I originally made up the story which became The Squirrel’s Tail to cheer up my daughter when she was going through surgery as a toddler. But when I decided to turn it into a book, I automatically fell back on all the old gender stereotypes: the caring mum, the absent father and the naughty little boy. It was only missing a pink princess as well!
Bold brave girls and strong men only please!
The first draft featured a bouncy little squirrel called Cyril who rampaged through the forest and a meek mum who asked Owl for advice before knitting a new tail. The father was totally absent. That just felt like a natural way to tell the story of a squirrel that loses its tail and a caring parent that fixes it. If you think about Disney films, heroines such as Elsa in Frozen and Merida in Brave, and even Rapunsel, have now become strong, brave and powerful characters. That is a very welcome change from the past. But the male role models are still stuck in a much more traditional kind of masculinity based essentially on strength and courage or being a mischief. Caring fathers and other men are unrecognised and largely invisible in books and films for children.
Pointing out my gender stereotypes...
It was only when I got some brilliant feedback during a school reading that I realised what I was doing wrong. If the story was inspired by my own experience with my daughter, a teaching assistant asked, why was it now about a mother and son?
That's when it hit me! My book was about my brave and determined daughter who refused to get disheartened, despite being in a full body cast. But it was also about me and my feelings of powerlessness, when I was desperate to find a way of fixing all her problems. I feel so grateful to that teaching assistant (you know who you are) for helping me realise this.
Telling my story as a dad to a daughter
So that is why the published version of The Squirrel’s Tail tells the story of a girl squirrel with a caring dad, and we don’t even get to see the mother. (When I have read it in schools, children have offered a range of theories about this, one even suggesting that she had been eaten by a wolf!) It seemed much more honest and true to what I had gone through - and it is also an aspect of the book many readers have commented on. Gemma in Kent, for example, described as “a heartwarming tale to help children see the positives in any situation. I particularly like the fact the dad is the one that shows such empathy and understanding (and even knits!)...so many stories only show mothers in this light.”
Where are the caring dads?
What is very clear is the deep love and devotion many fathers feel for their children, something which still isn’t reflected in nearly enough books and films. So if you know a caring father who loves nothing more than reading bedtime stories with his children, why not offer him The Squirrel's Tail as an unusual father's day gift? Novelty socks and mugs are nice, but a book for dads and kids to snuggle up with can be enjoyed for so much longer...