Case File No.4: Cheryl Rickman.
File under: #campaigner #storyteller #childrensbooks #sociology
You don’t need to be a parent to feel irked by the way kids’ toys and clothes are marketed: pink and frilly for girls, blue and rugged for boys. Some kids like it that way — and that’s fine — but, fed up with having to shop in the ‘boys’ aisle’ for her dinosaur loving [now] eight-year-old daughter B*, Winchester mum Cheryl Rickman, 42, resorted to creating a range of gender-neutral garments and selling them on her website www.ClimbingTreesKids.com. I came across Cheryl, who’s also a wellbeing and business author, in an online group for writers. Pitching an idea for a story book that helps children see past gender stereotypes, she talked passionately about her beliefs and explained how she intended to crowd-fund the book YES I CAN through a Kickstarter project. As a mum of a five-year-old girl myself, it struck a chord. I loved, not just the idea, but Cheryl’s spirit and determination and immediately got behind her. With this project she has to raise £3950 in the next 28 days. She has already invested in it both physically and financially, so it’s not without its risks. But the more I got to know Cheryl and peeled back the layers, I found a woman who is inspiring on so many levels. I don’t doubt she will pull it off.
Before we come to the book, tell me about the issues you’ve had with gender stereotyping that have brought you here?
Five years ago when my daughter was three, it wasn’t just the sea of pink that annoyed me, girls’ shoes aren’t durable enough for climbing around in so I had to get boys shoes to stop her feet getting wet when it rained. She also liked Disney’s Cars and stuff you don’t find in the ‘girls’ aisles’. But when she started school other kids noticed and would say, ‘why do you always have boys stuff?’ Fortunately, it didn’t put her off but other kids might have decided they no longer wanted to play with certain things, opting to fit in first. One of the turning points was when, a few years back, she wanted Spiderman painted on her face and the lady doing it said: ‘Oh, but that’s for boys. How about a lovely butterfly instead?’ So I had to step in and say, ‘she wants Spiderman.’ Children shouldn’t be punished for not fitting stereotypes, they should feel proud to be who they are. And that’s the message I want to get across.
In some ways it can be worse for boys.
It is. When boys get their nails painted or play with dolls, which so many do, they’re frowned upon because it’s ‘girly’. Firstly, suggesting that ‘girly’ is a bad thing as well as it being wrong for boys is ridiculous. Why would you want girls who are girly or boys that are boyish to think there’s anything wrong with that? There are hundreds of kids on this huge spectrum and, at one end, you have girls that fit the stereotype and at the other you have girls who would rather play football and Star Wars. Vice versa with boys. So rather than saying ‘this is what you should and shouldn’t do,’ I’m for embracing everything, opening up choice. That’s why I started ClimbingTreesKids.com selling T-shirts.
What sort of T-shirts?
T-shirts in bright bold colours with pirates or monsters on that appeal to all.
Have they been well received?
Hugely. Following this, I did some work for Let Clothes Be Clothes [a movement that combats stereotyping with children’s clothes] and became a campaign ambassador. I went into Tesco and Mothercare presenting to buyers about restrictions in labelling.
Did they listen?
Tesco stopped gender labelling halloween costumes and introduced more robust cardigans and longer-length shorts for girls. What I really wanted was for them to get rid of gender labelling across all character dress-ups. In fairness, it’s hard to implement but they did listen. All this made me even more determined to get the book off the ground. I was like ‘I’ve got hundreds of T-shirts into the hands of the boys and girls who want them, but there are these girl characters on the Climbing Trees Kids website who are very active, the antithesis of the stereotype’ and I really wanted to write their story.
What is their story?
These girls, The Climbing Tree Girls prefer climbing trees, playing football and building dens to playing princesses. But they find themselves in this strange new world where people get told what to play with, what to wear and even what to do for a living, based on the colour of their hair, an analogy I’ve used in the story to explain the futility of gender stereotypes in a way that three to eight year old children will understand. There are boys in the story too, some like diggers, some like dolls, and the Climbing Trees Girls help make changes so that everyone can wear, play with and become whatever they want to.
So why now?
