Follow This Blog: RSS feed
A Fuse #8 Production
Inside A Fuse #8 Production

Guest Post: Brian Lies presents Got to Get It Right

GotToGetBearsOn 8/31/15 I wrote the blog post Girls: Beyond Eyelashes and Bows, which, in turn, was already rehashing some of the ideas I’d had in the 4/10/13 post Are There Any Girl Bears?: Gender and the 21st Century Picture Book. Long story short, both posts were close examinations of how children’s books choose to portray the physical appearance of male and female characters. Today, I am pleased as punch to announce that Brian Lies, a great illustrator and author, whose picture book More I once turned into a birdhouse, is here today to talk about those choices book creators make that we readers remain completely unaware of.

Take it away, Brian!


 

Got to Get it Right

GotToGetBears1

I almost screwed up.

My latest picture book, Got to Get to Bear’s! (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt) is a story of friendship in a blizzard.  A chipmunk named Izzy receives a note from her dear friend, Bear, which reads:

Dear Izzy—

Please come at once.

—Bear

Now, Bear is the kind of friend who never asks for anything.  So when she does ask, you go.  With luck, we all have at least one friend like that, one for whom we’d do practically anything, no questions asked.

As Izzy rushes out to help Bear, a blizzard begins.   Soon she’s up to her neck in snow, and can’t go any farther.  A squirrel friend suggests that they travel on the “treetop road,” and they’re on their way.  As the storm worsens, more friends arrive to help Izzy get to Bear’s, because, as her duck friend Bingle laughs, “You don’t say ‘no’ to Bear!”  At last, Izzy and friends arrive at Bear’s, and Izzy discovers what was so urgent in the first place.  It’s a simple story.

But as I worked to complete the illustrations, I realized I had a problem.  To me, the story was all about friendship and caring.  Friends helping friends.  But I’d been thinking a lot about gender in children’s books while working on this book and the one before it, The Rough Patch (Greenwillow Books), and I discovered something in this story I didn’t like.  It wasn’t immediately obvious—unless you’re thinking about gender.  When I first wrote the story, Bear was male.

Why is that a problem?  And is it really that big a deal?

GotToGetBears2 copyWell, if Bear is male, rather than female, the story reads like this:  Izzy (female), gets a note from Bear (male), declaring some undefined and immediate need (the need has to be purposefully vague, to mis-direct the reader’s expectations).  What is wrong with Bear? How can Izzy help—maybe even save—her friend?

Izzy rushes out to help her (male) friend, persevering even as weather conditions make it potentially hazardous, ignoring her own well-being.  And no matter how tough the going gets, she continues, to fulfill that vague summons from Bear.

What might this suggest to young readers?  The male’s needs are always to be met, even if the need is undefined, and could possibly put the female in danger.

That was the last thing I wanted as a subtext in this story!

My editor Kate O’Sullivan and I discussed it, and we agreed to swap Bear’s gender.  It was ultimately an easy switch—the only text adjustment was the pronoun.  But should Bear’s appearance change as well?  I really dislike the old “bow in hair and heavy, batting eyelashes” technique to signal that a character is female.  And I didn’t want her earthy, cozy den to fill up with cabbage roses and pink décor, also clichés.  We decided we wouldn’t change her look.  She kept her cable-knit sweater, and everything in her den stayed.  I did give Bear a funky beaded bracelet, but we removed it later, as it didn’t seem to add anything to her character.  Bear isn’t overtly feminine-looking, and I like that.

So ultimately, it’s a small change, from “he” to “she.”  But what a difference it makes.

GotToGetBears3 copy


Brian Lies is the award-winning author-illustrator of the New York Times bestselling bat book series, including Bats at the Beach and Bats at the Library. He has written and/or illustrated more than two dozen books for children, including Got to Get to Bear’s! (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt) and The Rough Patch (Greenwillow). Born in Princeton, NJ, Brian lives in coastal Massachusetts with his family. www.BrianLies.com

Share
About Elizabeth Bird

Elizabeth Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.

Comments

  1. Neagley Frances says:

    Rough Patch was my favorite children’s book last year and I forced it on all my friends. Brian Lies is something special and I enjoyed this article and will look for this new book also.

  2. I so appreciate this! Just yesterday, as my eight year old and I were walking into the movie theater bathroom (after seeing “Into the Spider-Verse,” which is every glorious bit like falling into a comic book, though I digress), she turned to me and said, “why do they always picture a woman in a dress and a man in pants? I don’t even wear a dress most days.” And we had a fascinating conversation about the inherent bias in pictorial representations…and, well, I think it would be incredibly refreshing to see more cableknit-sweater-wearing animal characters who just happen to be female. 🙂

    • I get great joy in shaking up a whole roomful of students during school visits when I refer to an animal with no obvious gender in one of my books as “she,” and a student shoots a hand into the air to ask, “Why did you say ‘she’?” It’s a great opportunity to raise awareness about our assumptions. I love the look on some students’ faces as you see them working it out (“…yeah, why WOULD it have to be ‘he’?”)

  3. THANK YOU!! It matters. Many years ago our daughter was gifted a series of books with animal protagonists and subtle messages about friendship, perseverance, consideration, etc. EVERY ANIMAL WAS MALE in the text, but few were obviously gendered in the art. I arbitrarily chose one book to always read using feminine pronouns. It was about a little deer who took a risk, accomplished something, but also got hurt because she hadn’t considered all the possible consequences. (She) took (her) father’s advice to always keep trying but to think things through and be more careful. Our daughter pronounced it her favorite of the series, because it had a girl in it. Now in her 20s, she has taken professional risks but always considers the consequences of her actions, and is doing exceedingly well! (Totally unbiased opinion of course. I did ‘fess up about the pronoun switch, at some point.)

  4. Great post and a critical discussion on gender and PB characters. I shared this post on my picture book website that just got launched today. Brian Lies was my first interview!