Playing by the book

Reviews of kids' books and the crazy, fun stuff they inspire us to do

Do you avoid “pink” books? Plus an interview with Abie Longstaff

Posted on | September 9, 2013 | 17 Comments

When browsing for new books to read with my girls, I generally avoid anything which is pink (or associated shades of purple and red) and sparkly. I know lots of parents don’t; for many it’s a useful pointer, and for publishers it’s seen as a way to boost sales. But for me, it’s often shorthand for books I expect to promote a simpering, narrow world view, where what’s important for girls is making themselves look pretty so they can be rescued.

Pink AND bravery, imagination, creativity, strength (physical and of character), and wisdom don’t seem to be natural bedfellows in picture books (though no doubt you’ll be able to tell me of exceptions which prove this rule).

fairytalehairdresserSo given my aversion to pink, I would never have picked up The Fairytale Hairdresser and Sleeping Beauty written by Abie Longstaff and illustrated by Lauren Beard; It’s full of pinks, and liberally sprinkled with glittery bits.

But a review copy came through the letter box, and J fell hard for it. Something about it really, REALLY appealed to her and given her total passion for this book I felt honour bound to review it here. But how to review a book where my starting point was one of reluctance?

Kittie Lacey is a hairdresser, in a land populated by fairytale and book characters. Everyone from Alice (of Wonderland fame) to Little Red Riding Hood, the Owl and the Pussycat enjoy visiting her salon. One day, visiting fairies tell how their friend Princess Rose has fallen into an enchanted deep sleep, and only a kiss from her true love will wake her up. Does Kittie know anyone who could help? Could it possibly be that Prince Florian, a garden designer (the clue’s in the name) who visited Kittie’s salon earlier in the week, might be the man to save the day?

The setting is beguiling, especially to book lovers; like Blyton’s The Magic Faraway Tree, or many of Jacqueline Wilson’s books, there are lots of references to other story characters, making them all seem real. If they can walk out of one book into another, they must have a life of their own, which doesn’t just flow through the pens of their original creators; children will love spotting “old friends”.

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There’s an interesting mix of old and new, traditional and modern; Neither the prince nor the princess are people of leisure – they actually work for other people – but yes [SPOILER ALERT], it is a kiss from the prince that makes everything all right. Kittie is very practical and clear headed, an independent. successful woman, and yet making the fairies pretty is seen as the best way to cheer them up. I didn’t feel very comfortable with this message that being pretty = being happy, especially when that prettiness is about adornment, clothes and hair-do’s, rather than (though I don’t like the phrase) “inner beauty” (though of course the two are not mutually exclusive).

Reading a book with someone who is totally passionate about the book – in this case, my youngest daughter – is always a delight, and so I’ve ended up loving The Fairytale Hairdresser and Sleeping Beauty, despite a personally slightly complicated relationship to it.

Now it so happens that earlier this year I met the author of The Fairytale Hairdresser and Sleeping Beauty, Abie Longstaff at the FCBG Conference. I think she’d agree with me when I said we got on wonderfully well, and had a great deal of fun together. It says a great deal about the friendship we struck up, that when I approached her about my “complicated relationship” with her Fairytale Hairdresser (there are 3 books already out featuring Kittie, and a 4th is on the way), she was very happy to talk to me about this series. Here’s how our conversation about her choices in this series of books went:

Playing by the book: Why did you choose to write about a hairdresser, and not say a doctor or an artist?

Abie Longstaff: When I designed the fairy tale world, I really wanted to make it ordinary. I wanted to reflect the kind of jobs that the majority of normal people have. I deliberately didn’t want the royals swanning around being dressed up smartly and not doing jobs. I feel ordinary craft jobs are not respected enough in today’s society and there is unfortunately a stigma against being a plumber or nursery carer or gardener or other job seen as low level (leading to teachers and nurses being paid far too little, but I’ll keep my rant short!). I also wanted to choose jobs that very young children would understand – so, shop keepers (Red Riding Hood), builders (Three Pigs), gardeners (Prince), hairdressers (Kittie). All my characters, whether boy or girl, have ordinary jobs; one that children can imagine, and play themselves. Because they all have ordinary jobs, there is a sense of equality in the community and the books are very much about helping your neighbour by doing a job for each other.

