Last month, in honour of International Women’s Day and the centenary of women’s suffrage in Ireland and the UK, we celebrated the ‘bold girls’ of children’s books and real life. Girls who dared to be seen and heard, girls who dared to do and go beyond what stereotypes would expect them to. But boys, too, suffer from stereotypes and can find it equally hard to break free of the clichés society tends to impose on them. Not all boys love football or the colour blue or having short hair.
Last October, the Declaration of the Rights of Boys/Declaration of the Rights of Girls (by Elisabeth Brami and Estelle Billon-Spagnol, reviewed here) very usefully reminded us that ‘Boys have just as much right as girls to do the stuff they like’, from the right to like babies to the right to not be a superhero everyday and many things in between.
Finding books that feature such boys and men in a positive way can be tricky. For the youngest of readers, books where male role models are taking on tasks more usually associated with female grown-ups are still few and far between. Baby’s First Words by Christiane Engel (Barefoot Books) will not only give your little one over a hundred words of vital everyday vocabulary, it will do so while showing dads doing vital everyday things from hoovering the living-room to feeding and bathing baby. Alice Melvin’s My Day: A Book of Actions (Tate Publishing) also does a wonderful job of showing a father getting on with his and his little ones’ day, pegging clothes on the line, brushing his daughter’s hair, doing the school run, and so on, as if it was the most normal thing in the world. And why shouldn’t it be?
Toddlers have a bit more choice when it comes to finding examples of boys who quietly stand out in a field full of superheroes, pirates and other brash spacemen. Such books as Clive is a Teacher (Jessica Spanyol, Child’s Play) and Don’t Leap, Larry! (John Briggs and Nicola Slater, Pavilion) celebrate boys (and lemmings, also male) whose creativity sets them apart. All become role models themselves, encouraging their peers to think by themselves and find their own creativity. In Chris Haughton’s Shhh We Have a Plan, our hero (let’s say he’s a boy) refuses to go with the silly and cruel plans of his companions out to catch a bird.
Beginner readers may be familiar with Anthony Browne’s chimp character Willy. Willy is a gentle soul (nicknamed Willy the Wimp by the bullies of his first adventure) who is worried about stepping on insects, loves getting lost into stories and paintings, and struggles (openly and successfully) with low morale and sadness (in Willy and the Cloud). Made by Raffi (Craig Pomranz and Margaret Chamberlain, Frances Lincoln Children’s Books) features a boy who doesn’t quite fit in at the best of times and who attracts even more negative attention when he takes up knitting. These boys show resilience and inventiveness, as well as the sense that it’s ok to feel down sometimes and to ask for help.
More confident readers will enjoy the new series Sam Wu is not Afraid of… (Katie and Kevin Tsang and Nathan Reed, Egmont) in which Sam is anything but the cosmic hero he aspires to be and is very much afraid of ghosts, sharks, the dark, you name it. He never quite overcomes his fears, but he’s always trying and knows to rely on his friends. Our round-up wouldn’t be complete without mention of a brilliant new non-fiction book: Stories for Boys Who Dare to be Different (Ben Brooks and Quinton Winter, Quercus). A sort of response to Bedtime Stories for Rebel Girls, it proudly comes with the tagline: ‘True tales of amazing boys who changed the world without killing dragons.’ And that, really, says it all.
Juliette Saumande is a children’s book writer and also the mother of both a Bold Girl and a Quiet Boy.
For more reviews check out Inis magazine which is published by Children’s Books Ireland, the national children’s books organisation whose vision is an Ireland in which books are central to every child’s life.
0-2: MY DAY: A BOOK OF ACTIONS BY ALICE MELVIN
TATE, MARCH 2018 (BOARDBOOK) 20PP, £6.99, ISBN 9781849765862
Baby’s day is busy and full of action(s) in Alice Melvin’s beautiful new board book. From waking to playing to helping, Baby has a lot to do alongside Daddy who is in charge of the little one and his older sister while Mammy is at work. Bright, clear illustrations leave plenty of space to breathe and are ideal for focusing little minds on the matter at hand. Highly recommended!
2-4: CLIVE IS A TEACHER BY JESSICA SPANYOL
CHILD’S PLAY, 2017 (BOARDBOOK) 14PP, £4.99, ISBN 9781846439902
Today, Clive is a teacher. He uses special markers on the white board, he teaches Cat about snails, he reads a story to Asif and calls for snack time. Clive in turns leads by example, joins into activities initiated by others and lets his ‘pupils’ decide for themselves what to play with: the ideal teacher! The simple text and relatable situation will spark numerous conversations between child and adult readers, and the illustrations are brilliantly inclusive. Check out other titles in the series, such as Clive and His Babies or Clive and His Hats.
5-8: MADE BY RAFFI BY CRAIG POMRANZ, ILLUSTRATED BY MARGARET CHAMBERLAIN
FRANCES LINCOLN CHILDREN’S BOOKS, 2015 (PAPERBACK) £7.99, 40PP, ISBN 9781847805966
Raffi feels different at school and wonders why: is it because he wears his hair longer than other boys? Is it because he loves bright colours? Because he doesn’t enjoy rough play and loud noises? Raffi’s unease only lifts when he discovers knitting and sewing and loses himself in his newly mastered crafts. A warm story of acceptance and a celebration of creativity and difference, Made by Raffi is a riot of emotions and colours on each page. Lots of food for thought!
9-12: STORIES FOR BOYS WHO DARE TO BE DIFFERENT BY BEN BROOKS, ILLUSTRATED BY QUINTON WINTER
QUERCUS, APRIL 2018 (HARDBACK) 208PP, £17.99, ISBN 9781787471986
Athletes, activists, poets, reporters, scientists, chefs, artists, designers… From Jim Henson to David Attenborough via Taika Waititi, Nikola Tesla, Ai Weiwei and William Kamkwamba, here you will find one hundred portraits of men and boys who have achieved incredible things through kindness and empathy; who have fought terrible odds and prejudice; and who have, generally speaking, made the world a better place ‘without killing dragons’. Wide-ranging and inspiring, the collection combines short, accessible text with arresting cartoon-like illustration and is great for dipping in and out of.