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The Gazette KCRG
Posted April 11, 2012
Coloring outside the lines: Project rewrites fairy tales, redefines stereotypes

S.J. Miller, (left), sketches out art for a page in the coloring book, while Sabrina Leung and Cindy Xie work on writing, at the Downtown Wedge in Iowa City Iowa on April 8. The Monsoon United Asian Women of Iowa's coloring book project hopes to remove stereotypes from popular fairy tales. (Nikole Hanna/The Gazette/KCRG)

IOWA CITY — Playing house was not high on Sabrina Leung’s list of childhood games.

“I always defined myself as ‘The Tomboy,’” Leung says. “I wanted to play sports with my male cousins instead of playing dress up.”

Teased for not being “ladylike,” Leung set aside her rambunctious aspirations and focused on being a girl, but she says she should have focused on ways to be a person — not just a gender.

Leung’s childhood memories came back to her last year after a conversation with Shiho Hirasawa, the former Eastern Iowa Multilingual Advocate & Outreach Coordinator for Monsoon United Asian Women of Iowa.

“She was talking about her daughter and how, suddenly, she wanted to dress girlie all the time and wear her hair with curls and ribbons,” says Leung, who is the organization’s multilingual advocate.

The shift from little girl to princess wannabe followed on the heels of watching princess-themed movies. Her idea was reinforced by toys and books.

“Culture changes our perception of what it means to be female,” Leung, a recent University of Iowa graduate, says. “The media has depicted and controlled our images of what being beautiful, masculine, and feminine should look like.”

Leung wants to change the culture, beginning with the population easily influenced by these stereotypes — children.

Leung, with the help of volunteer artists and writers, is in the process of creating a series of coloring books that are geared toward rewriting the fairy tales, legends, and myths children and their parents grow up reading.

The Coloring Book Project will be a collection of several rewritten fairy tales. Each book will be at least 25 pages in length and contain an index, as well as information about why the project was started and about the contributors.

“When Sabrina first told me about this, I thought ‘I can totally get behind that,’” says S.J. Miller, a University of Iowa senior and contributing artist.

An English education major, Miller already thinks about the books her future students will read, avoiding those that reinforce stereotypes.

“The coloring books will become a tool for children and their support systems to interact while simultaneously gaining lessons about acceptance, identity, and individuality,” Leung says. “I hope they will encourage girls to think about what their interests really are and not just ‘I want to do this because that’s what girls do.’”

But girls aren’t the books’ only target. Leung hopes they will help all children and their families relearn these stories in a way that create gender neutrality.

“I want to reach out to children and let them know that it is perfectly fine to like activities and express ideas that push society’s stereotypes of gender,” Leung says. “Most, importantly, I want children to never feel left out because of who they choose to be. Children should never be afraid of who they are and what they like.”

Leung has already seen a difference in how people react to the retelling of these tales.

“When I was little, Sleeping Beauty was my favorite princess and, looking back, all she did was be beautiful,” says Cindy Xie, a UI junior and contributing writer for the project. “She was the most useless princess of all, so I hope that little girls will see that maybe the princess doesn’t always have to be saved.”

Submissions to date include stories from both Western and non-Western cultures. Most of the contributors are UI students, as Leung has visited several student organizations to promote the project.

The first coloring book should be finished by early May. Leung says Prairie Lights has expressed interest in selling the books. The coloring books also will be part of the Global Village at the Iowa Arts Festival on June 2.

Proceeds from the coloring book will go toward funding Monsoon United Asian Women of Iowa to aid in efforts of ending domestic and sexual violence

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