For Kittie, I chose a hairdresser because, as children, my sisters and I used to play hairdressers. We loved the business side – beautification wasn’t our main aim; we wanted to run the salon as well as do our dolls’ hair. We used to spend hours making shampoos, writing price lists and making bookings for all kinds of famous people. So I made Kittie a business woman as well as a hairdresser. She lives above her own salon and works hard at her life. In Cinderella, part of the ethos of the book is that by learning a skill, you can enhance your life. Cinderella comes to work in the salon without a skill but day by day she learns hairdressing. Cinderella’s main progress in the book is to have learned this new skill, which she continues after her marriage.

Just as a side point – I was asked to a festival in Bristol, for a Sure Start project in an underprivileged area of the city. The aim of the project was to get children into reading. One little girl came up to me at the end and said her mum was a hairdresser. Her mother said my books were the first she had seen that had a hairdresser as the main character.

Playing by the book: One of my concerns with “pink” books is how they often promote the importance of looking good, not for oneself, but to catch the attention of another. Spending money and time on fashion and accessories is promoted as a worthwhile way for a girl to spend her time. This is not something I wish to encourage my girls to believe. Where do you stand on the dressing up, and putting on the bling?

Abie Longstaff: I have tried to be really careful and not make the dressing up about beautification. In all the books the characters need their hair done to solve a problem (Rapunzel), to cheer themselves up (the fairies in Sleeping Beauty), to disguise themselves (the plot in the future Snow White book) and definitely not in order to ‘catch a man’. I also show male characters having their hair done; Father Christmas is a regular customer, so are the seven dwarves and, in Sleeping Beauty, it’s the Prince who comes in for a trim.

In Cinderella, I really didn’t like the original story, where Cinderella has to dress up and look rich to attract the prince (so much so that he doesn’t recognise her when she is poor and she has to try on a shoe in order to be identified), so I made my couple meet while she is still ragged and poor and the prince loves her then. At the ball she tells him she isn’t wearing her own dress, to make it clear to him she is out of place, and he loves her still. After they are married Cinderella goes back to wearing her ordinary raggedy clothes, because they are a part of who she is.

Playing by the book:Thinking about messages books can send out to kids, especially young girls, about the roles they can play in life, how did you choose the different women in your versions of the fairy tales?

Abie Longstaff: I have taken care to portray a range of different women in my books. There is the stay at home wife (Rapunzel), the working wife (Cinderella) and the working singleton (Kittie, who isn’t interested in getting a boyfriend – she likes her work and focuses on that). For me, feminism is about choice and I want girls to see a whole range of choices open to them.

Interestingly, when children come up to me to talk about the book, Kittie is the character they want to hear about, not Rapunzel. One little girl asked me, in awe; “Do you actually know Kittie Lacey?” – the children want to be Kittie, with her cool salon and her modern, independent life.

Playing by the book:You wrote these stories, rather than illustrated them. How did you feel when the illustrator and editor came back to you with the pinks and glitter?

Abie Longstaff:I agree the book covers are sparkly. They are pink Rapunzel), purple (Cinderella), red (Sleeping Beauty), and Snow White will be green. But the insides are much funky in a Manga-ish style. Kittie has her hairdryer on a tool belt and she is a bit super-hero like.

I accept that the sparkle and pink tones might put some people off, but the messages in the books are pro-opportunity. I guess I think that, if it makes more children read my books then at least I know the messages will be getting through at some level! I also know boys who love the books and, when I read them in schools the boys love the character spotting and stories too.

