Tuesday 15 October 2019

‘I didn’t want the characters to be your Snow White type’ - Gavin Leonard on writing kids' stories with empowered heroines

Fed up with fairytales portraying passive princesses, Gavin Leonard decided to create a series of kids' stories with empowered heroines. Tanya Sweeney reports

Novel idea: Gavin with his daughter Jade, who he based his series of books on
Novel idea: Gavin with his daughter Jade, who he based his series of books on

Tanya Sweeney

At two years old, Rathcoole native Jade Leonard is already feisty, wilful and inquisitive.

"She loves to do everything herself, which I find really cool," notes her dad, Gavin. "She doesn't mind getting into trouble one bit - I said to Shannon [his wife] that I wanted a cheeky kid. Careful what you wish for!"

Yet when friends and family came to visit Jade, they weren't struck by her lively spirit, but her cuteness.

"From around the age of six months, everyone kept saying, 'Oh, she'll be an actress or a model or a dancer', and everyone called her a gorgeous little princess.

"I noticed that by the time kids get to the age of three, it's very much pink for girls and blue for boys," he adds. "On a plane, the kids were given out stickers, and the boys got 'you can be a pilot' and the girls got 'you can be a cabin crew member'. It's the things we as adults say and do. We're more conditioned than our kids are, but they pick everything up."

Struck by the gender conditioning that befalls all little girls (and boys), Gavin realised that from an early age, a childhood of bubblegum pink, tutus and fairytales lay ahead of Jade.

"That's when I got the idea to start a [parenting] blog Not Just A Princess," explains the Rathcoole native. "Mainly, it was just somewhere where I could make memories and have somewhere to leave them so Jade and I could look through them in the future."

Gavin had been a hands-on enough dad when Jade was born, but it was a health episode that landed him in A&E that prompted him to address his own work-life balance.

"I do business consultancy for people and when Shannon got pregnant, there were the usual worries about where the cash would come from," he explains. "I was often getting in at 5pm, then up until 12am doing whatever work I didn't get done. Then one day I ended up with a serious bout of vertigo. It was a good wake-up call at the time, and I decided to cut out the roles that weren't worthwhile or took up too much time. And, crucially, I was spending more time with Shannon and Jade."

Gavin soon realised the fairytales he read her were full of passive female characters waiting around to be saved by a prince, and positive female role models were in scant supply. The Princess & The Pea was the one to tip him over the edge: "I said to Shannon, 'What nonsense is this?' Talk about high maintenance. I told Shannon we weren't reading that stuff to her anymore, and I complained about it for three days straight. At one point, Shannon said, 'Maybe stop complaining and write your own books if you feel that strongly'."

It was there that he decided to create an adventure series of stories using Jade as a character - she became a baby judge, a baby photographer, or a baby pilot; jobs that might ordinarily be seen as traditionally male. The two would go on real-life adventures, from the fire station to the airport, for inspiration. The aim was to show Jade she could be whatever she wanted to be when she grows up, and that 'princess' wasn't the only job open to her.

The stories, complete with illustrations done by a friend, became an online hit, but it was the reaction he received from readers that really gave him pause for thought. To date, the blog has over 14,000 followers on Facebook.

"A lot of parents would send the blog private messages, and we'd talk back and forth," he recalls. "One woman told me she had a four-year-old boy who was at the stage where he hates pink and girls, and doesn't understand that Mummy is one too. Another woman contacted me asking if I'd written a story about a female farmer because she wanted to show some pictures to her little boy to show him that maybe girls could be farmers too."

The idea to create a series of books featuring girls in heroic and exciting roles took flight when Gavin launched a Kickstarter crowdfunding campaign to create and launch the 14-book series nationally. The characters, who live in a fictional place called Wonderville, come from all walks of life and represent many countries around the world.

It was important for Gavin to visually represent little girls of all ethnicities, not least because Shannon is biracial (Gavin met Shannon, originally from China, when he went there to study for a PhD). To date, he is over 20pc towards his funding goal.

"We have stories about a vet, a firefighter, a pilot, an inventor, a detective or a mechanic," explains Gavin. "The Kickstarter campaign means that people can essentially pre-buy the series. Doing the campaign was partly to see if there was a market out there for the books. I remember at one point saying to Shannon, 'Am I mad, or are people really interested in these?' "Ultimately, both little boys and girls can see girls as capable and able to do every kind of job," says Gavin. "I didn't want the characters to be your blonde, beautiful, Snow White-type characters. I've tried to encompass as many colours and cultures as possible, so there's something in it for everyone."

And Gavin is more than aware that adult men also befall an unfortunate case of gender conditioning.

"When I talk to the Chinese part of our social circle, it's very much a case of 'Daddy goes out and makes the money and hands it over to Mum'. My in-laws think that what I do is ridiculous.

"I know dads who are very hands-on and some who aren't a fan of it, but I got a message from a friend recently that got me thinking," he says. "He wrote, 'I can't come to your party, I have to babysit'. I had to write back, 'It's not babysitting when it's your own kid. It's called parenting'."

To find out how to support Not Just A Princess and get the book series, check out notjustaprincessworld.com.


Empowering feminist-retelling stories

Ride On Rapunzel: Fairytales For Feminists by Maeve Binchy

This collection turns much-loved fairytales on their head with the help of a slew of Irish writers, from Snow White and Cinderella to Jack & The Beanstalk and The Children Of Lir.

The Surface Breaks by Louise O'Neill

This Young Adult book is a modern-day spin on The Little Mermaid. Gaia is a mermaid who dreams of freedom from her father under the waves, but life on dry land is not without its sacrifices.

The Hazel Wood by Melissa Albert

Albert's novel borrows the shiny stuff from classic fairytales and serves up a number of well-known tropes, with a dash of supernatural magic to boot.

Cruel Beauty by Rosamund Hodge

A Beauty And The Beast retelling in which a girl is betrothed by her father's foolishness to the powerful sorcerer Ignifex, but plans to kill him and destroy the curse laid on her people at the same time.

Irish Independent

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