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Superheroes are Not Enough: An Interview with Dr. Rachel Kowert on Pragmatic Princess

Two of my three children are girls under the age of 8 and I am constantly frustrated by how seldom the stories that are marketed to them present them with female characters who are capable, assertive, or wise. More often than not, the answer to their problems comes from other characters, adults, or a super-power they possess rather than their own ingenuity or thoughtfulness. So when I heard that Dr. Rachel Kowert was Kickstarting a book project called Pragmatic Princess, a compilation of short stories about normal girls solving their own problems, I immediately wanted to learn more.

For many years, as a church-goer, I have often fallen into the trap of thinking that self-sufficiency is anti-gospel. Then I became a father. The number of times each day that my three children ask (demand) me to do something for them or help them with something are too numerous to count. These days, the idea of self-sufficiency is very much something I want deeply instilled in them. I certainly believe that the good news about Jesus is a message about grace. We can’t fix everything that’s wrong with us and wrong with the world, but thankfully God is merciful and good and rescues and renews us where we have failed. My children, like me, need grace, but that should never be taken to mean that they must always look outside themselves for the answers to their problems.

We’ve had Dr. Kowert on Humans of Gaming before and her book, A Parent’s Guide to Video Games, is probably the most helpful book I’ve read in terms of helping parents navigate the world of video games. As a research psychologist and a parent of a daughter, Dr. Kowert is well-versed in the power of story and has a personal interest in how that power impacts her child. So I recently had the privilege of chatting with Dr. Kowert about why stories of self-sufficiency are so valuable for young girls as well as why our kids need stories about normal kids in addition all the super hero stories they read and consume.

You can listen to the audio of the entirety of my conversation with Dr. Kowert or read the transcript of the interview here:

Drew: So you’ve been busy with a new project. Tell us about Pragmatic Princess.

Dr. Kowert: Pragmatic Princess: 26 Superb Stories of Self-Sufficiency is an A-Z compilation of 26 short stories (112 pages!) about self-reliance designed for children aged 3 to 8+. It is a story book breaking the mold of story books portraying girls as self-reliant individuals—which we don’t often see in the books that we have. You have girls, you know how it is.

Drew: Yes I do! And I often just feel defeated when it comes to so much of the media that is aimed at and marketed to young girls. So your project immediately struck a chord with me.

Dr. Kowert: Exactly and I often try to tailor what my daughter reads. We maintain a lot of control over what we read to her, and yet many of the books just make me sad. I want a story where a girl solves her problems and she doesn’t have to be a superhero to do it. Why is that not a thing that we have everywhere?

I bought 300 children’s books for like $50. And so I was working my way through them and they were just all so bad. I think I got to like number 85 and I was like that’s it. I can’t take it anymore.

Drew: This project feels like a bit of a jump for you because you’ve primarily been studying and writing about video games as a research psychologist. What made you want to kickstart a children’s book?

Dr. Kowert: It is definitely a tangent for me, but this book is a passion project, a labor of love. Last year around August or September, I hit a breaking point with the nightly bedtime stories. I was really frustrated and I contacted my friend Lizzie Huxley-Jones who is one of the founders of 3 of Cups Press, a micropress in the UK. She had done several Kickstarters before with edited books. I told her I have this idea for a children’s book about girls who solve their own problems, where there is no knight in shining armor. I told her, “You understand the world of publishing, you should put together a book like this and publish it.” She said, “We don’t really do children’s publications but you should write this.” I laughed because I don’t write fiction. I write science and research-based books. But Lizzie encouraged me to think about the characters and give it a shot. So I got the idea of making it an A to Z compilation and making it rhyme because that seemed like fun and I ended up writing 26 short stories in less than a month. I think the stories were inside of me and Lizzie brought them out.

Drew: I am curious, was there a story that broke the camel’s back that you read with your daughter that made you want to do this?

Dr. Kowert: I live in Ottawa now, but before I lived in Houston. While I was still living in Texas, I went to this garage sale at a retired teacher’s house where I bought 300 children’s books for like $50. And so I was working my way through them and they were just all so bad. I think I got to like number 85 and I was like that’s it. I can’t take it anymore. Why are these books all so bad!?

And of course there are some exceptions. There are some great children’s stories out there but the ratio is off. 

… the books our kids are reading are not reflecting the world that they live in.

Drew: You have done some research on the subject of representation, right? What kind of impact do stories where women are damsels in distress have on girls? 

Dr. Kowert: The characters in story books, movies, and television, in psychology, we call them symbolic models. There are two kinds of modeling that happen in your child’s life. There are live models which are like you, your parents, and friends. And symbolic models would be fictional characters. Both of these models have long lasting impact on our development, particularly during childhood. They are models for our social, intellectual, emotional, and moral development. So if our children are not seeing models that reflect independence or self-confidence or initiative taking, that’s a problem. So if we are talking specifically about females specifically, it’s usually the boys [in stories] that take the initiative and are persistent whereas the girls are more focused on kindness and being empathetic. And of course qualities like kindness and empathy are important but if they are not seeing more robust models, then they are less likely to see independence and self-confidence as attributes that are valuable and will serve them later in their lives. Which is definitely not true—we want our girls to be self-sufficient and self-reliant and to have the confidence to face problems.

