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.
First, 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.
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 coloring books are presented as princesses.
“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.
Statistics have come out that more new PhDs 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.