Written by Susannah McFarlane
The stories we tell our kids matter. We, both kids and grown-ups, are what we think, what we focus on. If we watch films or read stories of courage and overcoming odds, we are most likely to be inspired, if we watch or read horror, we will be probably be scared. An extreme example, maybe but it perhaps makes us think about the stories we put in front of our kids.
As a publisher and a writer, I know the power of stories, their power to inspire and to change our thinking, how we see things, but, actually it was as a mum that I started writing my first books. I wrote the EJ Girl Hero series, spy-adventure for tween girls, for my daughter Emma, then 9, because I wanted her to read a story of a girl, just like her, who overcame her fears and helped make the world a better place.
(And, also, because I was a little tired of the Hermiones being the sidekicks to Harry the heroes and reckoned it was the girls’ turn to save the world, solo. )
Each EJ book opens with Emma facing a problem –a mean girl, a maths test, school concert nerves, an irritating older brother – and then she is called on a mission that echoes the challenge of the home issue. While Emma might find stuff hard at home and school, as EJ12 she can do anything. At the end of each story, she realises that she can crack the home issue too. With courage and determination – and some very cool secret gadgets – she can be a girl hero in her real life. She can make a difference.
And I think our girls need to hear that message – and the younger the better. There was a report out of the NYU Child Study Centre indicating that the average girl’s self-esteem peaks at age 9 then plummets, never to return to that 9 year-old peak again.
That’s terrible. We need to get in there early.
In 2016 and 21 books later, I finished the EJ Girl Hero series. My fictional Emma was leaving primary school and my real-life Emma was starting VCE – and both had grown and changed over those seven years. They had learnt to back themselves and so had my readers: so many girls had emailed and wrote to tell me that EJ had helped them. They told me how EJ made them feel brave, how they read EJ ‘for inspiration. If EJ can do it, so can I!’ Another girl wrote ‘EJ12 has taught me to believe in myself.’ That made me cry, happy mother and writer tears.
But what would come after EJ? Now I wanted to inspire those girls by telling them real-life stories of girl heroes and show how they could be one too.
And so the Girl Hero Project was born, a safe on-line platform for girls to inspire and be inspired by real-life stories of ordinary girls doing extraordinary things. The Girl Hero Project shares the stories of girls as young as 8 years old who are making a difference to their communities and their world – and shows all girls how they can do the same.
We tell the stories of well-known girl heroes from history and today such as Anne Frank and Malala Yousafazi, but we also share the stories of ‘ordinary’ girls doing extraordinary things.
Like the story of Issy from Melbourne who always dreamed of being a professional AFL player and now is poised to be the number one draft pick for 2018.
Or, Jade who, at 13, started her cupcake business and completely funded her own flying lessons. This year, at 16, she became Australian’s youngest solo pilot.
Or Amarni in the US, who, also at 8 and with her mum’s help, organised a food drive that delivered over 400 kilograms of food to feed the homeless in her local community.
Or Agi in the UK who, at just 8, shot a short film on her mum’s iPhone to show people a different side to people, like her sister, who have Down’s Syndrome. The film went viral and she has made a new film every year, changing how we look at people with Down’s Syndrome.
All the girls we profile talk about how happy it makes them to help others and there is now overwhelming research to show that the happiest people are those who think less about themselves and more about others. With childhood anxiety growing at a frightening rate, we need to act – and if we want our kids to be happy, we have to raise helpers.
‘We can’t all do great things’ said Mother Teresa, ‘but we can all do small things with great love.’ So what does that look like when you are 8? It might be giving up a birthday present to help a children’s charity, helping your Dad do the dishes, smiling at someone who looks sad in the playground, letting a new person join your game or playing a game with a younger sibling. It might not change the whole word but it will change it for the person you help. And you can start right now.
We need to show our young girls that they don’t need to wait until they ‘grow up’ to make their world a better place. We need to tell them stories that inspire them, help them dream big, give back and be the girl hero that is inside them all.
Nothing made me prouder than when Emma, now 18 and vegan, asked that if instead of a birthday party, we would buy two cows she wanted to save from slaughter. We did and I told her story on the Project – it’s a good mum day when your daughter becomes your girl hero.
Little – and big – girls can make a big difference right now – they don’t need to wait until they ‘grow up’. From little girls heroes grow – with our help and love.