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

10 January 2016

From The Washington Post:

Every night, my daughter picks out bedtime stories from the picture books on her shelf. And every night, my husband gamely asks me the same question before starting to read: “The gorilla [or dog, or pigeon, or llama, or snowplow, or crayon, or bear, or monster, or dinosaur, or fly, or cat, or tank engine] is a girl, right?” “Right,” I say. In our house, she is.

Our daughter doesn’t know how to read yet, so she can’t know that my husband and I are deviating from the text when we gender-swap Pete the Cat or Elliot the elephant or Pigeon the pigeon, and there’s nothing in the books’ illustrations or plots to suggest that these characters need to be male. In fact, it took me a while to notice the disparity myself. But once I started paying attention, I realized I’d have to do on-the-fly editing if I didn’t want my daughter to think that the non-human world is predominantly the province of males.

A 2011 Florida State University study found that just 7.5 percent of nearly 6,000 picture books published between 1900 and 2000 depict female animal protagonists; male animals were the central characters in more than 23 percent each year. (For books in which characters were not assigned a gender, researchers noted, parents reading to their children tended to assign one: male.) No more than 33 percent of children’s books in any given year featured an adult woman or female animal, but adult men and male animals appeared in 100 percent of the books.

. . . .

Does it really matter if the fish or the skyscraper is a boy? And do kids even notice? “Anthropomorphized characters have always been in the forefront of children’s books because they enable the creator to not have to make decisions about is this a tall or short, black or white … character,” says Marcia Wernick, a children’s literature agent who represents Mo Willems, creator of the Pigeon, Piggie and Gerald the elephant characters. “When kids aren’t looking for that resemblance to themselves, there can be a universality, and the characters can express all the internal emotions.”

. . . .

“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.’ ”

Link to the rest at The Washington Post

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25 Comments to “Why are there so few girls in children’s books?”

  1. It’s the patriarchy.
    Curse you, straight white men.
    Not content with controlling all human civilisations since time began, you just had to go and infiltrate children’s books as well .

  2. Cause girls are all icky, ask any little boy — he’ll tell ya!
    And they have cooties!
    And …
    And …

    (at least until they start wanting to chase those same girls … 😉 )

  3. Far be it for me to discount another’s experience, but just doing a quick search I found many picture book series with girl main characters: Ladybug Girl, Pinkalicious, Fancy Nancy, Olivia.

    • Yeah. I don’t know what age range they mean by ‘children’, but certainly the books I read as a kid (Enid Blyton, etc) had plenty of girls in them as well as boys.

      And isn’t it kind of sexist to suggest that boys should have to read books about girls, but girls shouldn’t have to read books about boys? How about they just read the books they want to read?

      • The author said “Our daughter doesn’t know how to read yet..” so I’d guess she’s between 2 and 4; old enough to love stories but too young to be aware of the oh-so-subtle conditioning that would be contained in the stories if her parents did not edit them on the fly.

        That, I think, is the whole point of the article – very young children are conditioned in ways few adults realise, especially when it comes to gender. And that kind of conditioning lasts a lifetime because we never notice it much less question it.

        In a very real sense, this early conditioning is how we socialise the hedonistic little savages we give birth to. 🙂

        We teach them to share, not to fight, not to lie and how to be good little girls and boys. Boys wear blue, don’t cry and have to be over-achievers. Girls wear pink, don’t play with trucks and grow up to be…President? CEO of a multinational corporation? Nobel Prize winning scientist? Cabinet maker? Neurosurgeon? Astronaut? Rarely.

        As a mother myself, I’d rather see us raising gender neutral, kind human beings who grow up to be whatever the hell they want to be.

        • As a mother myself, I’d rather see us raising gender neutral, kind human beings who grow up to be whatever the hell they want to be.

          In that case, they won’t be gender neutral for long.

        • We teach them to share, not to fight, not to lie and how to be good little girls and boys.

          We think we do, anyway. My theory is that kids learn a heck of a lot more by watching what we do than by listening to what we tell them to do.

          How often do you see adults sharing vs how often you see them fighting or lying?

          As a mother myself, I’d rather see us raising gender neutral, kind human beings who grow up to be whatever the hell they want to be.

          As a father myself, that sounds great… but as implied by Terrence OBrien, what if what they want to be isn’t kind? Definitely a balancing act… we have maybe a decade in which to influence what they want, but then they are going to do whatever that is whether we let them or not.

          Back to the original article, how much does it matter what gender anthropomorphised animals in childrens’ books are? Is it really particularly onerous to twiddle the story as you go?

          Does it also matter what gender real animals are, specifically pets? In my estimation (to date), it seems to make more difference what balance of gender your children’s friends are.

