Meet Marge the Cow. She feels so ordinary that the chickens hatch a cunning plan to give her a baby. She sits on the egg to keep it warm, pushes it in a wheelbarrow around the farm and is finally fulfilled when the chick is born and she names it Daisy.
Obviously, I didn’t buy this book. I think that Marge should go out and become a scientist or philosopher or journalist tackling the meat industry, or break out of the farm and foment revolution. Yet, because, somehow, it’s now Ziya’s favorite, I read it for her anyway.
In the story, the “farmer’s wife” calls the press about the egg. To jail with dat, I like to call her the farmer and him the farmer’s husband. It’s an assumption that she is not the one with the agriculture degree or from a farming family, which by the way is not negated just because she is married.
Besides Marge are so many other instances of total stereotypes in the hidden curriculum of children’s lives. I made huge efforts to choose each of Ziya’s many books one by one. I read reviews over months. I made lists so that her library included stories with girl, boy, non-American, non-White and Caribbean characters. Finding far too few, I turned to stories with animals, like the monkey who fools the crocodile, the raven who stole the sun from the gods, the baby hippo who sees all the other baby animals getting kisses, and the llama who starts school and misses mama.
Yet, in almost all of these stories, the monkey, crocodile, raven, hippo and llama are also all male. When Stella, official World Champion of Staying Awake, puts Beanbag Frog, Cherry Pig and her puppet-mouse to sleep, somehow we have to believe that a little girl’s favorite toys are all also male characters. If this is random, why do you think that in all the stories that I have which feature little boys, none of their favorite toys, such as dinosaurs and pandas, are ever female in return?
Then there is Lola. She’s African-American, has brown skin and hair like Ziya, and she loves the library. Lola reads stories and imagines who she will be, sometimes a pilot, sometimes a tiger, sometimes a princess. To jail with this princess tiefhead. I tell Zi that Lola imagines herself an empress, because these brown-skinned women made history and ran empires, and because the Rastafari tradition of resistance continues to give ’empress’ Caribbean meaning.
To jail with blond Disney Cinderellas and Rapunzuls waiting to be rescued, and the bad rep given to the old, wise women of forests, who have been demeaned as evil witches. There’s a rich world mythology of female goddesses out there. Zi already knows she’s powerful like Kali, brave like Durga and smart like Saraswati.
I’m waiting for Fancy Nancy, who is all about science, to be a sapodilla-brown, dougla-hair girl instead of a little red-haired one. You have to search hard for the everyday adventures and aspirations of African, Indian and Caribbean girls outside of the US, and amidst seasons, neighbourhoods and families that look like ours do.
There is a hidden curriculum of sexism, but also of racism too. We can pretend children are too young to pick up on these things, but that’s simply not true. We can instead teach them to go off script, change characters’ sex, rewrite the narrative and make it reflect our own.
Decolonising her young mind one book at a time is what I hope happens with every night’s bedtime story in our home.