality to those who are at an impressionable age.