          • ‘we have maybe a decade in which to influence what they want’

            I think we have even less than that, especially once they start going to Kinder or pre-school and come into contact with external influences out of our control. And that is why those first few years are so vital. Make a girl-child believe she can achieve anything she sets her mind to and maybe, just maybe she’ll grow into an adult who really does achieve her dreams. Make her believe that boys are the ones who achieve and you hobble her expectations. Worse, you may make her feel guilty for even wanting to try.

            In my idea world, we would not be having this discussion at all because we would all be humanists and gender would only be of interest in bed!

            • Certainly the research suggests that it becomes increasingly hard to adjust a child’s core attitudes once older than five, but I don’t (currently) think that means it’s impossible. Then again, my first child is only one, so I have plenty of time to change my mind 🙂

              In my idea world, we would not be having this discussion at all because we would all be humanists and gender would only be of interest in bed!

              Here, here. Mine too, it seems an awful waste of everyone’s time and potential.

          • One of my ex-coworker’s son kept getting kicked out of schools due to violence. She eventually had to enroll him in a Montessori because he was banned from public schools. She kept wondering why…while punching her coworkers every week. Usually on the shoulder but not always.

  4. This message was brought to you by the Foundation of Let’s Find Things To Whine About

    • I’m sure many thought the same thing of Alice Paul and her fellow whiners. Google alerted me of her birthday today. We owe a lot to whiners. 🙂

    • Thank you, Heather. I won’t bother to annoy any of the whiners here, but wanted to give you a thumbs up.

      As a MALE homemaker, who read about Dorothy, Ozma, Betsy, Trot, The Patchwork Girl, etc. as a very young MALE child – and the Bobbsey Twins, Miss Pickerell, etc. as a somewhat older MALE – and now reads about very strong FEMALEs in the works that the Puppy Kickers hate – I pity these pseudo-humans.

      (By the way – that homemaker job is DAMNABLY difficult, and certainly honorable. Far more so than the “jobs” done by any graduate of “Womyns Studies.”)

  5. Something I definitely noticed as a child. I expended a lot of mental effort once I learned to read changing pronouns and names around in my head so I could feel the books I liked to read were about me. Resented the hell out if it.

    • Not to be rude but that seems like an incredibly fruitless chore. I’d prefer just to read something different than jump though hoops.

      One benefit of eBooks(I know this discusses picture books which are far, far, far harder) is that in theory you could create a second version inside with genders and names swapped with minimal work. Parents could read either to the kids.

  6. And consider the agony of folks whose native language has a gender for each noun.

  7. As a parent, I’ve noticed this too, and I do something similar with my daughter. The disparity is so large one friend’s daughter started calling everyone, male and female, “he.” Certainly, most men and boys spend their lives interacting with at least some women and girls–so why do so many children’s book have no female characters at all? That’s not just sexist, it’s also stupid and unrealistic.

    • I feel your pain. I hear that 7.5% mentioned in the article loud and clear. I was actually surprised it was that high.

      I’m raising two boys. It’s important for little girls to read about female characters, but something I think people often forget is it’s just as important, maybe more(?), to present boys with books featuring girls. Reading builds sympathy and understanding. And rape culture is getting worse, not better. I’d love to take a poll every time I get street harassed. “No, I won’t for you, but would you mind telling me if you read any books as a child that featured female characters?” LOL

      What frustrates me most is finding books with female characters that actually have a story, have the character doing something other than playing dress up.

      Here are a few of my family’s favs that either have female main characters or an equal representation of male/female:

      The Deep Dark Woods
      When Mermaids Sleep
      One Bright Ring
      Button Up! Wrinkled Rhymes
      Owl Moon
      Hello Harvest Moon
      Twilight Comes Twice
      the Wayside School books

      Can anyone else recommend any? I’ve spent so much time looking.

  8. Still anecdotal evidence, but I find it interesting that most of the female commenters on this post agree, at least in part, with the article while most of the males can’t see that there is a problem.

    • I see it as a problem but the ones responsible are the publishing execs and the mom’s generally. I’m willing to bet that most books for daughters are bought by mothers. If they resisted and bought books with female characters then there would be more demand so that even publishing execs would have to acknowledge.

      The good point about this article isn’t that publishers will change anything they do, but maybe all the parents with small children will draw a line in the sand.

      It’s also a huge opportunity for indie authors who are doing well, but not so much for others. Picture books aren’t as easy or cheap to produce as most novels.

      On a bigger picture, a line of books supported by a major figure like Oprah could change the lives of millions of children around the world for a much smaller investment than some of her charities.

      • You’re right about mothers being the ones to buy picture books for young children. You’re also right that parents need to make a stand if they want publishers to change their attitudes. But first we ALL have to recognize that the problem exists.

        I, for one, had no idea the disparity was so extreme. Or perhaps I should say that I did not notice it because I grew up during a time when ‘he’ was the norm. And I’m a committed humanist. 🙁

        • Yeah, education of the buying public is critical. If a few of the popular parenting books add a mention in that would help too.

  9. Definitely. I think this is going to be one of those things that is horribly obvious in hindsight.

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