• Picturebook Snob

Nursery rhymes for feminist times

What are little girls made of? by Jeanne Willis and Isabelle Follath, published by Nosy Crow

What's it about?

Seventeen classic nursery rhymes are transformed so that they no longer reinforce old-fashioned gender stereotypes. This collection invigorates the dull, sexist ditties with which we all grew up, and reinvents them as fabulously funny feminist verses. What are little girls made of? empowers boys as well as girls and challenges toxic masculinity.

What can we learn?

Girls are just as brave and capable as boys. "Except for little things," we are all "much the same," and everyone can be or play with whatever they like.

What makes this stand out? It's so clever and amusing. Although equality and empowerment are at the core of every rhyme, they never feel forced. Each verse is enormously entertaining as well as thought-provoking, with a lively rhythm and a natural flow. The characters are all from diverse backgrounds and children in wheelchairs are represented too. This is an attractive edition that even looks like a classic, with stunning illustrations to accompany the text.

About those illustrations...

I love the illustrations as much as I love the rhymes. They're delightfully dynamic with a gorgeous colour palette and a vintage storybook quality. The cover beneath the dust jacket is intricately designed with a harlequin pattern featuring a variety of objects associated with childhood. These are alternatively traditional, modern, for play or educational. My eldest was five-and-a-half when this arrived and even she commented on the cover, calling it "beautiful."

Why we love it...

What's not to love? Everything about What are little girls made of? is wonderful. These revamped verses are incredibly relevant and a pleasure to read aloud, and, as I've already mentioned, we are mad about the illustrations too. It's impossible to choose a favourite rhyme but I'm particularly fond of how Georgie Porgie stresses the importance of consent. I also love how practical Jill and Little Bo Beep are, the realism of Bye, Baby Bunting and Little Jade Horner's resourcefulness.

Why you need it...

We internalise so much misogyny and gender bias from the moment we're born, even through seemingly innocuous nursery rhymes. This book is perfect for creating awareness around, and questioning, the sexism we absorb without realising, and providing some balance. It's ideal for introducing children to the concept of equality from an early age. What are little girls made of? would make a fantastic gift for a new baby and for grown ups too. Books like this are the building blocks for a fairer future and belong on every shelf!

About the author:

Jeanne Willis has been writing books since she was five. She is a children's literature legend who has won multiple awards and published over 300 titles for young people. Python Goes to Playschool was one of the first books I bought while expecting my eldest. I remembered finding it hilarious when I was a bookseller and now my kids do too. We're also huge fans of Stardust and Jeanne's cautionary fairy tale collection which teaches little readers about the importance of online safety.

About the illustrator:

Isabelle Follath lives in Zurich and has been working as a freelance illustrator in the advertising and publishing industries for over 15 years. Isabelle's true passion is children's literature and she has collaborated with many acclaimed authors on popular picture books. The Incredible Hotel and Joy have been on our wishlist for a while now and I love the papercuts on Isabelle's website too.

What are little girls made of? was published by Nosy Crow in September 2020 - see this book on the publisher's website

What exquisite endpapers!

Read a review of Stardust by Jeanne Willis and Briony May Smith

Read our review of a collection of children's books about Internet safety written by Jeanne Willis

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