I have loved writing picture books over the last year – they have proven themselves to be far more complex, exciting and demanding than one might believe of a story, especially one where so much is told through the illustrations and their interaction with the words.
For now though my picture books are resting – taking a breather and enjoying some space away from my frantic editing and re-writes. I know that for as much as I love my stories we are too close now – like lovers who have spent time in a honeymoon bubble and need some time to step away from one another and remember who they are alone.
We will reunite once more, perhaps in a few months, with fresh eyes and excitement. Now it’s time to try something new. Creativity does not come from reading and re-reading the same words. It comes from challenging yourself with new ideas, new words and new experiences. From looking at something different and asking questions you haven’t asked yet.
I am currently working on my first chapter book for 7-9 year olds. Just learning this information has taken a disproportionate amount of time in my mind. It transpires that chapter books for children are categorised under two headings – early readers and middle grade. Afterwards you’re moving into Young Adult stories which I’m not grown up enough to write yet. Seems simple enough? Except then you learn that there are different age brackets within early readers and not all agents, publishers or book sellers categorise them in the same way. Mind-Blown.
If the age range debacle wasn’t enough to get your head around, the gender division within the marketing world of chapter books has left me awake at night with fury. Chapter books – think the Beast Quest series aimed at boys and the Rainbow Magic series aimed at girls. Scary monsters and adventure for boys, fairies and sparkly rainbows for girls. I’m deliberately choosing extreme examples and of course there are a wealth of books which don’t rely on these specific gender extremes but the books are still labelled ‘boy books’ and ‘girl books’ – blue and pink.
Interestingly, research shows – and this is certainly true of my experience teaching and reading with this age group – that girls will read books aimed at boys but boys are very unlikely to pick up a chapter book marketed for girls. So much so that to find a female lead character in a chapter book aimed at boys is a bit like meeting Santa, whilst cruising through the Bermuda Triangle on the back of a unicorn.
Would Harry Potter have been as successful as it was if Hermione had been the hero and not the sidekick? Would boys have read that book? Would half of the population have missed out on the awesomeness of Hogwarts because there was a girl in the centre of the front cover?
These are the questions which have kept me awake at night. Looking back at my picture books I realised that Percy, Rufus, The skateboarding Baby, Croc and in fact all of my main characters are male. How did that happen without me realising? Me, who sings of empowering women and the importance of gender equality, how did I miss it?
Even picture books are gender biased – I’ve read so many picture books with male characters that my brain is on male-character-auto-pilot. Enough is enough.
I want our daughter (and perhaps even more importantly our son) to grow up reading my books which have amazing, strong, inspiring, awesome characters. I want them to be moved and excited and intrigued. I want them to love my lead characters as much as I do and I want them to see the character first and the gender second.
Not much of an ask for my first chapter book series then, is it?