Tag Archives: female animal characters

The making of Mimi Make-Believe

16 Jul

Last week I had my faith restored in the book industry by Mimi Make-Believe by Claire Freedman and Gemma Raynor. I was intrigued by Mimi’s story and asked them if they would drop me a few lines to explain how such a positive female character had come about. They are both clearly passionate about their book and were kind enough to answer some questions.

Claire Freedman
Claire Freedman is the author of more than 50 picture books, including the best-selling Aliens Love Underpants series, George’s Dragon, and The Great Snortle Hunt. You can visit her website here.

1. What was your inspiration behind Mimi Make-Believe and what, if anything, did you want to get across to your readers?

I wanted the storyline to be multi-layered. Children are powerhouses of imagination and it never fails to amaze me how creative they are in ideas and play. However it’s much more fun for two characters to share imaginative play, so I created Mimi as shy and rather lonely animal (though quite brave as she becomes Mimi the mighty Raccoon and rescues Beaver!) and used this characterisation of hers to get her a perfect friend. I am sure I was inspired by watching my friend’s children play.

2. There are far more male characters in picture books than female ones, particularly when it comes to animal characters. How important was it to you to show a female character subverting the traditional stereotypical gender roles?

The perception that girls don’t enjoy and excell at typically boy pursuits, I think is less prevelant nowadays, but there is still an unequal balance (in favour of strong main boy characters) in children’s books, which seems a shame. I do enjoy challenging the traditional sterotypes. Let’s get real!

3. The general consensus is that girls will read books with male characters but boys wont read ones with female characters. Is this something you came up against when creating Mimi and getting it published?

I’ve been told this numerous times, and predominately my books have a male character – as requested! However I have written some successful picture books where the protagonist is a girl, namely Dilly Duckling, Hushabye Lily, and Night Night Poppy (Little Tiger Press), and George’s Dragon (published by Scholastic) stars a boy character, but the mother goes out to work, whilst the father is a house-husband) The second book in the series, George’s Dragon Goes To School,out this August. I am also writing a new story where the main character is a girl and the book is aimed at both genders.

4. Is it something you would do again?

Most definitely!

Gemma Raynor
Gemma Raynor is a freelance illustrator who won two awards at the New Design Awards 2006, resulting in her first picture book commission. As well as Mimi, her titles include What’s the Time Mr Wolf, and Tom’s Tree by Gillian Shields. You can view her Facebook page here or have a mooch through her creations and prints in her Etsy shop here.

1. How did you first get involved with the Mimi book and what were your first impressions of the book/her as a character?

At the time I was doing samples for my agent Eunice Mcmullen to send to publishers, one of the samples was of a little raccoon character dressed as a pirate which was originally a boy. This sparked the interest of the publishers Gullane who had already received and loved Claire Freedman’s ‘Mimi’ text.
I remember specifically what they liked was the fact the character was a less common animal, in Claire’s original text Mimi was a mouse, they said it would be nice for Mimi to be an animal that was a bit different to make her character stand out from the market.
The first time I read the text, straight away Mimi came across as a whole mixture of different things, she was brave, adventurous, creative and curious but she was also quite timid, especially when first seeing Beaver! She is also very kind hearted which helps turn her shyness into confidence when she thinks Beaver is in danger! She has a big heart but an even bigger imagination!

2. What did you want to achieve with the book? What were you trying to get across to the readers?

I think the book really sees Mimi grow as a character. I think she’s someone to look up to and is an inspiration, the reader really gets to engage with her and join her in her adventures. From an illustrative point of view I really wanted to show the creativeness of Mimi, showing how in Mimi’s imagination that a few toys and cardboard boxes can turn you into a knight in shining armour, save the princess and fight off dragons!! Mimi’s imagination is endless and she wanted to share this magic with Beaver even if her shyness at first holds her back!

3. How did you create Mimi’s character when illustrating the book?

Because Mimi was both brave and shy I wanted to make her look sweet but not sugar coated! I do remember the very early stages I experimented with her as a skunk instead of a raccoon but she looked two girly with a flowing bushy tail and what I remember was some form of quiff!
I did want to inject a bit of girlyness into her character, I do love quirky prints and polka dots hence the strawberries on her sleeves and polka dot bows, however I knew I didnt want her in a full dress! I did try her in dungarees at first but it was almost too stereotypical tomboy which wasn’t really Mimi.

