Without googling this book, what can you tell about Little Grey Rabbit from this picture?
What is his/her gender?
Where does he/she live?
What kind of person is he/she?
This week I read a throwaway comment from a bookseller on a U.S. Children’s Lit email group discussing race, gender and social class in books in his/her independent bookshop. The writer made the comment “not counting books with animal protagonists” and I thought: how interesting. Teachers of young children are often telling me that class, race and gender doesn’t matter in books for young children as they read “books about animals” to them. But unless they are reading information books about rabbits, they are reading a story about anthropomorphic animals, where the family and social structures, motivations and character traits of humans are applied to animals, and these include attitudes to gender, race and social class.
As Darren Chetty has pointed out, the books selected for children by adults send a profound message to children; the text chosen is by implication the “better” one; the message in the text is the approved message. This can read oddly in some cases- for example in The Rainbow Fish where the message could be read as “be less fabulous to make friends.”
Interestingly it is often when anthropomorphic animal characters do not fit the “norms” of white middle class and male in texts for young children that we see how prevalent these norms are. The TV programme Peppa Pig, with a working mother and opinionated and active Peppa, has been criticised for encouraging defiant behaviour in children. Rastamouse, from the books by Michael de Souza and Genevieve Webster, was accused of teaching grammatically incorrect speech, as well as stereotyping. The less than docile and compliant Peppa could speak to parents’ concerns about “coarse” and “out of control” working class girls, and White parents have long complained about the influence of Black culture on their children.
As always, a wide range of texts, portraying a range of cultures, and awareness of the subtle messages about gender, class, ethnicity, sexuality and disability can ensure that the teacher sends an inclusive message to the children in his or her care. Only by doing this can we be sure that children don’t feel that they are not welcome in the world of books.