Playing by the book:It may come as a surprise to readers of your books that you’re not a full time author. Tell us what you day job is…

Abie Longstaff: I trained as a barrister originally. Now I work for a charity that looks at the effects of policing on society. Because my work often involves justice and human rights, I take real care to make sure all my ‘bad’ characters have a legal and proportionate punishment, as opposed to other fairy tale punishments. They go to jail or do some form of community service. I know this sounds like a small thing but it’s really important to me!

********************

My HUGE thanks to Abie Longstaff (@AbieLongstaff) for responding to my questions with such generosity of spirit. Our conversation has certainly encourage me to re-read her books with new enthusiasm. Perhaps most importantly, she’s created a series of books which has completely captured the imagination of my youngest, and for that I’m hugely grateful.

When met with the boundless enthusiasm for this book emanating from J, I had to enter into the spirit of things. Yes, J and M could play hairdressers. Yes, they could do my hair.

hairdresser3

Out came all the clips…

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And I sat patiently whilst they transformed my hair with ribbons, combs, bands and more…

hairdresser2

Whilst it may not be a look I’d adopt very often outside of our home, we had tremendous fun for an hour or so!

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There’s something about letting the kids do what they want to their grown up which is very powerful; the kids set about decorating me with relish and delight, and it reminded me of when they were allowed to tattoo me (see here!); what is it about transforming your grown-up that is so delicious for a child?

So…. after all this, where do you stand on “pink” books? Will this post get you to look again at them?

Disclosure: I received a free review copy of The Fairytale Hairdresser and Sleeping Beauty by Abie Longstaff from the publisher, and as you’ve probably gather, I consider the author to be a personal friend.

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Comments

17 Responses to “Do you avoid “pink” books? Plus an interview with Abie Longstaff”

  1. Barbara Mojica
    September 9th, 2013 @ 1:07 am

    I think that many parents might avoid “pink” books, but some young girls only seem to want to look at things done in pink or purple.

  2. Library Mice
    September 9th, 2013 @ 6:51 am

    It’s my daughter’s dream to become a hairdresser. I have spent many an hour sitting on a chair being “made up”.
    Nothing wrong with pink books at all. R read nothing but for ages and she is slowly coming out on the other side. She still loves fiction that are most definitely aimed at girls, but that’s who she is, so as long as she is reading, I am happy.
    Library Mice recently posted..A Dixie O’Day Special Treat

  3. Zoe
    September 9th, 2013 @ 7:12 am

    But Barbabra, why do some girls only want to look at “pink” books? That said, I’m now convinced by Abie that at least with her books, they are still getting positive, world-opening models.
    Zoe recently posted..Do you avoid “pink” books? Plus an interview with Abie Longstaff

  4. Zoe
    September 9th, 2013 @ 7:14 am

    Hi Library Mice, this hairdressing was a first for me (I’m sure that won’t come as a surprise!!). And whilst I’m definitely of the school that says all reading is good reading, when it comes to spending money on books (rather than the kids going to the library), I am a bit picky. But at least Abie has shown me I need to look more carefully.
    Zoe recently posted..Do you avoid “pink” books? Plus an interview with Abie Longstaff

  5. Catherine
    September 9th, 2013 @ 8:37 am

    It was really interesting to read Abie’s interview and I think it is great that she is portraying the fairytale characters as having a good work ethic.

    The Fairytale Hairdresser is a favourite in our house but it wasn’t the cover that persuaded me to buy it, it was the originality of the story. I have a child who is very led by pink so the cover definitely attracted her but now she just loves the story.

    I wonder how many books I have rejected because of the images on the cover or the fact that they are a little too pink. One of our current favourite stories, Ella by Alex T. Smith, has a very pink and red glittery cover but despite this we are very pleased that we have met Ella as she is a very strong character. Sometimes you have to look past the pink to see the gold beneath!
    Catherine recently posted..What Small Rabbit Heard by Sheryl Webster

  6. liveotherwise
    September 9th, 2013 @ 9:13 am

    Fascinating. We have this for review and I had a similar reaction to you. But here Tigerboy particularly loves it for the textures of the sparkly bits and Smallest loves the plants.