I get commissioned to write books on business, sometimes I ghost-write, like when I worked with Peter Jones from Dragon’s Den. But, when a break came up between projects, I decided it was a now or never. Yes, taking a few months out to focus on this — at the expense of earning — is risky, but I believe in it. Once it’s published I can start promoting it and hopefully sell copies for profit, but I need to concentrate on meeting the target of the Kickstarter for now.
Can you explain the mechanics of a ‘Kickstarter’ for anyone unfamiliar?
It’s a crowd-funding website geared towards creative projects. Whether you have an idea for an album, a book or any kind of invention, you come to the platform, pitch the idea to the world and ask people to pledge money to get it made. Rather than getting equity in, say, a company, donors get various rewards depending how much they pledge. Mine start at £7. If you pledge £24, for example, you get the book, a ‘Be Yourself’ colouring book and our eBook, ‘Raising Children Who Are Proud To Be Themselves’. £750 will get you a workshop for thirty kids, each child getting a book.
What made you choose this route if you already have publishing contacts?
Different contacts really. It’s a competitive area to break into, children’s books. I just felt this might be something people would get behind. I’ve always had a lot of support for the clothes and going by the reaction to videos online where girls are critical of the way things are displayed in supermarkets, I just thought Kickstarter was a good fit. If it doesn’t work out, Plan B is to pitch to a publishing house.
How did you calculate the money you’d need?
One crucial thing I forgot to mention about Kickstarter is that you don’t receive ANY money if you fall short of hitting you target. Mine is £3950, so if I reach any less I won’t get a penny. You can over-fund but not under. I went low to keep it achievable even though it’s still a lot. The figure I need is closer to 5K but if I have to stump it up, so be it.
Have you illustrated it yourself?
No, I did a stick man version of the cover and got some illustrators to pitch me designs. One was so spot on, it was like she was in my head. Now I have a quote from her but it’s a bit of a gamble because it could end up costing more due to the complexity of the artwork. On top of this I’ve got shipping costs, the kick-starter fee (five per cent of everything you make) and then postage, which is hard to work out because, depending on donors, you might be faced with sending a hundred books to New Zealand.
You seem very driven and positive. Have you always been this way?
My parents made me believe I could achieve anything, but people are often surprised I’m so positive because I lost my mum when I was 17. Despite having MS, she was a very positive person too, which kind of fascinated me. It made me want to know more about positive psychology, so I read an [academic] book called Flourish by Martin Seligman. It resonated so strongly I decided to write a handbook so your average person would be able to apply it. Thankfully Martin agreed.
And you’ve created a Flourish movement of your own off the back of it?
Yes. But, the story takes a sad turn because when I was writing the handbook in 2013, feeling on top of world, that world was turned upside down when my dad got an illness and three weeks from diagnosis he passed away. It was really difficult and horrendous, but writing the handbook prepared me in a way. I had literally been writing about the pillars of wellbeing and how supportive relationships are vital, when I had people delivering lasagnes to my door, propping me up. It allowed me to bounce back, and it put a stamp on the fact that what I was writing about worked. After all that I did a positive psychology qualification. Now I host an annual Flourish Weekender in Bournemouth at the beginning of each year. It’s like a seaside retreat, but in January. While it’s not a huge money maker, it prepares me for the year ahead. It’s got really popular but you can’t have more than 45 women there because we have spa treatments and logistically, I need to limit the number of women attending so we can all have treatments.
Sounds like a fantastic way to start the year. But getting back to YES YOU CAN, here is the Kickstarter link so hopefully people will chip in, but other than reaching your target, what’s the dream scenario to come out of all of this?
Other than selling lots of books, I would love it to go to the next level and become a kids’ TV show. I would love my daughter to put the telly on and see girls like her reflected back: outdoorsy, into climbing trees, football and skateboarding — something that confirms there’s more to being a girl than what you see. That would be the ultimate win.
Best of luck with it Cheryl. Here’s to smashing that target to pieces.
To back the Kickstarter for YES YOU CAN click here. For more info about The Climbing Tree Kids Foundation visit www.ClimbingTreesKids.com. To contact Cheryl or to find out more about the Flourish Handbook and Weekender go to www.CherylRickman.co.uk or www.FlourishHandbook.com
The She Can & She Does Case Files are stories of ordinary women doing extraordinary things. Every fortnight a new one will be introduced to the She Can & She Does Facebook page. Please ‘like’ the page to show your support. For any nominations for the page, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.