4. Did you come up against any resistance to the book and its non-stereotypical character?

Initially I had a few challenges with ‘how adventurous Mimi was’… because Mimi as a character was so adventurous and curious I drew her in a spread which publishers said were too dangerous. I.e she was too far away from the house or too high up a tree for it to be classed as safe, I had to confine the world in which Mimi was allowed to explore which was quite a challenge but other than that she was allowed to be, well… Mimi 🙂

Huge thanks to Claire and Gemma for creating a brilliant book and for taking time to answer these questions. I found it refreshing to hear that a publisher worked with the author and illustrator to make a character stand out and be a bit different. Hurrah to that!

More Fab Female animal characters

21 Jun

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The quest to highlight positive female animal characters in picture books continues. I have received brilliant suggestions through twitter and comments on my previous posts, thank you so much to everyone who is joining in the hunt. Between us, we have sourced some fabulous female crocodiles. But I am still yet to track down that elusive female rhino. Perhaps I am the only one? And I am yet to be realised in a book, although I do think I have the character for it. Alas, the search continues on that front. But I do have some corkers to share with you here. Today I have a brave and heroic female dog, and a cat who isn’t afraid to show her true feelings. Next up is a mighty raccoon and I also have it on very good authority that a female gorilla is on her way over to the Rhino reading room. I shall keep you posted on that matter. For now, I give you….

Bella Bones from Bella and Monty – A Hairy, Scary Night by Alex. T. Smith

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Alex T. Smith is a very clever soul who is making his second appearance in the round up of strong female animal characters. That alone entitles him to use the name Sir Alex T. Smith of Fabulousness. I wonder if he will? His Ella is a work of feminist genius and should be required reading for all 4 year olds. Gove shouldn’t be messing about with breaking the curriculum, he should be getting a copy of Ella into every reception classroom. Anyway, I digress.

Sir Alex T. Smith of Fabulousness is clearly a feminist. He has created yet another strong female role model for young children. Bella is a dog who loves life and isn’t afraid to live it to the max. She isn’t frightened of anything and doesn’t let anything get in the way of fun. But…her best friend, Monty Mittens, is a scaredy cat. He is scared of EVERYTHING. Luckily, Bella reads books and is very intelligent (as all true feminist icons are) and she boldly leads Monty into the night and explains away his fears using a beautiful mix of knowledge and imagination.

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The traditional gender roles of nervous, passive girl and brave, bold boy have been reversed with style. The illustrations are gorgeous and quirky and Sir Smith’s humour is always apparent. Bella and Monty provides another example of a female dog and a male cat. When I read this book with children there was no confusion over genders, perhaps due to the illustrations portraying their gender, maybe because they are so well characterised. Perhaps because these children are now so used to me throwing books at them that challenge their assumptions? Whatever the reason, the children didn’t question a female dog and a male cat. and it felt like progress. Hurrah for a book with a strong female animal character and a reversal of typical gender assumptions!

Source: The Rhino-shelves, thanks to a recommendation by ReaditDaddy

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Olive from Olive and the Bad Mood and Olive and the Big Secret by Tor Freeman
Olive is a cat who knows her own mind. She is strong-willed, confident and not afraid to be herself. Olive and the Bad Mood begins with Olive tripping over her shoelace and landing with a button-popping bump. She is Not Impressed. She is now in A Very Bad Mood. As she stomps along she meets her friends one by one and takes out her frustration on each of them in turn. They catch her bad mood and all is not well. But, hooray! A sweet shop and a bag of jelly worms that saves the day. Almost!

In Olive and the Big Secret Olive can’t quite contain the temptation to tell a secret and so starts a chain of blabbing that leads right back to the start.

I love the humour in the illustrations- Olive’s physicality and facial expressions, the extra long giraffe-sized straw, Matt the dog singing as he changes after swimming. The joy of these books, though, is the lack of gender stereotyping. There’s an even mix of boys and girls and all the characters wear bright clothes. No pink princess dresses here. Olive in particular wears very fetching dungarees and Matt has a gorgeous floppy hat. It’s also refreshing to see the characters playing with a mix of toys regardless of gender.

Olive is a great character to use to step away from the gender stereotypical passive girl characters. She is confident, self-assured and not afraid to stand her ground and show her feelings. If she is grumpy, you will know about it. It’s great to see a female character being given the freedom to be wrong, make mistakes, feel frustrated and be bad-tempered and yet come out the other side. After all, that’s what happens to children every day, it is how they learn when they are young and it should be reflected in their books.

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Hurrah for Tor Freeman representing a strong female animal character and showing children being children.
And… wait for it… There is a female crocodile! Whoop!

