Two new publishing houses for children’s books have sparked debate in gender-equal Sweden over their professed aim of instilling the country’s open-minded social values in the next generation.
“Our goal is for all people, regardless of gender, sexuality, ethnicity or other such things, to have the freedom to create their own identity and be respected for their personal qualities,” said Karin Salmson, the co-founder of the new Vilda publishing house.
But several critics are outraged, saying they are simply pushing propaganda disguised as literature.
Vilda and another small publisher, Olika, both opened their doors last year with the express aim of making children’s books that promote liberal values and challenge traditional views on gender, race and sexual orientation.
“Many parents feel forced to change he to she or she to he and other details as they read stories for their children, because so many details in children’s books are so very traditional,” Salmson said.
Vilda has therefore introduced a so-called “hug label”, guaranteeing that its books have been “scrutinized from a democracy, equality and diversity perspective” and contain no details “based on prejudice or traditional gender roles that rein in individual freedom”.
The publisher for instance makes sure girls are not always dressed in pink and boys in blue, that dad is not necessarily the one rushing off to work while mom stays home whipping up dinner and that same-sex parents are portrayed as a natural part of life.
Olika’s co-founder Marie Tomicic also says her publishing house aims to “break down traditional gender roles and offer children broader role models, allowing them to be all they can be.”
Together the two small publishers have so far only released about a dozen titles, including a book about a boy who wears pink sandals, and a story about a girl who likes to make farting sounds using her armpits, who just happens to have two dads.
The publishers’ philosophies are largely in line with ruling attitudes in the country, which is widely considered a world leader in gender equality and minority rights.
But critics have challenged their methods.
‘We are trying to break a pattern’
“For both Vilda and Olika, their values are the top priority … and I think that is simply the wrong approach when you want to make good children’s books,” says Lotta Olsson, a literary critic at Sweden’s paper of reference Dagens Nyheter.
If the whole aim of a story is to promote an idea and alter children’s behaviour and attitudes, the artistic and literary side of the book tends to suffer, she insists.
“You cannot write a book simply because you want it to be gender equal. You can however write a good book that is gender equal, but as soon as you can see the thought behind the book, I think the artistic side has failed,” she tells AFP.
Both Tomicic and Salmson, however, dismiss the criticism as “cultural elitism,” pointing out that they have received an overwhelmingly positive response from parents.
“It is perfectly possible to make good literature that takes these issues into consideration,” Tomicic says, pointing out that “we have good authors and illustrators and we insist there is a good story. That is absolutely the most important thing.”
One of Olika’s illustrators, Per Gustavsson, has publicly criticized the publisher’s request to change the colour of a girl’s T-shirt from its original pink in one book, while questions have been raised about the interest of portraying homosexual parents in another book when the fact is not important to the story line.
“We are trying to break a pattern,” Tomicic responds, insisting that it is important to show children that there are many natural alternatives to traditional ways of describing gender roles, including the colours girls and boys wear, and family structures.
Salmson agrees. “Portraying a gay family in a story that is not simply about gay families shows that these families exist too and are just as normal as other types of families.”
“I really can’t see how that can affect the quality of the story itself,” she says, adding however that “I guess there are people who really feel very threatened when you try to open up perceptions on sexuality and gender identity.”
Olsson rejects that notion, maintaining that the problem with the new publishing houses is their “prerequisite that they only take in authors with the same perspective. That affects their access to books in a way that just isn’t good.”
“I don’t think it works either,” she insists. “Children do as we do, not as we tell them to do. If you look around and see women being treated worse than men, it makes no difference that you’ve read a children’s book in which the mother goes to work and the father stays home with the kids.”
AFP’s Nina Larson