Monday, March 26, 2012

Not just pretty and pink: the hatching of Goosebottom Books

March 26-Today's post provided by Shirin Yim Bridges
About four years ago, my niece went through a Disney Princess craze. At that time I had written two books: Ruby’s Wish about a girl who grows up in China when girls were not taught to read or write, who still finds a way to go to university like her brothers; and, The Umbrella Queen about a girl from a village in Thailand where everyone has been painting umbrellas in exactly the same way for hundreds of years. Of course our heroine, Noot, wants to paint hers differently.

From just the books I’d written you might be able to guess my reaction to an obsession with fairytale princesses. I said, “Tiegan, do you know that there were many real princesses who did not sit around waiting for a prince, but went out and changed history?”

She didn’t know, but she was interested. So, we went looking in bookstores and libraries for these stories. I knew the princesses were out there, because I’m a history nerd, but I was surprised to find that these tales were not being told for children.  So, I decided that I would have to tell them.

At first, I was just going to write the books. Then I realized how important it was to me how the stories were told. I’d been a creative director in advertising for...longer than I care to admit…and I wanted to have creative control over these books. I wanted the main story to be as lyrical as any storybook, but I wanted the narrative to be supported by lots of little details that bring the story to life.

In our books you’ll always find a map showing some interesting facts about where our woman from history lived. There’s always a section on what she wore and a fun section on what she ate. And, in addition to the illustrations, every page is covered with artifacts and historical images that illuminate the text. Even the background textures and colors of each book have something to do with the period of history we’re talking about.

It was also important to me that these books were launched as a series. Six real princesses appearing all at once tells a very different story from one real princess...and then maybe another...and another, over time. It says that you’re looking at a pattern, not an isolated incidence. And for the same reason, it was important to me to choose princesses from all around the world, and from different epochs and cultures. I wanted to trumpet the fact that in every society, girls have found a way to exceed expectations.

So, that’s why Goosebottom Books was hatched as a small press. We launched our first series, The Thinking Girl’s Treasury of Real Princess, in Fall 2010, in the middle of the recession, at a time when the book industry in particular was under duress. Libraries were losing their funding. Bookstores were closing. And with the arrival of e-readers, nobody seemed certain there was even a future for the book.

Well, what are you going to do? If your message to girls is “yes you can”, you’re going to have to give it a try, right?

The Thinking Girl’s Treasury of Real Princesses is doing well with the critics. The series won an IPPY medal for Multicultural Non-fiction/Juvenile. Two books in the series, Hatshepsut of Egypt and Isabella of Castile, were selected by the Amelia Bloomer Project as Recommended Feminist Books for Youth. And just as rewarding were the effusive thanks of mothers who’d reclaimed their daughters from the haze of pink glitter.

In Fall 2011, we launched our second series, The Thinking Girl’s Treasury of Dastardly Dames. Some people had doubts about this series. “But they’re not good role models,” they said. Which got my fighting feathers all ruffed up.

We never question the importance of educating our children about powerful men. Do we banish the Genghis Khans, the Attila the Huns, the Caesars (any Caesar), the Hitlers, and the Stalins from our literature, our history books, our collective consciousness because they weren’t good role models? No. If a man is powerful and affected history, he’s deemed important to learn about. But women need also be saints. Quills aquiver, Goosebottom Books was going to change that by at least six slim volumes.

In any case, some of these stories were old favorites of mine: Mary Tudor who survived a harrowing childhood and rejection from first her father and then her husband only to get lumped with the nickname “Bloody Mary” while her sister, who killed as many, went on to be remembered as “Good Queen Bess”; the hapless Marie Antoinette, who lost her pretty head and has been immortalized for saying “let them eat cake”—a statement no historian thinks she made; Catherine de’ Medici, hated for simply being Italian, who yet managed to wrestle the reins of power; and the empress Agrippina—sister of Caligula, wife of Claudius, mother of Nero—so indomitable that when Nero had her capsized at sea, she swam in her long robes (and without the benefit of any gym training) back to shore, and then calmly chose to face the second murder attempt alone.

These women were not good. But in their own way, each was great. Each overcame barriers and adversities that few of us can now imagine. Each made a mark in history when those around them wanted them to be quiet.

The Dastardly Dames completed my initiation into publishing. I didn’t write all of this series, as I had written the Princesses. Instead, I was joined by five other authors, all of them, by coincidence, a) female; b) from Northern California. Their diverse talents enlivened not only the books but the publishing experience.

The Dames also let us put to good use lessons learnt from the Princesses. You’ll notice small design changes in trim size, font size. Visually, these books are even richer—dare I say, beautiful. This is due in no small part to the gorgeous illustrations of Peter Malone.

inside spread from Cleopatra

I’m proud to say that the Dames are also earning accolades. We’ve just been named one of the Top Ten Nonfiction Series for Youth by Booklist, and will be featured in the April edition of the magazine. And once again, whenever we speak to mothers, librarians, and teachers, the response has been very affirming. Some have even been heard to exclaim, “thank goodness, books about women who aren’t good.” Girls just say that the books are great fun to read. Which confirms that we’re on track with our goal of “stealth education.”

In 2012, we will be adding a new volume, Sacajawea of the Shoshone, to The Thinking Girl’s Treasury of Real Princesses; and Njinga “The Warrior Queen” to The Thinking Girl’s Treasury of Dastardly Dames. Volume by volume, we hope to contribute to a growing awareness of the real roles that women have played.

There can be a lot more to girlhood than “pretty and pink.”

So, here’s to a future full of thinking girls and many more women making history!

If you'd like to win a copy of a Goosebottom book, along with an assortment of other books on women's history, please leave a comment below.  Each comment that you submit this month on this blog will give you an entry to win this prize pack of women's history picture books for your library, classroom, or personal collection!

Editor's note:

Shirin Yim Bridges, "Head Goose" at Goosebottom Books, comes from a family of writers and artists.  She has lived in many countries around the world, as is reflected in her writing, including Malaysia, Singapore, Hong Kong, Australia, New Zealand, and England.  She was educated in the United States and now nests in California. 


  1. How fantastic are these series? Living in Japan, women are underrepresented in just about every sphere, but especially in learning about history. I need these to teach my son and daughter that no matter what gender you are you can have an impact in the world. Thank you for going out and creating your own press to do this!

  2. I thought this was a great series! Finally, real princesses who are great role models for girls!

  3. Wow. I need these for my school library also. Then I can bring them home and read them to my own little funky princess. We all need such a wide array of role models. Thankfully there are more choices now-in books, role models, and careers.