According to the Cambridge English dictionary a Tomboy can be defined as “a girl who dresses and acts like a boy, esp. in playing physical games that boys usually play.”

That in itself is a funny premise in my eyes especially in 2021. How is it still in the dictionary? Are boys and girls still expected to ‘act’ in a particular way to fit into societal norms? Is it not a crying shame that individuality is still not promoted and heralded for all it’s amazingness?

The gender stereotypes that we use in our society are a relatively modern conception similar to the whole idea of a teenager. Prior to the 1900’s, there was no special term given for children who moved from childhood to adulthood as the simpler way of life saw our children educated in the home and maturing to fulfil jobs inherited by their family such as farmer, tailor, blacksmith etc.

In this period there also wasn’t an industry around the toys children had to play with, again it was a simpler way of life that saw our children play games together depending on their preference and availability of material as opposed to playing with it because it was blue or pink. Same with clothing, there was simply a children’s section and not separate rails or sections.

‘Growing up a Tomboy’

I was a very strong-willed child, I knew what I wanted and who I was. I played with things that brought me joy; dinosaurs, He-Men figurines, my hand-me-down BMX, my catapult.

I played the games that brought me joy, roles that my imagination loved; cowboys, robbers, ninjas.

It didn’t bother me in the slightest when people commented that young ladies shouldn’t be wearing ‘those’ clothes (mainly combats, cowboy hat and a black top) or have their hair ‘that’ way (cut short and always unbrushed!) It did however rile me, even at a young age, when people did try to prevent me from doing certain activities that were ‘only for the boys’. It rattled my cage even further when people would assume that because I was a girl, I wouldn’t be able to do it as well or as good as a boy could.

I spent my childhood competing with my one and only best friend Darren; anything he could do, I could do better!

I was lucky, my parents gave us all (my two sisters and brother) a loose reign and encouraged us pursue our passions and be ourselves. Their only dealbreakers were around manners and kindness, but once we were respectful, kind and used good manners, then all was rosy in the garden!

‘Every girl is very different’…

My second daughter was born in 2014 and as she was growing up my husband and I noticed she had similar likes and traits to me. Christmas and birthday requests generally range from tractors to ninja / superhero costumes (and associated weaponry!) If she goes missing, she’ll be found out in the forest defending her treehouse from high-risk imaginary invasions and howling in her wolf language to her cousins! A wild one for sure which is entirely wonderful in our eyes.

The word Tomboy has been thrown around plenty of times in her youth as it had been with mine however, “every girl is very different”, as is the opening line of my latest book ‘Ode to a Tomboy’ says, and where I obviously didn’t care about the opinions of others, my daughter does.

There have been a few incidents over the years that prompted me to write ‘Ode to a Tomboy’. One such occasion happened when we were in a shop and I noticed a lovely pink dress caught her eye. I offered to buy it for her knowing she liked it but she refused to let me then saying that people said she can’t like pink dresses because she’s a Tomboy. There was also a very similar conversation one day over a doll that she clearly liked in a shop but refused to let me get because people had told her she couldn’t; Tomboy’s don’t play with dolls.

Who are they?

For each of these conversations, and plenty of similar ones, I reinforced the fact that she is a unique being and has the right to be, do, like and pursue whatever she wants to. Whatever brings her joy. There was no limits to what it could be and no restrictions either. She get’s that now but like most of us, she will undoubtedly encounter situations in her life where she’ll consider adjusting her inner dial and truth to satisfy the opinions of others.

Designed to make an impact

I wrote the book with that message in mind and purposely built up the first half with all of the ‘Tomboy’ cliches until the big crescendo in the middle “But wait… I know a messy Tomboy who’s really not so tough…” Emma Healy did the most wonderful illustrations for this book and really brought to life what I could see in my head. Sending them over on a transparent background gave me the free reign to design an entire book for the first time. I used muted ‘non gender’ colours in the first half building from a mellow yellow to a roaring red at the tilt point. I then used a blend and mix of colours in the second half of the book to represent diversity and show how impactful inclusion is whilst dispelling all the cliches and sending a message of just how wonderful individuality is to the reader.

I feel so strongly about empowering children not to be confined to labels and to really just be themselves. I hope that this book will do just that and perhaps make us grown-up’s a little bit more conscious about the labels we inadvertently (and usually never intentionally) give our little people.

Only scratching the surface…

As we all know, gender stereotypes are not exclusively reserved for females, my next book ‘Boy’ (due 2022) tackles the topic for males and was inspired by my young nephew.

However, a further past incident with my daughter really highlights the fact that while stereotypes may still exist within gender, there’s a bigger issue around equality that needs to be addressed. When she was in junior infants, and she came home from school one day in tears because somebody had told her that girls can’t be ninjas… Some frantic Googling and strong reassurance from us quickly knocked that ridiculous belief back to where it came from but therein lies the issue… Gender equality…. But that’s a whole other book.

(c) Emma-Jane Leeson

About Ode to a Tomboy:

This snappy rhyming and beautifully simple illustrated story explores what it predominantly meant for a little girl to be called a tomboy. It challenges the stereotype in a fun way. This book will give reassurance to young girls who might be labelled a tomboy already that it’s okay to enjoy and explore all aspects of their lives. This book is perfect for boys and girls (and adults) of any age.

The illustrations

Emma Healy is a freelance 2D animator and illustrator based in the west of Ireland. She has a BA in animation and motion design. She loves to work both traditionally and digitally. Emma has been drawing since she was old enough to pick up a pencil, she has not put it down since.

About the author

EMMA-JANE LEESON is a children’s author living in Kildare best known for her ‘Stories about Johnny Magory’. Emma-Jane grew up as a quintessential Tomboy and was happiest in her dirty ‘working clothes’ (combats and a cowboy hat!) and hanging out with the boys. She noticed her youngest daughter had similar traits and was inspired to write this story following a conversation with her. Her daughter was hiding that she liked certain things because people had told her ‘sure you can’t like/do that, you’re a Tomboy.’ Emma-Jane hopes this book will empower young girls to be, do and like whatever they want to.

Ode to a Tomboy is available online from https://www.johnnymagory.com/product/ode-to-a-tomboy/ and all good bookshops nationwide.

You can see this Interview https://www.writing.ie/interviews/ode-to-a-tomboy-by-emma-jane-leeson/