Why So Few Girls In Children’s Books

Here’s a very interesting article by Jennie Yabroff from the Washington Post:

Why are there so few girls in children’s books?

The main characters — whether they’re human, animal, a snowplow or a crayon — are almost always male.

images-1.jpgFirst, the central character in more published children’s literature is male. Like the movie biz, girls (it’s kiddie lit, remember) are necessary for some semblance of reality but they are generally not the lead character (the hero) and they are not paid as much as the boys.

Yabroff writes:

Of the 69 Caldecott Medal and Honor winners since 2000, just four — “Kitten’s First Full Moon,” “Interrupting Chicken,” “Olivia” and “A Ball for Daisy” (which has no text but identifies Daisy as “she” on the jacket copy) — have animal protagonists that are clearly identified as female. Recent bestseller lists are topped by books starring crayons, fish and a snowplow: all male or non-gendered. Lists from Scholastic and Time magazine of the best 100 picture books include fewer than 10 female non-human characters. If these books reflected reality, we wouldn’t have to wonder why the dinosaurs went extinct — there were no females around for them to reproduce with.

I wouldn’t expect different statistic since the same kind of imbalance is regularly exhibited in Adult Literature (check out the Top 100 lists for female authors).

So there is a nefarious gender bias running rampant through the picture books we read to our kids. The comment of coloring books seems even more unreal and biased: young girls in presented in coloring books as princesses.

images.jpg“There is an unspoken understanding in children’s books that a boy won’t read about a girl, which I think is a self-fulfilling prophecy,” says Betsy Bird, the collection development manager at the public library in Evanston, Ill., who blogs about children’s literature. “Any parent of a boy choosing between ‘The Day the Crayons Quit’ and ‘Flora and the Flamingo’ [about a human girl who dances with a flamingo] will choose ‘The Day the Crayons Quit.’ ” …

The idea that boys won’t read books about girls, even if the girl is a duck or a moose, ties into another assumption: that boys aren’t into books. Concerns about the literacy gap between the genders create a kind of pandering to young male readers. “The winners of recent Caldecott medals often seem to be the kinds of books that have been thought of as having appeal for boys,” says book historian and critic Leonard Marcus, who has written several biographies of children’s book authors. “It could be that librarians know that they lose boys much more often than they lose girls as they get into the middle grades.”

Did you see what was selected as the word of the year for 2015? It was “they”. Here the message is clear. “They” is now becoming gender and number neutral. In the past you might argue whether a pronoun should be male or female, singular or plural, but “they” doesn’t require any specificity. The problem with many languages,, not just English, is that it’s development and expansion was enacted in a male dominated culture and, therefore, many aspects of the language continue to differentiate male versus female.

images-4.jpgStatistics have come out that more new doctors are women: men are falling behind. Yet dollars to donuts, if you hang around the hospital you will experience a female doctor being hailed as “Oh, Nurse.”

It may take a great deal of effort and lots of time, but even our language is slowly becoming gender neutral. Hopefully we will see the elimination of covert bias in those things that can effect the development of out children like books with pictures. But a warning: there are lots of excellent books, both for children as well as for adults, that might not meet the societal restrictions of the 21st century but that’s no reason to ignore their cultural value. Let’s be careful we don’t have a movement to ban Tom Sawyer because Tom is the central character—the hero— and Becky Thatcher is just eye-candy for a summer afternoon.

5 responses

  1. Ah, so no wonder when I finished Honey Bunch and Nancy Drew, I moved right on into the gothic romances by the likes of Dorothy Eden, Phyllis Whitney and others.

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    • What is it they say: the exception proves the rule? First, I don’t think anyone said that all authors were men or all stories were about men or all pronouns were masculine. There are many great exceptions. But what the article was pointing out (using statistics) was that the preponderance of writers and stories and pronouns were of the masculine persuasion.

      Also they were dealing with books that are for young children who are often being read to—preschoolers I suspect—and books where the text is possibly secondary to the pictures. They did note that the mother reading to her daughter automatically changed the gender of the pronouns as she read. I remember doing that, long long ago.

      My vote for the exception, though, is a bit more adult: Lennox’s The Female Quixote. But even here there is a taint on the characterization of the female somewhat akin to the “princess” depiction. Many authors that might be exceptions still have their hooks in the idea that a female character is somehow incomplete and can only be made right by the addition of a male character.

      Question: We know that writers such as George Sand and George Eliot used a man’s name to hide the fact that the author was a female, but can you name a male writer who wrote under a woman’s name?

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      • Ah, but I was agreeing, not trying to be the exception. When I finished the series featuring girls, I didn’t want to read Hardy Boys and others, so moved on to grown-up books – and the early ones I picked were all by women.

        I don’t really remember reading much in the way of picture books. Didn’t learn to read until I went to school. Once I got past Dick and Jane, it was pretty much actual reading. Oh, thought of some other stuff I read way back when – Caddie Woodlawn and the Little House books, the latter I didn’t consider about “girls” though, just families.

        Hmmm, I can recall being quite surprised to discover that xxx was a male, but can’t think offhand who it was. It was probably someone writing in the latter part of the 20th century and likely in the gothic/romance genre.

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    • Should the goal be more gender-neutral books for little tykes or perhaps there should be an equal representation of male and female lead characters? Is one of the themes here to bolster female expectations and not continue suggesting a male-oriented society?

      You made a really important point, probably without realizing it. “I don’t really remember reading much in the way of picture books.” This is the really nefarious part of the gender gap in toddler-lit: for the first five years—the most formative years—young children are indoctrinated and when they get old enough to understand, they don’t remember their time chewing on Little Golden Books and having Mommy read a story about The Brave Little Carrot and How He Saved the Garden.

      Question: Babar ou Celeste?

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      • I think my brother had some of those Little Golden Books. I remember how he could ‘read’ one particular book, something about Madeleine. It had only a few words on each page, and he could say the words, but I figured out later that he only had memorized the words with each illustration. Ha.

        I never read Babar and don’t even know who Celeste is!

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