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).
So 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”.
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.
Out came all the clips…
And I sat patiently whilst they transformed my hair with ribbons, combs, bands and more…
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!
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.