One of the most important tasks assigned to us as parents is to guide our kids towards useful role models. Amazing Babes started life as a one-off picture book written by Eliza Sarlos for her newborn son as she searched for ways to introduce her child to some of the women she most admired. Eliza gathered information about ten powerful women and told their stories in simple terms as a celebration of the sheer scope of what a person is capable of achieving in life. As the project developed, illustrator Grace Lee was brought on board and the published book now includes 21 incredible women, from artist Frida Kahlo to anarchist Emma Goldman. Some are household names; while some will be fascinating discoveries. Each of these women has overcome unimaginable obstacles, fought for their beliefs, instigated social change or created objects of beauty. If you can’t find a role model worth pursuing in this group of gals, you’re not paying attention.
Inspiring our children through books and babes
There are many things I love about Amazing Babes. Firstly, the title. This has been somewhat controversial, because many associate the word ‘babes’ with the objectification of women. I, however, think this book deftly reclaims that term for the sisterhood! Why shouldn’t a ‘babe’ be someone we admire for her passion or her incredible mind? All my best friends are babes, no matter what they look like – and they affectionately refer to each other as babes, too. This choice of title also makes the book a whole lot more accessible and asks us to look at these women as human beings, rather than as historical documents. Forget your dusty tomes with titles like “21 notable women from history”; this book makes it OK to say that Miles Franklin or Edith Cowan were totally rocking babes for what they achieved. Youngsters like Malala Yousafzai and Tavi Gevinson are still rocking; rocking boats, rocking our expectations and rocking the powers that be into submission.
The babes included here span cultures and generations. There is no simple definition of what makes a ‘babe’ and the book does not imply this is a definitive list. The stories of these women are invariably complicated, but Amazing Babes manages to simplify their journeys into easily digestible passages which leave the door open to future research if and when the time is right. The book is subtitled ‘a picture book for kids and adults’ and is cleverly written to appeal to any age.
As I grow…. I want the compassion of Mum Shirl…I want to break the rules like Elizabeth Garret Anderson…I want the conviction of Shami Chakrabarti….I want the curiosity of Hedy Lamarr…
I note the use of ‘as I grow’ rather than ‘grow up’ in the text, suggesting we are all in a constant state of change and development, and it’s never too late to look to women like these as reminders that life is full of incredible possibilities. This book would make a terrific 21st birthday gift or special memento for a helpful friend, as much as it should find a place in every school library. Grace Lee’s illustrations bring these babes to life alongside symbols of their achievements (books, scales of justice, floral emblems) making it a colourful, accessible picture book packed with opportunities for education and inspiration.
I believe the subtext of the books we share with our kids is significant to their future moral development. Any girl who’s ever dreamt of meeting Prince Charming will agree! So, if you are a little princess-weary, or you’d like to expose your loved ones to a wider range of possible futures, Amazing Babes is the book for you!
Now, if I haven’t already convinced you to put this one on your Christmas list, I’ll hand you over to the author and illustrator for a spot of Q & A. I was lucky enough to interview Eliza Sarlos and Grace Lee about their ambitious project and here’s what they had to say….
Eliza Sarlos and Grace Lee talk about Amazing Babes
TCM: It must have been quite a challenge to choose a ‘short list’ from all the great women in history. How did you choose your ‘babes’?
ES: The project started as something I did for my son for his birthday, and because it was such a personal thing, with such a small audience, I picked out the women who had been important to me, who had really shaped how I viewed the world. So at that first stage it was equal parts easy and impossible, just because how do you create a top ten list of the women who have been important to you? It took me forever.
When it came to revising and growing the list for a wider audience I found it even more difficult – I wanted to make sure there was a good spread of women because, while I could create infinite versions of Amazing Babes, I was conscious that this would be the version and I wanted it to introduce kids to the idea that women were capable of doing incredible things in every aspect of life, from all across the world, and across generations. The end result is something I’m really happy with – 21 women who have changed the world, in their own way.
While I’m happy with where we got to with the list, I really hope that the book is seen as a conversation starter, rather than a definitive list. The women in these pages are just a suggestion – women who have been important to me, but also women that have changed their worlds, and our worlds, for the better. We’d love for everyone that reads the book to start their own list.
