The Reading Gender-Inclusive Books (RGB) project came from brainstorming about different approaches to make existing books more gender-inclusive and to facilitate dissemination of the idea to a wider group of people.
It also came out of me recognizing that I am really comfortable reading out loud and changing pronouns on the fly. This is not true for everyone; I have watched a lot of people who are philosophically aligned and really used to using different pronouns struggle with changing them on the fly while they read books to my children. I was interested in thinking about how to make book augmentation accessible and visible to people.
The RGB Project is the result of an exploration in the Fall of 2016 with a group of students: Meghan, Michael, and Celina. We came up with some general concepts for how we might engage with books. To prototype them, we got a bunch of books at a local thrift store, I brought some in from my own home, and we got creative. We played with augmenting and modifying books in various ways (detailed below) and talked about how that felt. What is the line between activism and censorship? Where would our interventions be deployed? Who would be deploying them? What would they look like if they were widely implemented? Are they for home use? For a library? For teachers? For guerrilla actions?
Here I share with you the results of this exploration that is somewhere in the space where art, activism, and practical features meet. Scroll to the bottom for a slideshow with all of the books discussed below.
Note that the book images conveyed here are part of an educational, artistic, and activist exploration of the intersection of gender and kids books and is deemed fair use. Images are not meant to be distributed.
The Real Mother Goose ABCs
This was our first attempt. In this intervention, we changed words in an A-Z Mother Goose book. Sometimes this was to change themes that we didn’t like. Sometimes we just wanted to throw in a little gender diversity or to disrupt the gender stereotypes in the rhymes.
Words were changed by overlaying stickers. The original book font (Century Old Style) was detected using the What the Font app. Font size was determined by printing words in several font sizes and comparing to size in the book. A variety of methods were used to determine background color. The best seemed to be use of a color-detecting app, but manual adjustments were still necessary. While visually stunning, this is a time-consuming approach that couldn’t really be scaled or shared widely.
The image shows the result for one of my favorites, Little Miss Muffet. Instead of being frightened by the spider, Miss Muffet takes a stand. Though we paid attention to rhymes and meter, some of the modified verses feel odd, especially the ones that were already familiar to us. Perhaps this would provide sufficient disruption to a reader that they would think about the messages these verses, which many children (in the US and in other countries) learn, send. After a while though, sometimes it’s hard to remember what the original version was. This reminds us of the ever-changing nature of language.
The Secret Three
This intervention consisted of changing pronouns and titles in The Secret Three. In this story, there are three children - Mark, Billy, and Tom - who send messages back and forth in a bottle and eventually meet. In the original story, they are all boys and in the augmented version they were were given the following pronouns: he, she, and they, respectively. Other adult characters (all men), including parents and fisherpeople, were given gender neutral titles (father → parent) and pronouns.
Like Mother Goose, words were changed through use of stickers that were designed to blend into the style of the book. Font used was 20pt Times New Roman. The messages the kids send are hand-written and either in numerical code or backwards so we had to hand-draw those.
Repeating the sticker intervention with a lesser-known book was done to explore the experience of permanently changing a book that fewer people were familiar with. This is a book that comes from my home collection and has been returned to circulation to read with my 4 year olds. While they are familiar with the book with the augmented pronouns, they noticed the stickers and asked what they were and tried to pick at them.
Family Reunion: A John Deere Storybook for Little Folks
This book is about a tractor family and was put out by John Deere. It contained exclusively male characters.
We created transparency sleeves that slid over the pages. The transparent sleeves changed all he/him/his pronouns to she/her/hers pronouns.
The goal of this intervention was to leave visible/accessible the original text while having an optional overlay to augment it. It is more reversible than the first method, but still very visible; as much a tool for reading as a commentary.
The Little Engine that Could
In this classic, it is a female engine who saves the day. However, we still thought it had opportunities to be more thoughtful around gender messages. This intervention consisted of carefully reading the book, generating recommendations for changes, and creating a bookmark that offered suggested changes to book pronouns.
Bookmarks were designed in Photoshop, exported as .pngs, and printed in Powerpoint.
While also book-specific and time-intensive, this approach is one that could be implemented in an electronically shareable format (link to PDF). Additionally, the concept could be fairly easily replicated for other books. We may create a template for future books and we welcome suggestions. A bookmark has the potential to be used by librarians or to be placed in books in public locations. However, a book-specific bookmark would have predictably limited use. Here is a link to the bookmark if you want to download it and print it doublesided!
Up and Down and How Do Dinosaurs Love Their Dogs
These are more contemporary books. Up and Down is about a child and a penguin who wants to fly. How Do Dinosaurs Love Their Dogs is a fun book as part of a whole series confirming the excellent manners and caretaking abilities of dinosaurs. In both books, all characters/pronouns are male.
We tried two variations on stickers on the front of the books for this one. One is just an educational moment encouraging people to notice the pronouns and change them. The other has a sticker and transparent colorful dots on the pronouns to help remind the reader. See the slideshow for examples of the colored stickers inside. Here is our sheet for 2” circle stickers (Avery 22830).
These have the feel of something that could be used as part of an awareness campaign (as could similarly-worded bookmarks, which would be less permanent). Our next step is to try them out with people to see if they are useful in getting this idea across.
The Little Mermaid
We started with The Little Mermaid and digitized the text. Initially we just changed Ariel’s pronouns to they/them/theirs and talked about how this felt. We also changed some of the very gender-stereotypical attributes. And then we changed everything!
We wrote code to do a set of very basic rewrites, adjusting pronouns (she/he/they) for each character in the book. So now we have over 2,000 versions (don’t worry, it was automated) of The Little Mermaid, in which the only changes are pronoun uses. You can find them all at https://github.com/songbird175/The-Little-Mermaid. This intervention gave us a jumping off point to start working on analysis of gender dynamics and how people react to them. We might also end up writing a program that can be used universally on any book to change the pronouns in it.
This approach led to seamless reading of the story and also a LOT of options. It also led us to think about the gendered implications of different story lines. What happens when Ursula, the evil witch, is a man? How does that change the evil older woman narrative of Disney films? As a way to think about which version to read more intentionally, we also created this grid that allows you to choose your version.
This slideshow shows a compilation of images from all of the book interventions. Scroll through to see more pages!