Drew: When you contacted me about this project, you said this was 0% nerdy because the characters in your book are not superheroes (I actually disagree in the sense that I think this project is quite nerdy). They are normal, ordinary, “real” girls, right? Why was that important to you?

Dr. Kowert: I love Captain Marvel and Wonder Woman and I am glad that they exist for my children. But when it comes to symbolic modeling, again it’s about being able to relate to the character. And we are not all half-alien like Captain Marvel. It’s hard to relate to superheroes in everyday life. When it comes to modeling, you are far more likely to adopt behaviors and attitudes if the model is similar to who you are in terms of how they look or their age or their gender. It’s not just that the characters in Pragmatic Princess are not superheroes and are everyday people, there are 26 different lead characters and they run the gamut of ethnicities, abilities and disabilities. There are characters that are the new kid at school, there are characters from non-traditional families, children being raised by grandparents, single parents, etc. All of these things that we don’t often see. Just this week there was an article from the Guardian that looked at the Nielson book scan data from 2018 and they looked at the top 100 picture books. 1 in 5 had a black, Asian, or ethnic minority character, only 2 of the 100 had that character in a central role, and only 7 of the 100 gave that character a name. It’s like, “What!? This is 2019!?” 1 in 5 had no female characters at all. Only 1 of the 100 books had a disabled character but even then that character did not have a speaking role. 

Drew: That’s interesting because I think we assume that the landscape for things like that is a lot better now than it was 20 or 30 years ago but based on this data, that’s obviously not a fair assumption. 

Dr. Kowert: Yeah the books our kids are reading are not reflecting the world that they live in. You  mentioned superhero movies and I do think those are getting better. Movies and televisions are growing more representative of our world, but children’s literature has fallen behind for some reason. 

Drew: Here is where I think this is really important for our audience at Love Thy Nerd because it’s made up of people who want to share nerdy things like Marvel and Star Wars movies with their kids. But what you are doing is filling a needed gap by giving us tangible examples of “real” young female characters we can look up to and emulate. So you aren’t saying, “Don’t enjoy Star Wars and Marvel movies but rather supplement them with more real and more tangible examples of young women solving their own problems. 

Dr. Kowert: My daughter LOVES Star Wars and Rey is a great role model but it’s not one that she can particularly relate to. 

Drew: I also think there is some real, practical helpfulness to this project that most any parent can appreciate because one of the things we constantly notice from our kids is how much they need our help. And if we are honest, this drives us [parents] nuts sometimes. Sometimes it feels nice to be needed by your children, but a lot of times we think, “Gosh I wish they would learn to put on their shoes by themselves!” Like it’s a really beautiful moment in the life of a parent when their child learns to buckle their own seatbelt!

Dr. Kowert: Exactly. And how I kind of like to describe [Pragmatic Princess] sometimes is that it is like a modern Berenstain Bears. I loved the Berenstain Bears as a kid and Pragmatic Princess is about the same topics—it’s about fear of failure, fear of missing out, social anxiety, social exclusion—real scenarios that your children will experience with real modeling about how to navigate those experiences. It will definitely help the parents to supplement what we are trying to teach them about things like bullying, gossip, and constructive criticism and all these things they encounter when they are off on their own in the elementary school years. 

Drew: It sounds like it has the potential to help parents start some important conversations with their kids. I am discovering that things like bullying are things I didn’t think I would have to talk to my kids about as early as I actually need to. 

What would you say to a parent who doesn’t know where to get started or maybe doesn’t even really think about the kinds of stories they read to their kids. What do we stand to lose if we don’t give careful thought to the kinds of stories we read to our children?

Dr. Kowert: You stand to lose the opportunity to provide them with this information that is going to help them on their way to independence. Without these kinds of stories, all they are learning are the lessons you are giving them and what is being modeled for them in the Barbie movies from the library. It’s a missed opportunity. In the end you want your kids, especially your girls, to know that they can be persistent and they can creatively solve problems and they don’t need a superpower and they don’t need Ken dolls to ride in on horses. They can do it all on their own. Without being explicitly told that, that is not what’s being modeled in the other media they are consuming. 

Drew: And there is a huge deficit among young girls. I don’t think they are hearing the message, “You are capable.” And they need that, we all need that. In fact, that is a message my wife has on a placard above our dinner table.

Dr. Kowert: And it’s a simple message but it’s so powerful.

You can back Pragmatic Princess on Kickstarter now and read more about the project on the book’s website.

Pragmatic Princess: 26 Superb Stories of Self-Sufficiency is an A-Z compilation of 26 short stories (112 pages!) about self-reliance designed for children aged 3 to 8+. Pragmatic Princess changes the narrative away from female characters needing help from a male companion or superpowers and towards one of self-sufficiency.

The fictional characters in childhood stories are some of our earliest teachers. We learn a range of things through the observation of these symbolic models, such as what is right and wrong, a desirable and undesirable behavior, gender roles, norms, stereotypes, and more. The role of models is particularly influential in childhood as it can have a long lasting impact on intellectual, social, emotional, and moral development. This is why it is critical to have stories that move beyond the belief that female characters are best suited as damsels in distress or need superpowers to be successful. Pragmatic Princess is not just changing the narrative, it’s doing so with the power of science behind it!


Systematic by Lee Rosevere. Used under Creative Commons 4.0

Executive Editor at Penguin Random House. Author of Know Thy Gamer: A Parent's Guide to Video Games and founder of Love Thy Nerd.

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