children’s literature attacking stereotypes and in search of new images

Princesses to save, intrepid boys… many children’s books base their plots on clichés. At the Paris Book Festival, Talents Hauts fights to create new representations. A battle not without difficulty led by several publishing houses.

France Télévisions – Culture Editorial


Reading time: 5 min

The album "My name is Julie" by Laurier The Fox and Caroline Fournier features a queer family with a transgender little girl.  (WE ARE NOT COUNTING FOR BUTTER)

All-terrain tires, propellers, an exposed engine, a horn and a flashing light: this funny vehicle is nothing more or less than a princess’s carriage. Intended for children under four years old, the album My Carriage (Talents Hauts, 2022) features a young heroine who is not satisfied with the boat assigned to her. She then decides to adapt it to her desires.

Séverine Huguet, author and illustrator of the book, draws her sitting on the floor, crown on her head and adjustable wrench in her hand. The young girl is preparing for adventure: a princess like we rarely see in children’s literature.

From the album "My Carriage", written and illustrated by Séverine Huguet.  (HIGH TALENTS)

Created in 2005 to combat sexist clichés, the publishing house Talents Hauts mainly markets works intended for children and adolescents. Since 2021, it has offered a collection of cardboard and round-ended albums suitable for little ones. “In France, Talents Hauts is the only publishing house to publish books committed to combating sexism for children under three years old, explains Stépahnie Daniel, founder of the independent children’s bookstore Les livres qui sement. “It’s extremely valuable when we know that gender stereotypes are internalized by children before they are four years old,” she adds.

To offer new representations, Justine Haré, editor at Talents Hauts, explains that she uses several processes, including the trivialization of under-represented characters and the use of counter-stereotypes. This is particularly the case in the album My Doll by Annelise Heurtier and Maurèen Pavoinec, where a little boy has fun far from prejudice. The publishing house, present during the Book Festival, seeks to raise awareness among the public, particularly parents.

The album "My Doll" by Annelise Heurtier and Maurèen Pavoinec features a little boy who has fun without worrying about prejudice.  (HIGH TALENTS)

Despite the work of committed publishing houses like Talents Hauts, certain stories are still struggling to see the light of day. “There are subjects, notably LGBT subjects, which are difficult for us to approach in works intended for very young readers, and which we approach more during adolescence. analyzes Justine Haré. “We are sometimes accused of exploiting children,” she adds.

In the test Where are the LGBTQI+ characters in children’s literature? (Ed. We don’t count for butter, 2024), Sarah Ghelam and Spencer Robinson studies all children’s publications from 1977 to 2023. In total, fewer than 70 works contain LGBT characters.

Over a similar period, researcher Priscile Croce (Where are the anti-sexist youth albums?, Ed. We don’t count for butter, 2024), establishes a list of 200 works fighting against gender stereotypes. From 2010 to 2023, only 400 works featured at least one non-white child. (Where are the non-white children’s characters in children’s literature? Sarah Ghelam, Ed. We don’t count for butter, 2024).

Create the missing representations

“None of us ever dreamed of being a publisher, our dream was that these books existed.” At the end of 2020, Elsa Kedadouche and her partner Caroline Fournier decided to create their own publishing house.

“In the books our family almost does not exist, we proposed to several publishing houses stories with same-sex parent families but whose family was not the subject of the plot. Our projects were refused, so we decided to act”, explains Elsa Kedadouche.

To set up their structures, they set up an online prize pool, the amount of which quickly exceeded the objective. “When we saw the enthusiasm of certain people around our project, we understood that there was a real demand, a real need.”

Their publishing house On necompte pas pour du verre is now responsible for the publication of 16 albums which all feature characters under-represented in children’s literature. The two creators do not receive any profit from their work “We are completely volunteers, explains Elsa Kedadouche, It’s work that we do in our free time.”

The appearance of the characters at the heart of the refusals

In the world of children’s literature, many authors and illustrators seeking to create new representations face rejection from publishers. “An illustrator told me that she had been refused to feature a black character because her book did not talk about racism,” confides Elsa Kedadouche.

The author Emilie Chazerand explains that she was forced to give up a character of a little girl who was not thin because “she was refused everywhere.”

Extract of "As many families as there are stars in the sky" by Emilie de Chazerand and Clémence Sauvage.  (THE CITY BURNS)

“Publishers are very cautious, she analyzes, they prefer to offer a hundredth adaptation of the same story than to offer new images, because they find them too daring. But the books “bold” look like people, and people need books that look like them.” she adds.

Concerned about “uninhibit children”, Emilie Chazerand has just published in The City Burns the album As many families as there are stars in the sky. Illustrated by Clémence Sauvage, this documentary album shows families who do not correspond to the social norm. “We still have difficulty calling a mother and a single child a family, explains the author, the album represents this kind of family that we rarely talk about.”

Make these works visible

Every year several thousand children’s books are published in France. Albums which aim to offer new representations, because they remain few in number and are often published by small structures, thus easily pass under the radar. Faced with this observation, Stéphanie Daniel founded The books that sow, an online bookstore which aims to bring together committed children’s books, in order to make them more identifiable by parents.

“The idea is that the stories are both windows and mirrors, they must allow us to discover others and recognize ourselves,” she explains. “With children, books may be morning, noon and evening, if there are none at home, there are some at school, the issue is essential. Committed books exist , we must make them live.”

source site-32