Behind the book: in conversation with Ros Asquith
In celebration of National Inclusion week, we speak to the award- winning writer and illustrator of Local Heroes book My Mum the Handyman about why she puts diversity and inclusion at the heart of her work…
Here at Local Heroes, we want to dispel stereotypes and encourage the idea that a career in the trade industry is for everyone. And it’s clear that a lot of work still needs to be done to achieve this. Our recent survey of 1,000 British schoolchildren* found that only 13% of primary school girls aged 6-11 selected ‘trades roles’ when asked what they wanted to do when they were older, compared to 43% of boys. Enter Ros Asquith, who was a Guardian cartoonist for 20 years and has written over 60 books for children and young people.** Her latest is My Mum The Handyman , an illustrated book aimed at children aged 6- 11 to show them that a career as a tradesperson is open to everyone. We caught up with Ros for a chat…
Why did this project appeal to you?
Because I’m a woman! If I’m honest, as a child it would never have occurred to me that I could be a plumber or a carpenter. It means a lot to me also because my work has always been about inclusion and diversity, whether it’s sexuality or race or gender. It’s been an important part of my life.
Has that always been the case?
Even as a child I remember writing about the people who were not in power. And I think that is something to do with being a girl in those days. I remember my brothers got bigger helpings and my father used to say, ‘You can’t be an artist and a mother’. It sounds so backward now but I’m not exaggerating. It was a feeling I was given that you couldn’t really do things.
Who were your role models when you were younger?
Genuinely, there weren’t female role models. When I grew up, you didn’t see women doing anything much - there was no Angela Merkel, no Kamala Harris, no Christine Lagarde. It’s extraordinary. At least now you have women in public life.
Do you think you might have done something different if you’d had the role models when you were younger?
I’m not a good example because I’ve been unbelievably lucky. Who wouldn’t want to write and draw for a living? But I do think that I probably would have gone to university if I’d been a boy. And I think I would have been interested in science, which again most girls just didn’t do.
Our survey found that almost a third of (28%) primary school children still think that science is for boys – so it’s not changed too much…
I was quite shocked by that because there’s been so much work done on that. I’m not surprised that little girls didn’t want to be plumbers because I don’t think we’ve done much about that. The prevailing culture is all about the terrible social media influencer success lifestyle, which is disastrous. Kids want to be footballers or pop stars, but they’re probably much better off being a tradesperson. I would always encourage a child to go into the trade industry rather than anything fancy.
Why do you find it so important to challenge gender stereotypes?
I don’t want to sound pompous, but it’s so vital that children find something they really enjoy. I want girls and boys both to feel they can do what they want - boys should dance and girls should hammer! It’s who you are. Finding that is so important for kids.
How do you get the messages of inclusion and diversity across in your work?
I check myself every time I do a drawing, because the impulse with an authority figure is to draw a man still. You have to think about it all the time. I try to subvert stereotypes, so if I’m asked to draw a judge, I’ll always draw a woman. I try to show families that aren’t always white, or the traditional nuclear set-up. And in The Great Big Brain Book, I deliberately presented all the science subjects in pink and all the arty ones in blue. It’s a tiny way of doing things visually that people might not even notice, but might take in subconsciously.
How long did it take you to come up with this story?
The idea of using child-style drawings came quickly, because I’ve noticed that children really relate to drawings that look as if they’ve been done by a child. It draws them into a story. I was going to have a girl but then I thought it was better to have a boy as the hero of the story - you don’t want to exclude boys because this is so important. Of course, it’s his mum who is the real hero!
Was there anything else you felt it was important to include?
Ellie’s friends, because Muslim women are very underrepresented in books. There can be too much box-ticking, but I just think it’s about including all sorts of people in all your images, in a way that makes it ordinary and usual.
Finally, are you any good at fixing stuff around the house?
I’m absolutely useless! I’ve been saying I’ll put a mirror up for weeks and my husband has just done it! I’ve got to look after my hands for my art!
Download My Mum The Handyman here
* Research was commissioned by Local Heroes and carried out by OnePoll on 1000 children aged 6-11 in the UK from 30th July – 11th August 2021