Time to put dads in the story

10th July 2009 at 01:00

"That's a really good book," the stallholder at the charity boot sale advised his customer. Hitching his toddler higher on his hip, the prospective buyer asked: "What's it about?" There followed a long and loving account of a monster redeemed. "Is it scary?" the toddler's dad asked, flicking through the pages warily. And the two men continued debating the scariness factor of the big shiny children's book in the afternoon sunshine and whether it would be suitable to read to his little daughter.

It was a heartening scene and slightly unusual, because it seems that dads are not generally the ones who buy books for their children - and they're not usually the ones who read to them either.

Perhaps, though, he should have been less worried by the scariness factor and more concerned about how visible dads are in the story. There's concern just now that children's stories are treating dads unfairly and ignoring them.

Let's face it: dads have never had a great press. My Ladybird books used to depict Dad appearing only on the last page, sporting a soft hat, a suit, and carrying a brief case. He'd return from the office to pop his head round a door which usually revealed Mummy in the kitchen wearing a frilly apron, ready to relinquish her status as the king returned.

In more recent literature, often dads don't even make the last page and have become entirely invisible in stories which feature a mummy who has left the kitchen for good.

The majority of writers of young children's books are women. They're going to write themselves a pretty good part. They're certainly not going to fall into the trap of the old stereotypes; in general, they're offering strong female role models.

Here in Dundee, we have never needed to be too concerned about strong female role models in our literature. We have grown up with Beryl the Peril, and there are real-life models for us to draw on. The jute industry's legacy to Dundee is strong and forceful women - women in the industry worked hard, earned good money and spent it on a Friday night. Indeed, at one time during the height of jute manufacturing, Dundee held the honour of having the highest number in Britain of women arrested for being drunk and disorderly. Women's lib was invented in Dundee.

That history means that discussing gender stereotyping in the media with my classes was usually a bit of a damp squib. No matter how controversial the example - "women are too emotional" or "women are not mechanically- minded" - the girls in the group would just think the statements daft.

I hope the dad bought that scary book for his little girl. I suspect that there is a big market in Dundee for really scary books for girls where fairies are elbowed off the page to make way for stories about helping Mum to strip down a motor bike and then fight real lions who've wandered up the garden path.

In children's books, mums have thrown off the frilly aprons, got tattooed and they've revved up and out of the kitchen. Now all we have to do is to find a way of bringing Dad back into the picture, too.

Carol Gow is a former further education lecturer in media.

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