Guest Post: Brian Lies presents Got to Get It Right
On 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
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:
Please come at once.
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?
Well, 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.
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
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About Betsy Bird
Betsy 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.
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