Women's Sports: The children's book tackling inequality in sports

What did you want to be when you grew up? I can tell you what I didn’t want to be: a footballer. When I was growing up in the nineties there were no visible female footballers. I wasn’t aware of women playing at a higher level until well into my teenage years.

Thankfully we have come a long way. Now our Lionesses are national stars, selling out Wembley, but the idea that you can’t be what you can’t see has inspired a new children’s book that is challenging the status quo. 

Sophie says I can, I will by Esther Marshall tells the story of Sophie, a young girl who is excited about all the many possibilities her life may hold, whether that’s becoming a professional footballer or a pilot.

Marshall came up with the idea when she was reading to her young son and couldn’t see any strong female protagonists. She wanted her son to grow up knowing that both boys and girls can become anything they want, regardless of their gender. She decided to write a book to remedy the imbalance.

Her anecdotal assessment wasn’t incorrect either, research shows that in children’s literature lead characters are 50 per cent more likely to be male than they are female. 

Marshall says her decision to include Sophie dreaming of sports in the book was informed by her experience playing hockey and netball. She says: “I found a sport to be my lifeline and it taught me so many skills and the value of friendship and working together as a team. Because of that, I felt it was vital to include sports in this and to teach young children how that could help them as well. For me, it was it just wasn’t even a question.”

In the book we see Sophie imagining herself as a professional footballer, a tennis player and a swimmer. Marshall and illustrator Buzz Burry picked these because they wanted to highlight diversity within sport: “We tried to get a mixture so that we showcased individual sports, but also how you need a team around you for that and how that helps, as well as an actual team sport where there’s the physical team there. We wanted to open up the conversation for parents to have with their kids.”

Marshall says the reaction so far has been overwhelmingly positive: “Every person that’s read it has said: ‘Oh my gosh, I wish I would have read this when I was younger. I want this for my kids’.” It’s not surprising either, the illustrations are as endearing as the storyline.

It’s not just other readers who are fans, Marshall’s 14-month-old son is too. She recounts how he is already attached to the book: “Yesterday he picked it up out of all of the books we are reading and we were reading in the morning so I had to take him to the nursery. He wouldn’t let go of it, so he took it with him into the nursery as well.”  

All profits from Sophie Says I Can, I Will go to a charity founded by Marshall called sTandTall that helps those suffering from abuse and bullying find support.

Marshall hopes this is just the start and is planning for Sophie Says to become a series about the lessons that she wishes she’d known when she was younger.

Equality needs to be something we instil into children from a young age and this book shows girls and boys they can dream big. I’m not saying if I’d have seen footballers who were women growing up that I would be on the England team now, but it raises an interesting question. As Marshall says: “How can we expect children to look up to people if they can’t see themselves? I hope that’s going to be game-changing with this.”

The book is available to purchase here and all proceeds will go towards the sTandTall Charity.  

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