While I was reading and reviewing What Are Little Girls Made Of? this book kept coming to mind. It’s a vintage gem of a book about gender stereotypes, friendships, and silly ideas. It is a surprising book, very different from the usual picture book fare, with a funny and thoughtful jab at the strange boxes society places around gender. Take a look for this vintage Friday at Nice Little Girls by Elizabeth Levy, illustrated by Mordicai Gerstein, 1974.
The story opens with Jackie at her first day at her new school. The teacher introduces her as a boy. Jackie immediately corrects the teacher that she is, in fact, a girl which causes the whole class to laugh.
As the day proceeds, Jackie finds that the teacher only lets boys do certain activities and the children tease her for her looks. Jackie decides she might as well be a boy.
But even that doesn’t seem to work as the children still tease and the teacher tells her “it’s time you started acting like a nice little girl.”
Jackie excuses herself to the bathroom so she can take a breath and think, but then she is unsure which bathroom to go to. She tries the boys’ bathroom, one she knows she isn’t supposed to go in, and is then scared by the urinals. She runs to the girls’ bathroom feeling that everything is a mess.
Jackie is stuck knowing she can’t really be a boy, but she also can’t be the kind of girl her teacher wants. So she decides to pretend to be a boy and just do the things she wants to do. The week doesn’t go well and results in the teacher calling her parents for a meeting about the “problem with Jackie.”
Jackie is really upset that now she is in trouble. But her parents are gentle and take her for a walk to hear her side of the story. She relays all the struggles she has had and how everyone seems to hate her. Her parents are reassuring that new schools are hard and that they love Jackie just the way she is. They also are clear that her teacher has “silly ideas about what girls can and can’t do.”
Jackie returns to school feeling empowered to be the kind of girl she wants to be. And she ends up making a friend who isn’t all that she appears either. There’s a funny, somewhat odd ending, as Jackie and her friends make fun of the idea that appearance determines gender, even for the teacher!
What an absolutely fascinating book. I came across it as I’m a big fan of Levy and Gerstein’s picture book detective series and I’ve long been a fan of Gerstein’s illustrations. I wish this book wasn’t out of print as I think it adds such an interesting dimension to the current gender discussions in Western culture. It is a sharp criticism of the narrowly defined gender boxes Western culture inherited and still perpetuates from the Victorian era. Ironically, I think most people would assume our culture has progressed farther from gender stereotypes since the 70s, and yet especially with things like toys and clothes, the stereotypes seem to have only grown deeper with marketing and mindsets. Rather than openly define activities, interests and jobs as neutral; so many are still pigeon-holed into genders and make the confusion and questioning of identity for each individual go even deeper.
This book is a delightful and shocking read. While clearly didactic, it isn’t annoying. It is surprising, honest, tender, and comes at the issue from a very child-like perspective and solution with lots of input from the adults. I love it. And I love that it pushes readers to question why things are the way they are and what affect that has on people. I hope you enjoyed getting a look at it too.