Anna Banana and Me
by Lenore Blegvad; ill. by Erik Blegvad
In many ways, I wasn’t raised to be a leader, or to be adventurous.
I grew up in a conservative environment, surrounded by traditional ideas of femininity. My parents generally laid down tighter limits than my peers’ parents did – I still haven’t seen most of the iconic movies of my generation, a deficit my husband is trying valiantly to erase – and childhood was primarily about obedience.
At the same time, however, I was raised to be a reader, and my dad and grandmother, in particular, encouraged my appetite for learning. Books fed my core identity: I was, at bottom, independent and a questioner. College, where I had more freedom to make my own decisions and set my own limits, became my proving ground and the first place where I really started to understand myself. It was a long process, and I missed out on some meaningful opportunities because I didn’t know how to break accustomed boundaries. It wasn’t until I was about 35 that I felt secure, capable, and consistently able to speak with my own voice.
For my own daughter, I want something different. My husband and I have been training her for independence since she was a toddler. We promised each other before she was born that we would never turn back a question, and that we would always be willing to explain how or why we make the choices or do the things we do. We want her to grow up confident, equipped to do anything or go anywhere, ready to be a leader and an explorer if that’s the path she wants to follow.
If you’re looking to encourage the same kind of confidence, Lenore and Erik Blegvad’s Anna Banana and Me is the perfect picture book for introducing young girls (and boys) to the idea of girls and women as leaders and explorers. This story chronicles one little boy’s encounters with his neighbor, a fearless girl named Anna. They meet one day in the park, where she pulls him into her secret hiding place: a hollow she’s created in the mini wilderness that exists behind the shrubs bordering park paths.
From there, they go on all kinds of adventures, always with Anna leading the way. They roam the park and the streets of their city, climb trees, and even make their way into the lap of a large statue. The boy is terrified, but Anna’s confidence and sense of fun increase his courage. He’s mesmerized by her ability to charge ahead, unhesitating.
Anna doesn’t follow anyone else’s schedule and simply runs off when she’s ready for something new. It’s up to the boy to follow her or stay put. At the end of the book, this dynamic leaves him stuck in the statue’s lap because he can’t bring himself to climb down from such a height alone. Until, that is, a white bird lands next to him. Anna has told him that white feathers are magical, and the bird brings her voice into his head to empower him for the task at hand.
Obviously, I love the book because Anna takes the lead throughout and ultimately influences the boy to be more confident. This dynamic is a complete reversal of traditional gender stereotypes and of the roles girls and boys usually play in picture books. But the reality is that there are boys who are timid and girls who are adventurous, and both sides need to know that it’s OK to be who they are.
Anna Banana and Me also sets the expectation that female leadership can be normal and beneficial – an important idea for girls and boys to internalize as they grow up and enter the workforce. Research has shown that companies are more successful and more effective when women are part of the leadership team, including at the highest ranks. For this to be a reality, however, both men and women have to believe that women possess the capacity to lead.
While I am thankful for the years I spent at home with my daughter, transitioning to full-time employment increased my fulfillment tremendously and has helped me become a better, truer version of myself. But I wouldn’t be where I am if my male boss didn’t equally value the abilities and input of women, or if I (or my employees) thought I was inherently unsuited to lead because of my sex. The story of Anna and her friend is a first step for boys and girls to learn the lessons that lead to a world of opportunity for everyone.