Wrestle! By Maya Newell, Charlotte Mars, and Gus Skattebol-James, illustrated by Tom Jellett, Allen and Unwin, 2019.
From the publisher:
I love wrestling. When I grow up, I want to be just like my wrestling heroes: big and tough, with really huge muscles. The only problem is, my mums don’t like fighting…
A funny story about identity, family and dressing up, inspired by the award-winning documentary, Gayby Baby.
When I found out I was (most likely – because we never really know until they tell us), having a daughter, part of me was terrified.
I worked in a school for boys. I had a brother, two brothers-in-law, many male friends and my closest relationship in life was with my father.
I knew how to manage with boys.
Or, at least, I should say that I knew how to do my idea of boys: rough-and-tumble, active, open, uncomplicated boys.
I was also – I have to point out here – more than aware that there is more than one way to be a boy. I met enough boys during my professional and personal life to know there is a broad spectrum of “maleness”. I am, from here on in, blaming the many drugs I was on during my problematic pregnancy for any of my limited views. They bear no resemblance to my actual opinions, then or now.
I will also blame those drugs for my terror at having a girl child inside me.
See, I hardly ever wore makeup, hated fashion, could not think of anything worse than long shopping trips and never got my nails done.
What would I do with the girlie, fashion-conscious, complicated, makeup-wearing, female human I was convinced I had in my belly?
It didn’t take long for my daughter to show me that my idea of the baby I was going to have bore no resemblance to the child I actually had.
My daughter is brave, physical, loud, funny, and strong.
And she loves …
It started with martial arts movies. Her father loves them and loved sharing them with his kid. And then it escalated to full-scale re-enactments, complete with ninja costumes and wooden swords. We were looking at official training for her, in kung fu or tae kwon do before this whole pandemic thing happened.
Part of me is incredibly relieved. I love this rough-and-tumble, fierce, take-no-prisoners child.
Part of me is … a little bit concerned.
I am a pacifist, gentle to the core. I find pillow fights too violent and have to close my eyes in battle scenes. Just as I imagined being bemused by a makeup-loving kid, this tough little warrior is equally perplexing. And I find myself, often, wondering if I should … intervene, somehow? Remove the martial arts movies and hide the swords? Where is the line between teaching kids to be tough and defend themselves and …
Letting them be violent?
These are the conundrums faced by the mums in the picture book Wrestle! by Maya Newell, Charlotte Mars, and Gus Skattebol-James.
In this book, we meet the gorgeous Gus, who is preparing to march at mardi gras with his mums and his sister, Rory. Gus loves going to mardi gras, and he has fun picking his own costume. This year – because of his obsession with wrestling – he wants to go as one of his wrestler heroes. His mums are not sure what to make of this. They don’t know if a wrestler will be welcome at a Pride parade, and they don’t know if they want their son to conform to this aggressive stereotype of what it means to be a boy. They don’t know if loving wrestling will help Gus grow into the sort of man that they would like him to be. And then a play fight between Gus and Rory goes wrong and Rory is injured. His parents decide that wrestling has to go, and that Gus definitely can’t dress as a wrestler for the march.
Gus is heartbroken at first, but then he comes up with an idea to show his mums that wrestling is not what they think it is, and that the art and theatre of it can absolutely have its place at the mardi gras.
I adored this beautiful, vivid, sensitive, and celebratory book and eagerly shared it with my kid (who, of course, immediately asked me to watch wrestling videos). During this Pride month, and with the backdrop of controversies in the media about LGBT+ issues, we revisited it and loved it just as much as we did the first time. We always love a book illustrated by Tom Jellett, and his pictures in this one help bring the sweet story to vibrant life. And the messages – that there is more than one way to be a boy, and that Pride has a place for everyone (and that, sometimes, kids can teach their parents about ways to be inclusive) – feel more important than ever now.
I still wince when my daughter does her martial arts re-enactments, but she teaches me every day that there are many more ways than one way to be a girl, and that my drug-induced gender stereotyping has no place in our family or in this world. I love that she loves dressing up – now she is running around the house being a “superhero” with multiple necklaces and hair bows. I love that she is a tough, brave little warrior. There is more than one way to be a girl – and a boy – and every way is valid.
I also love that her martial arts passion has led to her best ever joke.
“What is a baker’s favourite martial art?
Tae scone dough!”
I may even let her watch some more wrestling videos, in the future, as long as she doesn’t practise her moves on me!
Review by Kate Gordon