Each month, we interview an Australian writer about feminism, writing and the connections between the two. This month, we speak to illustrator and children’s author Sophie Beer, whose book Love Makes A Family and series Pups are out now.
Photo: Kirsty Sycz
What does feminism mean to you?
Equality, but also with a recognition that sometimes that necessitates lifting up! The recognition that not everyone is born on equal footing is at once a compassionate and necessary revelation.
Was there a particular moment you can pinpoint that was crucial to the development of your perspective on feminism, and what it means to be a woman writer?
I grew up in a low-socio economic family but my mum, who was a primary school teacher, always impressed upon my brother, sisters and me the importance of compassion. Even if things were dire financially, and we may not have money for new school uniforms and excess trappings, she would always say to be thankful that we had what we did. I have brought that mindset forward in how I view the world, my feminism, and even my writing of children’s books! Empathy, compassion and thankfulness are beautiful vantage points from which to view the world.
How does your feminism come into play through your work in illustration?
I feel that it is pretty upfront in my work. Certainly, it informs nearly every picture I make. I take my role as an illustrator, someone who is paid to represent reality, very seriously. If the illustrations I’m creating aren’t diverse and celebratory, then I’ve failed that simple task. For example, my eight-year-old brother was really baffled by a picture book I illustrated in which the man was baking and the woman working in the garden. ‘You’ve made a mistake! He’s doing the girly job and she’s doing the manly job!’ he said. I explained to him that some men DO bake, and some women DO toil in the garden. Just because he hadn’t seen illustrations of people swapping those gendered roles before didn’t mean reality wasn’t really like that. And maybe, if enough people DID create illustrations like that, it wouldn’t seem so weird to him. Toppling the patriarchy one illustration at a time!
What considerations are there when writing and creating children’s books – and how receptive is the kids’ publishing landscape to progressive stories?
I’ve been very fortunate to partner with the amazing publisher Hardie Grant Egmont, who understand the need for progressive children’s books without question. They actually approached me with the idea of making a book about rainbow families, and of course I jumped at the chance! There is a real pivot towards diverse stories in YA and kids right now; it is a very exciting time to be in the field. With Love Makes a Family, the idea that each family is different is secondary to the act of love which is the centrepiece for each page. Whether it is finding a lost teddy or getting an ice cream, it doesn’t matter whether it is a two dads, or a mum and a dad, who are behind the act of love. Littlies are fortunate enough to come without social expectation, strictures and baggage, so I doubt it would be controversial to them!
How can we best communicate ideas of feminism and equality to young children?
Incidental inclusivity! Seeking out progressive books which communicate ideas about diversity and compassion without making too big a deal about it is key. We’re fortunate that publishers are now catering to progressive parents’ need to teach empathy and compassion early.
Which women or non-binary writers do you think everyone should read?
I’m going to recommend some kids books, because what else is there!
I adore Sara O’Leary, a beautiful writer whose books encompass diversity without making too much of a fuss over it.
Jessica Walton is an amazing kids’ author whose books and activism pivot around trans and disability awareness.
I’m a huge fan of Rachel Ignotofsky’s nonfiction books about notable women throughout history.
Lizzy Stewart makes gorgeous books with feisty, bold heroines! I am mad with love/jealousy over her latest Juniper Jupiter. Ditto with the O’Hara sisters.
And lastly, everyone everywhere always should read LM Montgomery. She is a lynchpin of compassion and burning, beautiful heroism.
What piece of writing advice would you give to your younger self?
Stop pretending you’re really into the big, sad, serious novels by small, sad, serious white men and have some FUN.