TCM: All of these women were undoubtedly brave ground breakers, but some of them have represented controversial or divisive issues, or had controversial private lives. Did you worry about the stories children might encounter if they dug deeper into the backgrounds of these babes?
ES: It’s so rare that you find someone who is perfect across all aspects of life, and I think this is true of our role models too – each of these women are three-dimensional, there’s more to them than just one narrative, and I think that’s exactly how they should be.
The book offers a little insight into each woman, in the hope that kids will dig deeper and find out more about each of them. While some of the issues are complex, it’s great to be introducing our kids to tough ideas that they’ll have to grapple with as they get older. In some ways it’s what I’d call the Harry Potter approach – kids tend to understand as much as they’re ready to understand. There are great points to take away from the lives of these women at different stages and I hope that kids will keep coming back to their stories and continue to learn about the lives they’ve lived as they grow, and form their own opinions as they do.
TCM: I personally like the reclaiming/reappropriation of the word ‘babes’, but I imagine some people may question it. Why did you decide to use the word ‘babes’?
ES: This has been tough because I totally get why people question using the word, but ultimately it’s meant to be endearing and not demeaning.
I think the word “babes” has evolved, so that common usage is moving towards a repurposing of the word – a lot of the people I know call someone a babe not to describe how they look, but as an affectionate term for someone who has done something great, and is someone great. I really like how the word is being used, and like that it is in the process of leaving behind that aspect of objectification it’s been attached to for so long.
I also didn’t want a title that was too didactic, but still spoke to what the book is a bit. I think “Amazing Babes” is great because it’s a fun, playful way of introducing the idea of the book quickly – something that “Amazing Women” just doesn’t carry too well.
And lastly, this book was written for the ultimate babe in my life – my son, for his first birthday! I really like that the title of Amazing Babes is about the reader, as much as the subject.
TCM: Have you sent the book to any of the babes who are still alive? Will you? What sort of feedback would you expect?
ES: I foisted a copy upon Tavi on her recent trip, and I’ve heard from a couple of people that she loves it, which is such a thrill for me. Apart from that, we’re trying to get the book into the hands of the other women in its pages, and I so hope that we succeed even though I’m completely nervous about the prospect. I hope they like the project – I’m sure some of them would be horrified at being called “babes” but I hope they get the place that it’s coming from and are on board with what we’re trying to do. And I know they’ll love Grace’s drawings, because how could you not?
TCM: Grace, how did you decide on the images you chose to recreate of these women? I notice in some case you’ve opted for an iconic image (like Frida Kahlo) – for others, it must have been hard to know at what age to capture them?
GL: I had a lot of support and freedom with the images. Eliza sent through suggestions for each woman, with her blessing for me to draw as I wanted. It was so exciting to get the first batch of women because they all had incredible qualities, but also really interesting features which were lovely to draw. Later when we were working on the Scribe edition, Miriam, our Art Director gave some great input and I’m so happy I went back and tweaked a few of the images. I actually drew Frida Kahlo differently, (to purposely avoid using an iconic image) but Miriam suggested that we go more towards the ‘iconic’ Frida to better capture her spirit and the essence of her. Because I didn’t know a lot of the women in the book, I tried to read about them first, and then looked at the images after. I chose the images I felt best communicated my understanding of them.
In terms of choosing what age to capture them at, this wasn’t so problematic, but I did have to think about it for Irena Sendler. Even though it may have been better to capture her younger, I purposely drew her older, because I loved all those beautiful lines on her face. I felt like all those lines told a story…and she has the most adorable, smile.
TCM: Was it difficult to find photos or likenesses of any of these babes on which to base your art?
GL: A little, yes. In some cases (Mum Shirl, for example) there weren’t many options to choose from and some of the images I found for other woman were also quite old, so it was a tiny bit tricky to get the details of the face. But overall I didn’t have that many problems with this- thank you internet! The main concern I had was that I wanted the images to resemble the women, but not look exactly like them. So I tried to get lots of references and took snippets of different features and outfits, and then put them all together.
Amazing Babes is published by Scribe and released in Australia from November 2013. RRP $24.95.
There is also an Amazing Babes website if you’d like to learn more or read excerpts.
I thank the publisher kindly for my review copy.