“Did you know, none of the Disney Princesses wear glasses?”
My family asked me at the weekend how Pop Up’s Crowdfunder was going and to tell them what it’s about. I said it’s about our desire to get more people of colour, LGBTQ+ and disabled characters – as we don’t see enough of them – into children’s books. My 11-year old niece replied: “Did you know, there are no Disney princesses who wear glasses?”
I was pleased and proud that my niece, the youngest on the virtual call, so clearly ‘got it’ and was the first to add a personal observation that so perfectly backed up the point. I was also relieved that what we’re doing is so clearly accepted as ‘normal’ to children and young people today. This prompted me to do a little research – did you know that only one Disney Princess has no (male, of course) love interest, only two wear trousers and one of those is the only one not to have a royal connection? Any stance against such traditional attitudes and reductive stereotyping would have seemed controversial in my day.
I remember a girl at my primary school running away from school every day she was sent in wearing the regulation skirt with bare legs and ankle socks. I vividly remember her as dynamic and friendly, competing for the school in a county-wide race, encouraging others to do their best, not at all the ‘disaffected pupil’ she was typecast as by unsympathetic, gossiping parents. She was finally granted ‘special dispensation’ from the headmaster, on the written request of her parents, to wear trousers as part of her school uniform. She returned visibly happy and no longer troubled, once allowed to feel more comfortable in her own skin, rather than trying to fit in with conventions that didn’t suit her character.
Anti-bullying campaigns in schools and the prominence in popular media of non-conformist, non-binary, highly inventive, creative individuals give me hope that all forms of media and culture, including those that appear to be sadly lagging behind, will eventually catch up.
What bothers me most in the interim is the waste of human potential – for nothing more than arbitrary and doubtless soon-to-be-dated bias and prejudice. A hundred years ago a female research scientist might have found the cure for cancer. Except she didn’t, because a hundred years ago women were barred from entering higher education or the professions. Virginia Woolf, the pre-eminent modernist writer of her age, couldn’t go to the British Library to conduct research, because women weren’t allowed in without the permission of their father or husband. A fact that my nieces would rightly find outrageously abhorrent if it were still the case today.
10 Stories to Make a Difference has given me the chance to share what I believe in with a resounding note of celebration. There are so many ways to be in the world. No matter what their background or how sheltered they may be now, every child and young person today will grow up needing to navigate a world more complex, interconnected, and beset with challenges than ever before. From global pandemics to global heating, they will need all the resources they can muster when they grow up to take their place in the world and try, as best as they can, to correct the errors of the past, fix the pressing problems of the day, and create a future worth looking forward to.
Every step each one of us takes towards such goals, no matter how big or small, is progress that accumulates and that current and future generations can build upon. Let’s work collectively to help children and young people see themselves and their experiences reflected in the books they read and in wider society and culture; imaginatively identify with those who are not from their own demographic; and dare to dream differently.
Claire Boulton is Education & Development Director of Pop Up Projects CIC.
A special thanks to all the authors who contributed work to this collection; to the volunteers from publishers including Egmont, Walker, Nobrow, PenguinRandomHouse, Lantana, Scholastic, Andersen, Simon & Schuster, Usborne and Oxford University Press; and a special thank you to Baxter & Bailey design agency for donating their time to transform these beautiful stories into beautiful books.