When Natalie Portman gave birth to her daughter, she instantly noticed the difference between the types of books that friends were giving her and the ones she had received when she had her son. Where his books were stories of all kinds, the baby books for her daughter were about feminism, from strong women to feminist infants. If it was intended to be empowering, it had the opposite effect for Portman.
“It felt sad to explain to a small child that girls and women have so many obstacles or why they are treated differently, before they’ve even started experiencing the world,” the actress, producer, and director wrote in a letter that accompanies advance copies of her new book, Natalie Portman’s Fables (Feiwel and Friends, Oct.).
As Portman tried to expand her reading list beyond the books she was given and introduce her daughter to fables, she realized that most of her favorite ones had protagonists who were male, and that the practice of defaulting to male pronouns was something she did in the real world, too. Steadily, she began changing the pronouns to she/her/hers as she read aloud to her daughter, which ultimately led to Natalie Portman’s Fables.
Illustrated by Janna Mattia, the book is a retelling of three classic stories: “The Tortoise and the Hare,” “The Three Little Pigs,” and “Country Mouse and City Mouse.” In her letter, Portman says, “Storytelling is how we start practicing empathy—we feel for characters in stories as we might for ourselves or our own friends. If the entry point to empathy coincides with all-male narratives, the idea is reinforced in both boys and girls that they must be conscious primarily of male feelings.”
At BookExpo’s Children’s Books & Author Dinner, the author will share her thoughts on how to shift the perspective in children’s literature, one story at a time. “These classic tales have great messages… and are great ways to give a view of our animal kingdom that isn’t skewed. The stories give kids the morals we’ve always liked to pass down from generation to generation, but are ‘gender-safe,’” she writes, “so we’re not telling any of our children that boys’ inner lives are more valuable to imagine than those of girls.”
Thursday, May 28, 5:30–7 p.m. Natalie Portman is a panelist at the Children’s Book & Author Dinner, live online at facebook.com/bookexpo.