“I’ve often said that I didn’t think of myself as a feminist until I had my daughter in 2013,” Suzanne Hemming admits. “I think I thought men and women were pretty much equal, that the feminists before us had sorted it all out…”
It’s a standpoint today’s Hemming is horrified by – she was, she says now, going through the world with her eyes closed. What sets her impressively apart, however, is that when she realised her daughter was being brought up in a world that was still inherently biased, she set about creating change.
Having stepped back from her career in film and TV production to raise Thea, she turned pen to paper, writing her own children’s book focused on gender equality. Three years on, with her third kids’ tale due to be published by her own award-winning publishing firm Thea Chops Books, she sits down with The Flock to discuss the importance of modernising the messages we feed our children…
You say your outlook changed when you had Thea in 2013. Tell us a little bit about that, and why you ended up writing the first book…
For Thea’s first Christmas, we got some old-fashioned fairy tales for her, and I read them with adult eyes: princesses only caring about being kind and pretty, waiting for a prince to come along and declare undying love. Ariel, literally giving up her voice for a man who doesn’t know she exists. Sleeping Beauty being kissed, while she’s asleep, and thus unable to consent. It made me start looking at adverts on TV and toys in shops differently – the heavily segregated pink and blue, the obviously different language aimed at each gender, with words like sparkle, magic, and hair used to target girls while adverts aimed at boys use power, adventure, control.
The more I read about gender stereotypes, the more I learned about the gender pay gap, the 54,000 women a year forced out of work due to maternity discrimination, the two women a week who will be killed by violent male partners, the 84 men a week who take their own lives, unable to talk about how they feel having spent a lifetime being told to ‘man up’…
These stereotypes affect us all. We think we’re immune but the messages are everywhere, telling us and our children what we should like, do, wear, play with and study. I figured I could carry on reading about inequality and being quietly horrified, or I could decide to try and be part of making a change, for my daughter and for her generation, both male and female. I opted for change, and began writing.
Why do you think offering an alternative to that traditional narrative at such a young age is so important?
Because I believe it really matters. Whether you are born a boy or girl massively impacts on your opportunities and challenges in life. People will treat you so very differently when they see male or female – not because we’re a world full of people who want to judge others, but simply because it’s how we’ve been programmed over centuries and centuries of conditioning.
Once I started to learn more about how your gender affects your life, I began to see how colour, sexual orientation and disability is viewed in the world. That term ‘woke’ is so apt – I really do feel like I woke up and opened my eyes. They’re still not wide open, but I’m learning everyday, and if I’m only just waking up, so must lots of other people, lots of parents, getting ready to raise the next generation.
Reports have shown that even modern-day children’s books are dominated by male characters and have very little diversity. I wanted to help be part of a change, and hopefully make a difference to how the next generation view each other.
Tell us a little about the books you’ve published so far and what’s coming next…
My first book, She’s Not Good for a Girl, She’s Just Good! was focused on classic equality issues, boys v girls, using sport as a method to highlight that kids are actually the same. Frank thinks girls are rubbish at sport (it’s just what he heard from his dad), but Florence knows that’s rubbish, and challenges him to a competition.
Next came The Queen Engineer, in which Florence is now a princess who loves maths and science, but whose father, the King, wants her to grow up to be Queen. Flo persuades him that we can all wear many hats in life, and that being ourselves is the very best way to truly be happy. It includes messages of inclusivity and acceptance, as well as encouraging people to see girls can enjoy STEM subjects.
Next up, I’m tackling toxic masculinity. Can Frank teach his dad Hank that saying “man up” and telling him not to “cry like a girl” or “run like a girl” is damaging for both boys and girls?
What has the public reaction been to the books?
The reaction has been wonderful, and so many people who’ve bought the books buy more for family and friends. Both books have won awards, and when I lost my mojo a bit last year, people were massively supportive and very keen that I keep writing.
These messages about equality are still so important, and though there are many books that tell us about amazing women now, people seem to love that mine are stories that allow parents and carers to start conversations with their children about equality and inclusivity.
In the wake of BLM and amid ongoing global protest, do you think people are paying more attention to the messaging they feed their children?
I do. I think more and more people are thinking about what they say and teach their children. In fact, I think a lot of people are busy educating themselves, as so many of us living with white privilege have been unaware of what it’s like to live in this world if you’re not white. Lynsey Pollard over at Little Box of Books is doing so much to make a difference on this. She teamed up with Rochelle Humes and together they raised over £57,000 to buy more inclusive books for UK schools. Their hashtag #changethestory really sums up how we need to make changes in children’s literature, to teach our younger generations about equality and acceptance.
What changes do you think we still need to see to ensure the next generation is raised with equality as their norm?
It’s all about education. Everyone who plays a part in educating our children can help shape their minds to believe in equality. I did a school reading and talk once, and the teacher told me afterwards that she’d never thought about the fact she still used words like, policeman or fireman in class.
Small changes in language like that will help to change the message. Also, actively teaching children about equality will help create a generation that believes they are all equal to each other.
I know some people think that subjects such as equality, acceptance or racism shouldn’t be discussed with young children. One person left a review of my first book saying she didn’t want to read it to her young son because he currently thinks boys and girls are the same, and reading it would teach him otherwise (she also said that she didn’t know what to do with the book as she didn’t even think it should be given to a charity shop, but let’s not dwell on that!). But children, from a very young age, internalise messages about how society views them and expects them to behave. These gender norms are already beginning to establish themselves in the minds of five, six and seven year olds, so it’s the perfect age to challenge outdated thinking, change the message, and actively encourage boys and girls to think about equality.
What’s next for the company and how would you like to see it grow?
Oh gosh, that question triggers my imposter syndrome – my immediate reaction is to say I don’t have a ten-year business plan and wonder what I’m doing here! In short, I’d like to keep writing. I think we can create change if we start at a young age, so I want to write more stories that show children, no matter male, female, black, white, straight, gay, are important in the world – they can take up space, they have a voice, they matter. If my books reach more children, get on more schools’ bookshelves and encourage more conversations about equality and inclusivity, well, that would be an amazing thing.
For more information, or to buy Thea Chops Books’ collection of equality-themed children’s stories, visit the website here.