It all started with my son, Will, stamping his feet and saying he didn't want any girls invited to his sixth birthday party. Girls, he declared, are boring. At the same time I noticed my daughter, Vera, who is three, carrying a handbag and lip gloss.
Children know what they are supposed to like from an early age. For girls, it's princesses, ballet, fairies, parties. For boys, it's adventure, space travel, fire engines, pirates. But the older they get, the harder it is to resist the pink-and-blue divide.
Can books redress the balance? We often read Captain Pugwash and Asterix -- but there are no girls in those stories. I was happy with Babar until Celeste became pregnant with triplets and never came out of the nursery again. In Peepo, the mother is always ironing. Of course, there are some successes for both boys and girls. Ludwig Bemelmans' Madeline is a wonderful tale of convent girl derring-do, with lots of boy characters, too. Julia Donaldson's books are great fun, but not exactly politically inspiring. There are now books for three to eight-year-olds with a specifically feminist agenda: Call me Madame President, Girls Think of Everything, Girls Will Be Boys Will Be Girls.
Feminist author Natasha Walter is intrigued but cautious: "My mother wouldn't buy me Enid Blyton because she said her books were too racist and sexist.But I don't think you need to read in a feminist way to become a feminist."
Five on the shelf
Pippi Longstocking by Astrid Lindgren
Pippi's mother dies on the first page and her father is lost at sea. But left to her own, Pippi goes on adventures, tells tall stories and is superhumanly strong.Utterly magical.
Girls are not chicks by Jacinta Bunnell and Julie Novak
Some of the pictures and captions are funny. A woman riding a tractor: "Who says girls don't like to play in the dirt?" Two ballerinas dancing: "No one wants to fight the patriarchy alone. Make friends." But I'm not sure whether the messages are really for the amusement of children, or adults. One caption reads: "When she stopped chasing the dangling carrot of conventional femininity, she was finally able to savour being a woman." Try explaining that to a three-year-old.
Princess Smartypants by Babette Cole
Princess Smartypants did not want to get married. She enjoyed being a Ms Princess Smartypants, keep giant slugs as pets and challenge her geeky prince suitors to roller-disco marathons. When one of them finally wins her over, she kisses him, intentionally turning him into a toad.
When the other princes hear what happened to Prince Swashbuckle, none of them want to marry Smartypants.So she lives happily ever after.
The Pirate girl by Cornelia Funke
Molly is in her boat, sailing off on holiday to her granny's, when she is kidnapped by Captain Firebeard and his vicious band of pirates. But they chose the wrong girl.
Molly's mother is Barbarous Bertha and when she comes to rescue her daughter she brings her own ferocious crew. At the end, they are forced to polish Barbarous Bertha's boots 14 times a week.
Adventure Annie goes to work by Toni Buzzeo
Adventure Annie dresses up every Saturday in her superhero costume and has adventures with her mother.
But this Saturday her mother is called into work because an important document has gone missing.
It's up to Adventure Annie to save the day and locate the folder under a pot plant.