    I also wrote separately about how a misleadingly pink cover almost put me offa book I later very much enjoyed.
    liveotherwise recently posted..Silent Sunday 8 September 2013

  7. ReadItDaddy
    September 9th, 2013 @ 9:23 am

    We love pink books – books that use pink as a colour. We don’t love pink books that use pink as a lazy way of helping folk make a gender based choice. That’s pretty much all there is from us on the whole pink and blue debate. Charlotte loves pink, as a colour, she loves Disney princesses but we’ve noticed that she loves the original and properly dark stories Disney ‘steal’ from much more. So we’re enjoying the pink phase before it turns into something gothic (and secretly I’ll probably be ridiculously pleased if C goes that way, always wanted to be a goth!)
    ReadItDaddy recently posted..#ReadItMD13 Theme Week – “All the Awesome Animals!”

  8. Polly
    September 9th, 2013 @ 9:37 am

    Great post. Great interviewee. Great debate to wake up to on Twitter. And PARTICULARLY great photo of bedecked Zoe and bedecker…

  9. Stephanie
    September 9th, 2013 @ 10:50 am

    I dislike the vomit of pink and glitter that happens to girls products. The interview is very interesting and I agree with a lot of her points. I also love stories that play with fairytales so I am tempted to check these out.
    Stephanie recently posted..Start Telling Your Own Stories Tutorial Series Part 2 – Getting Started

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    September 9th, 2013 @ 12:32 pm

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  11. Zoe
    September 9th, 2013 @ 1:53 pm

    Catherine – I was certainly heartened to read all the reasons for Abie’s choices. Made me feel much more comfortable with the book.

    Liveotherwise – think your point about texture is important. It is a lovely thing to have in books.

    ReadItDaddy – I envy your relaxed approach. I get so fed up of pink everywhere. I learned to sew just so my girls didn’t have to wear pink clothes.

    Polly – ha ha. Girls said I looked just like an Ugly Sister (Think it was the lipstick they put on me in particular – I’m not a lippy type of person!)

    Stephanie – if you do get to take a look at these, please let me know what you think.
    Zoe recently posted..Do you avoid “pink” books? Plus an interview with Abie Longstaff

  12. gisele barcellos
    September 9th, 2013 @ 1:53 pm

    So cute! :)

  13. Mevrouw Kinderboek
    September 9th, 2013 @ 10:17 pm

    Oh boy! Pink is a. O no for my son of 8 years old since he was 3 1/2. He won’t look at a pink book even if there are no princesses.
    My other son just turned 4. He does not say no to pink (not yet, I suspect).
    Mevrouw Kinderboek recently posted..(Gesloten) Winactie: O rode papaver, boem pats knal! (van Sjoerd Kuyper)

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  15. se7en
    September 11th, 2013 @ 3:09 pm

    This is a great post and you are a brave mama!!! I do indeed avoid “pink” books, but my daughters definitely don’t!!! I let my kids read and enjoy whatever they like, but honestly I don’t read everything they do. Now that I have read this interview I am going to look a whole lot more closely at those pink books that wander into our house before I commit to an opinion!!!
    se7en recently posted..Saturday Spot: Se7en Join An Amazing Race in the Cape Peninsula National Park…

  16. Rachel HODGSON
    September 11th, 2013 @ 9:57 pm

    I have made a point of avoiding all things pink with my daughter Martha but she seems to have found it all by herself and I am now fully embracing pink, fairy wings, glitter and tutus. I feel slightly better about it as my son Tom is equally as enthusiastic as his little sister in this.
    I wonder why I feel this way and I wonder how many books I have dismissed on the basis of a glittery cover. I will definitely be searching out this one. Thanks
    for the review and insightful interview.

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