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Source: Both kindly sent for review by the smiley souls at Templar.

Female animal characters in picture books

6 May

It has been a couple of weeks since I posted about the lack of female animal main characters in children’s picture books. Since then, I have been pondering the impact that gap might have on children. I’m beginning to think that portraying an overwhelming majority of animal main characters as male is more damaging than the more explicit gendered marketing of picture books. At least when books are explicitly marketed at a particular gender you are going into that book with open eyes and the awareness that you are being marketed to as a girl or boy. With animal characters the gender is often not visually obvious and relies on the text. The gendering here is more insidious. The overwhelming majority of animal main characters are male so children are subconsciously learning that male characters are more frequent, more normal, more important. Am I reading too much into this? Possibly. But take any child to the zoo or the farm. Do they automatically call the animals she or he? If they spot a mini-beast or bird in the park do they assume it is a girl or a boy? And is their reaction different depending on the type of animal? Are cats girls and dogs boys? Are all mini beasts male apart from ladybirds who are all female? Do you unconsciously confirm those gender associations with your use of language? Try it, it’s an eye opener.

In this respect, picture books are (unconsciously) reinforcing dated social stereotypes about gender roles and values. But it doesn’t have to be like this and things are slowly changing. There are great books with female animal leads out there. It is possible to even it out a bit by being aware of what you are reading to children and ensuring you include some books with female main characters. And not books that have an animal’s mum or sister in, or a female main character that reinforces negative gender stereotypes, but books that really celebrate their female characters and portray them in a positive light. Over the last two weeks I have been collecting examples of great books that put female animal characters in the limelight or play with traditional gender stereotypes. Here are a few of my favourites.

Ella by Alex T. Smith

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Ella is a strong and self assured ladybird who knows how to rock her dots and stand up for herself. Ella is a feminist twist on the traditional Cinderella story, full of positive role models and affirming images for children. This is one of the books that I buy again and again to give to children for birthday pressies. I think every child should have a copy of this book because Ella is such a strong and empowering character. The Cinderella story can often reinforce negative gender stereotypes, but not in the hands of Alex T. Smith. Oh no.

Martha and the Bunny Brothers – I Heart School and I Heart Bedtime by Clara Vulliamy

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Martha is a wonderful role model for children because of her immensely positive attitude. She is strong, exuberant and imaginative and inspires children to see the world and their place in it in a positive light. Clara Vulliamy has a real talent for portraying childhood and her Martha books give children a strong sense of seeing their lives represented, and therefore their potential through role models like Martha.

The Maisy books by Lucy Cousins

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I love the Maisy books for their primary coloured, gender-stereotype-free happiness. Maisy is a female mouse but in these books gender is, as it should be, largely irrelevant. The characters are far too busy being friends and having adventures together to worry about traditional gender roles. They all wear primary colours, with no particular colours being linked to gender. They all play together, sharing and swapping roles and responsibilities, completely regardless of gender. Hooray! Very young children don’t care about gender, they just want to play. It’s only when they begin to pick up on and absorb society’s view of gender that they start to include it in their play and their thinking. What better way to teach children about everyday experiences than to reflect the way they play – everyone in together, wearing what they want and playing how they want. Lucy Cousins, I salute you.

Doodle Bites by Polly Dunbar

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A FEMALE CROCODILE! Who is allowed to flip the prescribed gender roles and be loud and boisterous.
And a male pig who wears pink and is quiet and sensitive. The traditional gender roles have been well and truly swapped around. Interestingly, at 3 and 4 years old, the children I have read this book with sometimes try and reverse the genders back. They are sure Hector is a girl and Doodle is a boy, isn’t she? How quickly the gender programming takes hold! All hail Polly Dunbar for challenging it and showing children that gender stereotypes can be messed with and swapped about happily.

Copy Cat by Mark Birchall

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I gave this book a special mention in my original blog post because Mark Birchall has a female dog as the main character and a male cat as her friend. Yes it’s a small thing to have a female dog but it feels subversive and progressive in comparison to the other animal books on the market. He has turned traditional gender assumptions on their head and you can see the power of this when you read it with children. They initially assume that the dog is male and the cat is female. Mark Birchall has illustrated his characters with clothes which helps children visually associate the characters’ gender. I find it sad that they need to reprogram their minds and learn that dog characters can be female and cats male, but hooray for finding a great book that addresses that.

I’m very fond of lists and have started one on this topic. If you can think of any books with a strong female animal character, please leave a comment below, I’d love to add your suggestions.