Feminism and Representation in Fables: An Interview and Cover Reveal with Natalie Portman
It’s just the darndest thing.
Say, do you happen to remember when I published a book with Jules Danielson and Peter Sieruta a couple years ago called Wild Things: Acts of Mischief in Children’s Literature? Do you recall that in that book we spent an entire chapter dedicated to celebrity picture books? I think our primary concern at the time was that publishers were spending inordinate amounts of money to promote books that were, to be frank, ill-planned, poorly written, and given about as much love and consideration as you’d expect from any book dashed off in 15 minutes or less. But since the release of Wild Things I’ve detected a shift, as it were. Celebrities are still writing picture books, but they seem to . . . how shall I put this . . . care? B.J. Novak, for example, knocked it out of the house with The Book With No Pictures. Lupita Nyong’o’s book, meanwhile, recently won a Coretta Scott King Award for the art of Sulwe.
Which brings us to Natalie Portman.
I need to set the scene for this. Imagine you are me. You’re sitting at the Reader’s Advisory Desk on a typical Friday (after all, it’s healthy for a Collection Development Manager to do a little desk work from time to time). You receive an email. It asks you if you’d like to interview Natalie Portman. She has a children’s book coming out and it sounds … really quite interesting. Consider too that Ms. Portman, aside from being an Oscar Award winning actress, has a degree in psychology from Harvard University and, according to the email, is interested in doing a deep dive into issues of representation and feminism in fables and fairytales in this, the 21st century.
Well, I’m not made of stone after all.
Welcome, everyone, Ms. Natalie Portman to the blog.
Betsy Bird: Just to get it out in the open from the start, you are an enormously famous actress and you are writing a book for children. Now normally when that sort of thing happens the usual thing that occurs is that you would come up with either a silly story (ala Jimmy Fallon or Nathan Lane) or one that has some kind of tie-in to your already existing brand (Nick Cannon, Jerry Seinfeld, etc.). But there’s a new trend that I find very heartening these days, and it’s books by women addressing issues in a unique way. Your Chelsea Clinton or Lupita Nyong’o books, for example. And yours has a very interesting origin story. As I understand it, when you had your daughter after your son, you noticed a distinct difference between the books you’d been given with your first child versus your second. Can you talk a bit about what you noticed?
Natalie Portman: Yes, exactly. My desire to write a book sprang out of discontent with the books I was reading to my daughter. I realized how many of the classics I had been reading to my kids had male protagonists, even in animal stories– where there were rarely more than one female character, if even that. I received a lot of feminist baby books when my daughter was born– but that didn’t feel right either. She’s too young to actually be introduced the challenges women have faced and overcome, and also, it felt strange doing that for her and not my son. I wanted to read just a good, classic story, but one that accurately reflected the world.
BB: I’m a parent myself and I’ve a fair number of fellow parents in my circle that tell me how they change the pronouns in the books that they read their kids when they find them a bit testosterone-laden. One parent I know actually managed to tell the entire story of The Hobbit with Bilbo Baggins as this kickass female hobbit. We do it all the time. This is, as I understand it, something you thought to do yourself, but can you talk a little bit about why you thought it was necessary?
Natalie Portman: I also change the pronouns in existing books, but I thought– why do we have to do that? Also, in picture books, the corresponding pictures often betray the changed pronouns. I thought it would be great to just create a beautiful book where these aspects exist. Also, when kids can read for themselves, the pronouns are no longer in our control.
BB: There’s a lot of talk in the library and publishing community about what “boys” will and will not read. In some places it’s considered acceptable to say that girls will read stories about boys and girls, but boys will only read stories about boys. You have a son. What, to your mind, is the best method for combating that particular type of thinking?
Natalie Portman: I think there is some truth to that claim, and also a great deal of ability to overcome that challenge. I’ve seen that with great stories, both of my children will get out of their “gendered” reading. My son is happy to read about Ramona, and my daughter loves Cars and Trucks and Things That Go (which actually, is one of the few books that has wonderful gender representation throughout but is typically characterized as a boy book because it’s about cars). But often, the princesses and unicorns win over my girl, and the dogmen and big nates win over my boy. A large part of my desire to write this, was to write for both of them– that they should both be able to enjoy these books and laugh at them and learn from them in the same way. That we can draw upon these classic fables– which have survived so long for a reason– they are wonderful stories with great morals– but that they can both find themselves in the book, while also being challenged to consider what life is like from someone else’s eyes.
I do think that part of this problem persists into adulthood, when women are expected to, and have honed the skill of reading men’s minds and anticipating their needs, desires and feelings. Whereas men have not had the same practice of imagining the female mind– largely because it has been conspicuously absent from the center of books, movies, tv– the art practices that allow audiences to practice: “I wonder what that person is feeling right now?” and going on the emotional journey with them for the duration of the piece.
And of course, there is currently barely any representation of non-binary and trans people in most art forms. These individuals who have so expanded our understanding of gender as a spectrum rather than a binary description, and deserve more opportunities for recognition.
BB: Two of your stories in your collection (The Tortoise and the Hare and Country Mouse and the City Mouse) are Aesop Fables. The third story (The Three Little Pigs) is a fairytale. I’d be interested in hearing why you gravitated towards fables and fairytales, but particularly the fables.
Natalie Portman: I wanted to use stories with animals, because another aspect of the empathy I’m interested in encouraging in my kids is empathy for animals. I believe a large part of my lifelong animal activism came from growing up with cartoons and books in which animals had feelings, thoughts and felt pain and joy. I never questioned whether animals felt things. I could imagine them talking to one another and having personalities. Also, it seems indisputable that in the animal kingdom there is representation of all genders– you can go back to Noah’s Ark– so it immediately strikes people as strange if all the fish in the ocean are male, or that wolves are always male, etc. Also, children who look different to one another all have the same access to relating to these characters. Because when we’re talking about representation, we’re also talking about the vast other categories we are assigned to. If it’s a human character, one child might be able to identify more strongly than another because of the way they look. If the character is an animal, all kids might equally access the feeling that they are like the character.
BB: Okay. Final, very difficult question: What are you reading to your kids these days?
Natalie Portman: My son is a fantastic reader and reads on his own. He’s recently become obsessed with the I Survived series, which is a bit dark for my taste, but he’s into it. He also loves Big Nate series and Dog Man. Those books seem to skew more towards boys. But I love that he’s reading so much, so I don’t intervene, though I do critique the books to him.
My daughter loves all things Mo Willems– we do a lot of Piggie and Gerald and the Knuffle Bunny series. She loves Richard Scarry, especially Cars and Trucks and Things that Go. And she also loves the Rosie Revere/ Sofia Valdez/ Ada Twist/ Iggy Peck world. Also Curious George, Eloise, and she has the Sendak Nutshell Library memorized! And Dragons Love Tacos, of course.
BB: Of course. Thanks so much, Natalie. This was cool.
And now, for those of who are curious, I present to you the cover of Ms. Portman’s book with art by illustrator Janna Mattia:
Title: Natalie Portman’s Fables
Author: Natalie Portman
Illustrator: Janna Mattia
Publisher: Feiwel and Friends
On-Sale Date: 10/20/20
Age Range: 4 to 6
Filed under: Interviews
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.
SLJ Blog Network