Natalie Portman releases children's book that redraws gender lines in classic kids' tales

Portman hopes her renditions of stories like The Tortoise and the Hare and The Three Little Pigs will help cultivate empathy

Portman hopes her renditions of stories like The Tortoise and the Hare will help cultivate empathy

Natalie Portman has just released a new kids' book called Natalie Portman's Fables. (Frederic Auerbach)

As Natalie Portman began reading to her two kids, a boy and a girl, she noticed something subtle but unmistakable: the books that were targeted to their genders were different.

The books aimed at her son were what she calls "normal books," and didn't feel particularly gender-focused.

The books aimed at girls, however, were what she calls "feminist books" — ones that offered messages of empowerment to girls.

"I thought, 'Why aren't the boys getting exposed to this? It should be as much for them as for the girls,'" she says in an interview with q host Tom Power.

"Then it started becoming clear to me that these kind of 'normal' books that I thought were just general population books had largely male characters. And I started changing the genders in those classic books so it would feel a little bit more like the real world."

But Portman didn't stop there. Disappointed that most of the books she loved as a child mostly focused on male characters, she set out to write her own updated — and more representative — versions of classic tales including The Tortoise and the Hare, The Three Little Pigs, and Country Mouse and City Mouse

Now her first children's book, Natalie Portman's Fables, has just been released.

'A core part of empathy'

Portman says many kids' books help to cultivate empathy because kids get to cry along with the characters' sorrows, feel joy for their victories, experience fear when they do, and laugh along with them.

Cover of Natalie Portman's Fables. (Macmillan)

When most of those characters are boys, however, they learn to empathize primarily with the male characters.

"What happens to both boys and girls, when they are mainly practicing getting into the male heart and mind, they're not thinking about how females think and feel," says Portman, who studied psychology at Harvard, and won an Oscar for her role in the psychological thriller Black Swan.

Women are conditioned to constantly consider how people will react if they do or say certain things, she adds, and having more equal representation in kids' books can help boys learn to do the same.

"If boys go through the world thinking how a girl might feel — 'How might she react if I do this? How might she feel if I say this?' — they're practicing that train of thought, which girls are always socialized to do," says Portman.

"To think how our actions might affect someone else is the basis of being human, and from a young age to think about girls and women in the same way as they think about boys and men — trying to imagine their hearts and minds — is for me a core part of empathy."

Portman says she chose those three classics in particular because, despite the fact that they are more than a century old, their core messages still resonate today — even if her new renditions involve more modern references. (In The Three Little Pigs, for example, the straw house is made from plastic straws.)

She also made sure to include giggle-inducing moments. "I knew that my kids responded well to things about poo and farts and bodily functions," she says with a laugh. "So I wanted to make sure I had at least some things like that in there, those kinds of things that would make them laugh."

'It was super special'

Portman's kids were also her guinea pigs, and she would read her stories to them as she was drafting them, noticing which parts they loved and which lost their interest, then modifying the text accordingly.

"It was super special," she says of the collaboration with her kids. "And then of course when the illustrations came, it was just this extra level of enthusiasm. Janna Mattia's illustrations are so extraordinary and the kids responded to them so much. They loved all the little secret jokes she hides in the pictures."

Portman is known for her hugely successful film roles — in Cold Mountain, Closer, V for Vendetta, the Star Wars franchise prequels, the Oscar-nominated biopic Jackie and the upcoming Thor: Love and Thunder, to name a few — but her kids are still too young to watch their mom on the big screen, she says. (Some of the films are scary, or something bad happens to her, or she has a boyfriend who isn't daddy, which could be confusing.)

For now, she says, the children's book provides an important artistic message. "If my kid had to think, 'What does my mom want me to know and value in this world?' here is a document of it in an entertaining form," says Portman, who is offering a string of virtual events and a downloadable activity kit to coincide with the release of the book.

"That paying attention, taking things slowly and being attentive is an expression of love, and an expression of the appreciation of life. And then for The Three Little Pigs, that our environment must be attended to and focused on and thought through carefully. And then for Country Mouse and City Mouse, that true friendship is someone who cares about you deeply, not about any superficial things."

The greatest luck of my life was having the mom I have ... She made me completely fall in love with books, which has been such an enriching and beautiful part of my life."- Natalie Portman

Portman dedicated the book to her kids, and at the end, she thanks her own mom for reading to her and for sharing her creativity with her and her kids.

"The greatest luck of my life was having the mom I have. She is just so incredibly loving, and so creative, and so attentive. She really showed me by example how to care for someone, how to be good to someone," says Portman of her mother, who is also an artist and has a drawing in the book.

"So I got to be exposed to all of this art and books, because she was always reading to me. She made me completely fall in love with books, which has been such an enriching and beautiful part of my life."

Written by Jennifer Van Evra. Interview produced by Chris Trowbridge.