Review: What Are Little Girls Made Of? By Willis & Follath

I’m surprised I had not really heard about this book before I was on a major Isabelle Follath illustration binge a few months ago. I am mildly obsessed with Follath’s character drawings lately and this one is abounding in them! But, to my and my daughters’ great delight, this book is also super fun. While it is jumping on the “young feminists” bandwagon, which can become a bit trite with the onslaught of products bearing the theme, this book actually does it well and delightfully. A book of fractured nursery rhymes, familiar and yet rewritten and freshly illustrated to hint at the oddness and datedness of the old versions if you know them; but mainly to celebrate the specialness, equality, consent, individuality, and independence of girls (and all humans!) in these new rhymes. Check out What Are Little Girls Made Of? by Jeanne Willis, illustrated by Isabelle Follath, 2020.

Full spread showing a girl and boy dressed very similarly in overalls hanging up a blanket tent between trees.

This book really is so interesting. On surface level it is just a really beautifully and cleverly illustrated rhymes collection. And the rhymes are fun.

But looking deeper, the rhymes really push readers to think critically about the old familiar rhymes and the strange stereotypes and cultural norms that made those rhymes. You can totally enjoy this book without knowing the original rhymes, but to truly catch the bold changes in the rhymes, you have to be familiar with the originals. Both of my girls are familiar with most of the original poems and it made for excellent conversation about why the author changed each one.

Take for example this Georgie Porgie rhyme. If you know the original, you may have never thought about how odd it is. Or maybe you have. Depends on the level of critical thinking one does when reading a preschool book for the millionth time while bleary-eyed. But let’s be honest, a rhyme that talks about a boy kissing girls, making them cry, and then running away is odd. There’s no discussion of it, no reprimanding, no consent asked or given… and this is exactly the agency that Willis’ rewritten rhymes give back to the characters and the reader.

On the left page, a little girl holding a kite string looks critically and sassily at a boy, accompanied by the text about Georgie Porgie kissing her without asking. On the right page, a little girl with braids sits with a telescope looking into a black page sky filled with stuffed animals in all sorts of spaceships made from found objects.

Georgie Porgie gets a firm and pointed response – he’s lucky he didn’t get a punch in the nose.

In other rhymes, ones that typically show males doing specific things are reimagined with girls doing them.

On the left page, a man sews a bunny costume next to his bunny costumed child on the floor while the woman can be seen leaving for work through the window. On the right page, a girl sits at a picnic in the woods next to a giant fuzzy spider.

Jill fixes up Jack and his scooter from falling down the hill. Girls not only help spiders, but enjoy patting them too. Girls are queens and doctors. Girls tell nosy boys to mind their own business and don’t call them cutesy names.

On the left page, a woman dressed fancy walks through waist-deep water to fix a broken drain on a building. On the right page, a black girl is walking to a school carrying her books and looking cheekily at a boy behind her who looks sheepish.

It’s such an interesting, turn-it-all-on-its-head and wonder why we let it be so off in the first place kind of book.

Full spread showing a broken egg Humpty on the ground near a blue wall. Four soldiers look on helplessly with their horses behind them looking bewildered. While a black woman doctor tends to Humpty's injuries.

I’ll be totally honest and say that I really did get this book for the illustrations and I approached the “nursery rhymes to empower young feminists” subtitle with trepidation. I have no problem with the empowering piece at all – I love it – and I think the cultural sexism and stereotyping has caused an abundance of problems for years. It’s time we realize how much of our so-called values come from the Victorian era and need to be re-evaluated greatly. But I do think it can go too far and become didactic and agenda feeling too often. I believe in equality, but I also believe in celebrating differences. This book does a pretty good job toeing that line of questioning why things have to be labeled boy or girl in the first place. It can be taken too far, in my opinion, and I have questions about a line or two in this text; but I’m all for critical thinking and love that this book is not only fun, but can also make you stop and think about something in a whole new way.

A full spread of kids doing various activities like baking bread, doing magic, walking a teddy in a stroller, building a tower, being a princess, dancing, riding a car, being a knight and a dragon.

I hope you add What Little Girls Are Made Of? to your bookshelf. It’s a great, more balanced approach to childhood and classic rhymes, and it’s a beautifully illustrated book too. Let me know what you think!

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