Liberating young children

 Non-sexist and multiracial children’s books from France and the US in the 1970s

Between early September and mid-October 2017, visitors to the central library in Tours (Loire Valley, France) were greeted in the entrance hall by sets of wooden shelving containing a selection of militant, non-sexist and multiracial children’s books from the 1970s. They were invited to make themselves comfortable on some comfy chairs and plastic stools, and browse through the books. The idea was to recreate a children’s library from the ‘70s, in order to take the reader on a journey back in time to an era of protest and consciousness raising, when feminist publishing collectives held the firm belief that children’s books needed to change, in order to help change the world.

This project developed out of Kim Dhillon’s We Tell Ourselves Stories in Order to Live (2017), a mixed-media installation commissioned in 2017 by the Centre for Contemporary Art, Glasgow. Dhillon’s work explores the legacy of DIY, feminist collectives in the US publishing children’s literature in the 1970s, focusing on the work of two of the leading presses in this movement: the Lollipop Power collective and the Feminist Press. The installation in France was a collaboration between Kim Dhillon and Andrea Francke of ‘Invisible Spaces of Parenthood’, the Children’s section of the municipal library in Tours and the research project ‘The Children’s ‘68/ Le ’68 des enfants’.

The aim of the installation in France was to bring this selection of American children’s books into dialogue with books produced by similar French groups. The French militant publishing scene that mushroomed in the 1970s was represented in the main by: the avant-garde Franco-American partnership Harlin Quist Books; the Paris-based radical publishing collective ‘Le Sourire qui mord’; and the ‘du côté des petites filles’ imprint, published by éditions des femmes, which was part of the French Women’s Liberation Movement. By juxtaposing these two movements, and exploring their similarities and differences, we interrogated the ways in which books are defined as ‘radical’ shifts in time, place, and context, and thought about what we understand to be radical children’s literature today, and what we might want it to be.

Included in the installation were:

A selection of books published by the Lollipop Power collective. To challenge gender stereotyping in children’s books, they wrote about themes such as women carrying out work not typical to gender stereotypes, the experiences of immigrant children, and alternative family structures. They produced the first children’s picturebooks to represent lesbian parents (Lots of Mommies (1983); When Megan Went Away (1979), both by Jane Severance).

The works of the French collective Sourire qui Mord, including one of the best-known anti-sexist picturebooks produced in France: Histoire de Julie qui avait une ombre de garçon, written by Christian Bruel and Anne Galland, with illustrations by Anne Bozellec (1976). You can find out more about the book in our blog post here.

A selection of the titles produced by éditions des femmes ‘du côté des petites filles’ imprint, including the famous Rose Bombonne by Adela Turin and Nella Bosnia from 1975, the first second wave feminist children’s picturebook to be published in France, and Les Filles (1976), Agnès Rosenstiehl’s wry take on gender difference.

Agnès Rosenstiehl, ‘Les Filles’ (Paris, éditions des femmes, 1976)

The installation also included two original artworks produced by Dhillon and Francke’s Invisible Spaces of Parenthood as part of their ongoing research:

Coleen the Question Girl (2016) by the distinguished sociologist Arlie Hochschild. The first edition was published in 1973 by the Feminist Press, and was illustrated with black and white photomontages by Gail Ashby. The installation includes the 2016 edition, revisited by Hochschild in collaboration with Invisible Spaces of Parenthood, and with new, full-colour illustrations by Rhiannon Williams. Kim Dhillon has written about this project on our blog here.

‘We tell ourselves stories in order to live fanzine’ (2017), by Kim Dhillon and Andrea Francke. Courtesy of the artists.

We tell ourselves stories in order to live fanzine (2017), Kim Dhillon and Andrea Francke. Produced in the DIY spirit of the feminist collectives, the fanzine uses quotations from Dhillon’s interviews with some of the Lollipop Power collective’s founder-members, and extracts from their catalogues and books, to pay homage to the energy of the ’70s feminist publishing scene.

Associated events

23 September 2017: Sophie Heywood and Cécile Boulaire from The Children’s ’68 project delivered a public talk at the library, based around the installation.

13 October 2017: The artist Andrea Francke of Invisible Spaces of Parenthood spoke about their work and the English-language books in the installation as part of The Children’s ’68 conference.

For more information contact: Sophie Heywood

Featured image: Kim Dhillon, We Tell Ourselves Stories in Order to Live, 2017, Commissioned by CCA, Glasgow. Courtesy of the artist.

Photographs of the exhibition taken by Cécile Boulaire.