Living abroad, I often miss and feel nostalgic about Japanese traditions. In Japan, the 3rd of March is a special day for young girls. It’s called Hinamatsuri (loosely translated as ‘Girls’ Day’ or ‘Doll’s Day’). It’s a day to pray for the healthy growth of girls. (We have Children’s Day for boys on the 5th of May.)
I can still vividly remember my hina-ningyo dolls my grandmother got for me. My favourite part of the festival is opening the dusty boxes and carefully waking up my beautiful hina-ningyo dolls from a year-long slumber. Hina-ningyo, a set of ornamental dolls presented on special tiered platforms, is a centre piece of the festival, often passed down in the family. Those dolls represent the Emperor, Empress, attendants and musicians in traditional court kimono dress. They often come with miniature furniture and kitchen tools which are the empress’ dowry and trousseau so I believe hina-ningyo is associated with the wish for a happy marriage. (Families generally start to display the dolls in February and take them down immediately after the festival. Superstition says that leaving the dolls past 4th of March will result in a late marriage for the daughter!)
As much as I love my native traditions and customs, I can’t help wondering how relevant they are, especially the ones based on gender stereotypes, in this time when beliefs and gender and rapidly shifting. For example, girls get the marriage-promoting hina-ningyo dolls for Girls’ Day while boys get ornamental traditional military helmets and armours for Children’s Day. It’s just like ‘cars for boys and dolls for girls’ concept.
I don’t believe in the idea ‘blue for boys and pink for girls’. (A South Korean photographer JeongMee Yoon has been exploring this through her Pink & Blue Project, which is very fascinating.) There is no truth behind the pink vs blue concept. To me it’s a cunning cultural and commercial strategy to mould kids into something certain adults like them to be. So, I found it refreshing when my friend told me that her 3 year-old daughter Alice loves dinosaurs and toy trains.
Please don’t get me wrong. I equally adore girls who twirl and turn in pink ballet tutus (and I was one of them once). If a girl likes dressing up like a princess and playing with dolls, that’s totally fine as long as it comes from her heart and she is truly happy with who/how she is.
“I’m supposed to be made of sugar and spice and all things nice.
But I’m sweet and sour and not a little flower.
I am a girl! I am a girl! I am a girl!”
The girl in the book is proactive, fast, strong, loud and prefer a T-shirt and shorts – an ultimate tomboy. Unsurprisingly, she keeps getting mistaken as a boy and gets a bit annoyed so she has to keep telling people that ‘I’M A GIRL!’
The story has a lovely ending. The girl meets a boy who likes dressing up like a princess and playing with dolls. And together they discover how brilliant they are just as they are! I’m a Girl! is a wonderful celebration of accepting who we are and our strengths and our individuality and freedom from gender stereotypes.
And I love Yasmeen Ismail’s vibrant and colourful illustrations. In this book, they perfectly illustrate the bursting energy of the girl whom you can’t help falling love with. My favourite spread is the one the girl dives into a swimming pool, making a massive splash! It’s so dynamic. Ismail’s lively illustrations keeps this gender-political story fun and funny for young readers. This book provides a great opportunity for kids and parents to think the today’s tricky topic – gender.
As racial identities have become more diverse and gender identities more fluid than ever before, simple categorisation like ‘blue for boys and pink for girls’ is no longer applicable. This is a exciting time but also confusing. For example, National Geographic recently published an issue focusing on gender, featuring a transgender girl on the cover and it received all sorts of responses. Now the old ideas are challenged and even grown-ups are still figuring out and adjusting to the new ideas, so imagine how confusing it could be for children to finding who they are.
That’s why Ismail’s I’m a Girl is a big inspiration for my new picture book I’ve been working on (hoping to talk about it in near future 🙂 ). It’s not specifically on gender. It’s more about accepting who we are and being free from our obsession to categorise ourselves.
Lastly, I wonder what my hina-ningyo dolls would think of me now (mid-30s, unmarried and childless). Would they be disappointed? I hope not. If Hinamatsuri is to pray for girl’s healthy growth, well-being and happiness, I think they would be happy to know that I’m healthy, independent and I have good friends, dreams and aspirations. I’m pretty happy with who I am and that’s great!